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The Enduring Mysteries of Easter Island

What secrets lie hidden on this isolated island?

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Easter Island is one of the world’s most isolated places. It lies over 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, under whose jurisdiction it falls. The island is essentially a mass of volcanic rock, jutting out from the sea. Polynesian people, known as the Rapa Nui, first reached the island sometime between 700 and 1100 CE, establishing a distinctive culture. At their peak, approximately 15,000 souls called Easter Island home.

The island is best known for its large stone statues, as well as for harboring an unreadable body of texts. Shrouded in myth and lore, these two mysteries have long captured the public imagination.

The Moai

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Easter Island is best known for the large monolithic human figures—the so-called “Easter Island Heads”—that dot its shores. Known as moai, these statues were made from stone found at Rano Raraku (a volcanic crater): Many remain unfinished. But just what purpose did the moai have?

No one knows for sure. There are 887 statues in total. Nearly all have oversized heads, deep oval eyes, wide noses, and rectangular ears. Their design mirrors similar stonework found throughout Polynesia. It is thought that moai represented the earthly faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and held spiritual value.

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A lingering point of contention relates to how the moai were transported from Rano Raraku to the island’s edges. Oral history claims that deities were divined, and the moai were ordered to walk to their ahu (standing platforms). One current theory states that ropes were tied to the moai in order to sway them back and forth, thus moving them forward. However, present-day attempts to replicate this process have failed, leaving this part of the story largely unsolved.

By the mid-1600s, a growth in population led to a significant depletion of Easter Island’s natural resources. Usable lumber became scarce and the ability to fish diminished. Island clans turned on one another and in the process many of the moai were toppled to the ground. By the end of the 19th century, the once-vibrant Rapa Nui culture had nearly vanished from the face of the Earth, the result of Peruvian slave raids, disease, and the spread of Christianity.

Only in the modern era have the moai been erected again.


easter island
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Discovered by Europeans in the 19th century, rongorongo is a system of glyphs that remains undeciphered. Much of the writing system has been found on tattered planks of wood or crafted ornaments on Easter Island. Rapa Nui oral history holds that very few were literate and therefore rongorongo text was considered sacred, having been brought to the island by the legendary founders of the Rapa Nui themselves.

No one knows for sure what stories lie within the texts. It’s known that the glyphs were written from left to right, bottom to top, and were most likely inscribed with a shark’s tooth. Some symbols resemble sea turtles, fish, and plants. But ultimately, their tales are a secret.

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What stands out as particularly strange is that no nearby Polynesian or South American culture had any writing systems of their own around the time the rongorongo texts was likely created on Easter Island. This makes it very likely that rongorongo was an internal creation: one of world’s very few independently made writing systems.

Perhaps, with persistent research, Easter Island will eventually reveal all of its secrets. It may, however, stay forever shrouded in mystery.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons