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The Giants of Easter Island

Easter Island

Giant statues on Easter Island

Easter Island fascinates explorers of ancient mysteries as much as any place on earth, but in one of the ironies of history, the island was probably ignored by the first Europeans who sighted it. In 1687 wayward winds and ocean currents had pushed the English privateer Edward Davis one thousand five hundred miles off course in the unexplored South Pacific. His crew sighted mountains on the horizon, but in what was surely one of the most unspirited decisions in the history of exploration, Captain Davis immediately swung his ship due east and set a course for Peru. He departed without making landfall or even learning whether he had discovered a small island or an entire continent.

Purpose of the Stone Statues

Davis had likely seen what Dutch explorers, on Easter Sunday in 1722, would later name Easter Island. Had he taken the time to investigate, he would have been the first European to gaze upon the enormous brooding statues that are scattered over this small volcanic island lost in the expanse of the Pacific. Later explorers marveled at the size of these gaunt, monolithic figures with their elongated ears, jutting chins, and protuberant bellies. There are nearly a thousand of them, placed singly or in rows on raised platforms; along the coastline they were mounted to gaze inward to the center of the island. Made from a soft yellow-gray volcanic rock called tuff, the statues reach heights of up to 32 feet and can weigh as much as 80 tons. They were carved at an extraordinary quarry inside the slumbering volcano of Rano Raraku on the northeastern tip of the island, where hundreds of empty niches in the rock wall and many abandoned unfinished stone figures can be found.

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In Easter Island...the shadows of the departed builders still possess the land...the whole air vibrates with a vast purpose and energy which has been and is no more. What was it? Why was it?"

—Katherine Routledge, explorer and archaeologist, 1920

The statues probably represent ancestral chiefs or spiritual leaders rather than gods. Their hands are placed across their bellies to protect ritual knowledge and oral traditions, which Pacific island cultures believed were stored in the belly. The islanders referred to them as Aringa Ora ("living faces"), and believed that they contained an energetic magic known as mana which protected their descendants. In 1722 Dutch explorers observed the early morning ceremonies in which the islanders worshipped these statues of their ancestors: they set fires before the stone images and then, sitting down on their heels with bowed heads, brought the palms of their hands together, moving them up and down.

Collapse of the Easter Island Civilization

Eighteenth century European explorers all agreed that the primitive islanders, who eked out a meager living on sparse soil, appeared entirely incapable of having erected the statues. Captain Cook, who visited the island in 1774, wrote that he "could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures." Modern anthropologists agree with Cook's assessment: the statues were erected between 1000 and 1500 AD, when the unique Polynesian civilization that developed on Easter Island was at its height. Long before the first Europeans arrived this civilization had collapsed due to an ecological disaster the islanders brought upon themselves.

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[They] seemed to be triumphing over us, asking: 'Guess how this engineering work was done! Guess how we moved these gigantic figures down the steep walls of the volcano and carried them over the hills to any place on the island we liked!'"

—Thor Heyerdahl, adventurer and writer, 1950's

Although it is barren and wind-swept today, Easter Island was once densely carpeted with forests of giant Chilean palm trees. The islanders began cutting down these trees around 750 AD, probably to build canoes and to make the large wooden rollers or levers that were necessary for moving their giant statues. A type of Polynesian rat they cultivated for food also ate the nuts of these trees, slowing their spread. By 1450 all the island's forests were gone. The rich volcanic soil began to erode into the ocean, croplands deteriorated and the society disintegrated into anarchy. By the time Captain Cook arrived warring kinship groups were destroying each other's statues, toppling them onto boulders that snapped their thin necks in two; very few remain standing today.

Thor Heyerdahl's Voyage

In addition to its enigmatic stone figures, Easter Island is well-known for the 1947 voyage of the Kon Tiki. In a celebrated feat of daring, Thor Heyerdahl and his crew of five men and a parrot set sail from Peru for Easter Island on a primitive balsa log raft. The voyage was intended to substantiate Heyerdahl's theory—now known to be incorrect—that the Polynesians originated in South America. For 101 days they drifted across 4,300 miles of open sea; though the parrot was washed overboard, the men eventually landed near Tahiti.

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum

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The Pyramids likewise surpass description, but the Egyptian Labyrinth surpasses the Pyramids."

—Herodotus, Greek historian, 5th century BC

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