Easter Island – The Ecological Disaster of the Rapa Nui

Easter Island

Easter Island is an island in the South Pacific and one of the remotest places on earth. Today, it has the status of special territory within Chile. The entire island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, with much of it protected within the Rapa Nui National Park.

It is thought that the Rapa Nui, the inhabitants of the island, came from other pacific islands in canoes between 700 and 1100 AD. There are suggestions that Polynesians arrived around the same time that Hawaii was settled, perhaps around 300-400 AD but this has not been verified. Radiocarbon dating from the earliest man-made material found on the island would suggest 1200 AD to be accurate as the time of initial settlement.

Remains of a settlement on Easter Island

The remains of a settlement on the eastern side of the island.

The first settlers are likely to have arrived from either the Gambier Islands (2,600 km or 1,600 miles away) or the Marquesas Islands (3,200 km or 2,000 miles away) to the west. Some theories suggest the settlers actually came from South America and the agricultural evidence of sweet potato may suggest this. There are distinct similarities between the language of Rapa Nui and Mangrevan, as spoken by the inhabitants of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. In fact, when Captain James Cook visited the island, a Polynesian crew member from Bora Bora was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. A voyage undertaken for National Geographic in 1999 took only 19 days to travel between Mangareva in French Polynesia and Easter Island.

The Rapa Nui had an advanced class system with an ariki, or high chief, seen as the leader of the nine clans on the island. The high chief was the eldest descendant through first-born lines of the island’s legendary founder, Hotu Matu’a. The Rapa Nui created the impressive moai statues which still exist today. It is believed they were built to honour ancestors.

The giant heads on Easter Island

Some of the legendary moai statues. There are 887 of them on the island.

The population on the island rose to 15,000 with settlements located mainly on the east coast. Originally, the island was home to a number of tree species including one of the largest palm trees in the world. There were also at least six bird species. Because of the booming population, the inhabitants needed more resources. These resources came from the island itself. Trees were cut down to make way for farming land. The introduction of the Polynesian rat caused widespread ecological damage. As the deforestation continued, the residents could no longer build vessels of sufficient quality and their ability to fish was reduced. The deforestation also let to an increase in erosion, damaging agriculture. Over-hunting of birds led to their extinction.  By 1722 when the Europeans arrived, the population had fallen to only 2,000 due to deforestation and over-exploitation of the island’s resources.

Easter Island was decimated by deforestation

A lake in the crater of a volcano. There are 3 that created Easter Island and all are dormant.

As the population declined, the Ancestor Cult came to an end to be replaced by the Bird Man Cult. Each year, a warrior from each tribe would race in a competition to the remote Motu Nui islet to find a rare egg. The first to return safely and hand the egg to their chief would be the winner and that chief would reign as leader over the others until the next race the following year. This practice continued up until 1878.

Motu Nui home of the bird man legend

The Bird Man ritual included swimming out to the Motu Nui islent.

Captain Cook was one of the European explorers who visited the island however it was the Dutch who arrived first on Easter Sunday 1722 and hence the island became known as Easter Island. The Europeans who visited at this time reported on the island’s ruin due to the overuse of resources and even stated that the indigenous population had turned to cannibalism as a result. The Rapa Nui have always denied this.

In the 1860s, Peruvian slave raiders captured 1,500 people and then outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis swept through Easter Island. Christian missionaries arrived and began converting the residents. In 1868, Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier arrived and bought up most of the island to use as a sheep farm, leaving just the area around Hanga Roa that were occupied by the missionaries. He sent some of the Rapa Nui to Tahiti to work on his farms there. In 1871, the missionaries moved all but 171 Rapa Nui to the Gambier Islands so as to protect them from Dutrou-Bornier. Those who remained were mostly older men. By 1872, the population stood at only 111 leaving the entire island practically abandoned apart from the sheep farm. It is estimated that 97% of the islands cultural knowledge was lost.

In 1877, Dutrou-Bornier was assassinated and Alexander Salmon Jr came from Tahiti to manage the sheep farm. His sister was married to King Pōmare V and had become regent of Tahiti that same year. During Salmon’s time on the island, he purchased the remaining land. Unlike his predecessor, he had a genuine interest in the welfare of the Rapa Nui and their culture. Their population slowly began to recover.

King Pōmare V

King Pōmare V was the brother-in-law of Alexander Salmon Jr and the last king of Tahiti.

Salmon Jr sold the island to Chile on 9 September 1888. The sheep farm remained, leased to a private company by Chilean government. The Rapa Nui continued to inhabit the area around Hanga Roa. It was closed in 1953 and the Chilean Army took over management of the island until 1966 when it was opened in its entirety. This didn’t last long however. Following the 1973 Chilean coup d’état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Easter Island was placed under martial law. Democracy returned in 1990 although the issues still exist in relation to the treatment of the indigenous Rapa Nui within Chile. The island became a special territory within Chile on 30 July 2007.

Easter Island is still home to the moai, 887 monumental giant heads that lie scattered across the island. The Rapa Nui account for about 60% of the current population of 7,600. Its airport, Mataveri International Airport, is officially the world’s most remote and welcomes large numbers of tourists to see the Moai statues. Non Rapa Nui visiters are only allowed to visit the island for a period of 30 days or less.

The moai statues on a platform

The moai bring tourists from all over the world to one of the remotest locations on the planet.

The following is an extract from mysteriousplaces.com

A jewel of an island floating in an endless sea. A seemingly never-ending supply of raw materials. Technological advances. Population growth. Depletion of resources. War. Collapse. Sound familiar? The Easter Island story is a story for our times. We too are on an island floating on an endless sea. There are differences, of course. It could be said that Easter Island is tiny and that it was only a matter of time before the resources in such a closed system were used up. But there are parallels between the islanders’ attitude towards their environment and our own, and this is the most frightening part of the story.

On an island as small as Easter, it was easy to see the effects of the deforestation as it was taking place. But the inhabitants continued their destructive actions. They probably prayed to their gods to replenish the land so they could continue to rape it, but the gods didn’t answer. And still the trees came down. Whatever one did to alter that ecosystem, the results were reasonably predictable. One could stand on the summit and see almost every point on the island. The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree.

Location: Easter Island, South Pacific

Abandoned: 1870s

 

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