Easter Island After its Discovery by Europeans: Inner, Outer Turmoil Doomed Rapa Nui Civilization

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775–1776 by William Hodges.[24] The earliest known painting of Easter Island.

The collapse of the ecosystem on Easter Island, followed by famine, inter-tribal war, and forced labor abroad hastened the decline of Rapa Nui culture.

The article “Easter Island Before the Europeans Arrived” discussed the cloudy history of the original inhabitants of the island also known as Rapa Nui and the iconic giant stone sculptures there. Those inhabitants, almost certainly of Polynesian descent, lived in relative obscurity, possibly for as many as 800 years

Everything changed for the Rapa Nui inhabitants after they produced the nearly 900 sculptures (moai).

Easter Island Ecosystem Collapses

As reported in “Secrets of Easter Island,” which was presented on the PBS series “Nova,” the population of Rapa Nui grew to as much as 9,000 by the year 1550. While the inhabitants carved the stone sculptures (moai) between the years 1400 to 1600, their island was undergoing devastating changes. “Secrets of Easter Island,” further reoirted that core sampling from the island indicates that there was deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion, possibly in part from the cutting down of most of the trees on the island for a system to transport the moai around the island.

It has also been suggested that the “Little Ice Age” had an adverse effect on the ecology of Easter Island. The effects of severe climate change on other places are documented in The Little Ice Age, (New York: Basic Books, 2000), in which author Brian M. Fagan noted that there were several periods – including the pertinent years of 1315 to 1319 – of devastating food shortages that killed tens of thousands in Europe after precipitous temperature drops.

Scientists extrapolate from the grim ecological record of Easter Island that failed crops and the depletion of natural resources led to famine, population decline, and the collapse of Rapa Nui society.

Social Turmoil on Easter Island

Eventually, the original practice of ancestral worship was usurped by a new “bird man” cult that worshiped Makemake, the creator of humanity and god of fertility The image of Makemake appears in many petroglyphs on the island.

During an estimated two centuries of intertribal warfare, the toppling of the moai began; the reasons are in dispute. Capt. James Cook, the British explorer, reported seeing several toppled statues at the time of his 1774 visit. According to accounts by subsequent explorers, by 1838, the only standing moai, were those on three slopes, including at Rano Raraku.

Early Outside Contacts with Easter Island

The first recorded visit to Rapa Nui by a European was Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. The date as Easter Sunday, April 5,1722, and Roggeveen named the island accordingly. He estimated that there between 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island. The next known visit by Europeans was in 1770, when two ships arrived to claim Easter Island for Spain. The remoteness, meager food supplies, under-population, and lack of natural resources discouraged those early European visitors from colonizing the island. Capt. Cook considered the island so insignificant that he did not even go ashore.

Easter Island’s isolation from outside forces would not last. As Dr. Grant McCall of the University of New South Wales wrote in Rapanui, in December 1861, a series of raids began on Easter Island in an attempt to find replacements for Chinese laborers in Peru after Great Britain banned their importation. There were about 3,500 inhabitants on the island at that time, but the raids netted 1,000 islanders who were sent to labor on plantations and serve in private houses. The raids stopped in 1863 after pressure from French diplomats on the Peruvian government.

Unfortunately, tuberculosis and then, beginning in April 1863, small pox killed hundreds of the islanders who had been forcibly removed to Peru; when the handful of survivors returned to Rapa Nui, they infected the others on the island.