On Easter Sunday nearly 300 years ago, Dutch explorers encountered a unique island off the coast of Chile. They named it Easter Island, and the tiny place eventually became very well known for the mysterious stone statues found lying all around like the mummified remains of an ancient race of giants. The statues stand as high as 33 feet and weigh up to 80 tons, and they were all carved with stone tools because the native culture of the island, the Rapanui, had no iron to work with. Debates rage over how the statues were moved from the stone quarry where they were carved. But that’s not the only controversy involving the island. For years, scientists pointed to Easter Island as an example of a culture that overused and depleted its own resources to the point where it could no longer sustain its population. According to the theory, the islanders cut down all the trees for firewood and to clear land for farming, and the trees did not grow back. Without the trees, the natives could not build seagoing canoes for fishing, so they ate birds, and so destroyed the bird population. By the time the Europeans arrived, the Rapanui culture was disintegrating into civil war and cannibalism. The destruction of the island was hastened by the statues, known in the native language as moai, because the natives had to use so many logs to roll the statues into place.
However, archaeologists are now considering alternative theories about the island’s past. Evidence suggests that the destruction of the trees and birds was caused by an explosion in the rat population. And rather than using up the island’s resources, archaeology shows that the islanders went to great lengths to protect the fertility of the soil. For example, they spread volcanic rock through the fields to mulch the soil with nutrients that the inactive volcanoes no longer provided. The prehistoric islanders were, according to the new theory “pioneers of sustainable farming, not inadvertent perpetrators of ecocide.”
But what about the logs being used to roll the statues to their posts throughout the island? The Rapanui believe that logs would not have been necessary because the moai walked from the quarry to their eventual sites. And it’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Experimental archaeologists have demonstrated that the iconic stone statues with their big bellies and specially shaped bases could be rocked back and forth with ropes and maneuvered around by a relatively small crew without the use of logs. The statues remain upright and appear to be walking. This theory makes as much sense as any others, and fits with the oral tradition.
But why were so many statues created in the first place? No one knows when or why the moai were carved, and their mystery draws more tourists to the island each year. More people are moving to Easter Island to live as well, straining the water supply and creating so much trash that tourists are now required to carry it home in their suitcases. The island ecology seems to be in as much danger as it ever was, but being aware of the problem may be half the battle.
Easter morning is a time of discovery. The women who followed Jesus discovered an empty tomb, meaning that their savior had risen from the dead. Children discover plastic eggs full of candy. And in 1722, a band of Dutch explorers discovered a stone-age culture on a remote island off the coast of Chile. Today we celebrate all of these discoveries by getting together with family and eating too much. Happy Easter!
Photo By Arian Zwegers [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons