Easter Island’s native civilisation had not collapsed when Europeans arrived


Easter Island’s native civilisation was only destroyed AFTER European colonisers reached the isolated nation in 1770 and brought with them disease, slavery and murder

  • A long-held theory claims the native society collapsed around 1600AD 
  • But researchers now know this is not true and it flourished into the 18th century 
  • When European settlers arrived on the island it was flourishing as it always had 
  • But disease, murder and slavery ravaged the island and ruined its native culture 

There is a common belief that when European colonisers reached Easter Island, the native society was in spiralling decline following the collapse of its native culture. 

But research has now found the local people were building their iconic monuments in the 18th century, contrary to the theory that it ground to a halt in 1600. 

By the time Europeans arrived on the island in 1770, the society was still functioning well.

However, the introduction of the Europeans saw it enter rapid decline as disease, murder, slavery and other conflicts ravaged the nation.  

Their is a common belief that when European colonisers reached Easter Island, the native society was in spiralling decline following the collapse of its native culture. But research has now found the local people were building their iconic monuments in the 18th century

EASTER ISLAND TIMELINE  

13th century: Rapa Nui is settled by Polynesian seafarers.

Construction on some parts of the island’s monuments begins.  

Early 14th to mid-15th centuries: Rapid increase in construction 

1600: The date that was long-thought to mark the decline of Easter Island culture. 

Construction was ongoing. 

1770: Spanish seafarers landed on the island. The island is in good working order. 

1722: Dutch seafarers land on the island for the first time. 

Monuments were in use for rituals and showed no evidence of societal decay.

1774: British explorer James Cook arrives on Rapa Nui

His crew described an island in crisis, with overturned monuments.

‘The general thinking has been that the society that Europeans saw when they first showed up was one that had collapsed,’ said Robert DiNapoli, at the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology who led the analysis.

‘Our conclusion is that monument-building and investment were still important parts of their lives when these visitors arrived.’ 

Easter Island, whose native name is Rapa Nui, is believed to have been settled in the 13th century by Polynesian seafarers.

They survived and flourished for hundreds of years, despite limited resources.   

The research took radiocarbon data from 11 sites on the island and compared it with contemporary records of European settlers.  

The researchers conclude that when Spanish and Dutch settlers landed on the island in 1770 and 1772 respectively, the statues were still in good condition. 

Limited contemporary records remain but they indicate they society was thriving.

However, when James cook arrives in 1774, he notes an island in turmoil. Throughout his upheaval, the native people stuck to their traditions.  

‘Once Europeans arrive on the island, there are many documented tragic events due to disease, murder, slave raiding and other conflicts,’ said Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New York, who co-authored the research.

‘These events are entirely extrinsic to the islanders and have, undoubtedly, devastating effects. 

Researchers took radiocarbon data from 11 sites on the island and compared it with the records of European settlers. The researchers conclude that when Spanish and Dutch settlers landed on the island in 1770 and 1772, respectively, the statues were in good condition

Researchers took radiocarbon data from 11 sites on the island and compared it with the records of European settlers. The researchers conclude that when Spanish and Dutch settlers landed on the island in 1770 and 1772, respectively, the statues were in good condition

‘Yet, the Rapa Nui people – following practices that provided them great stability and success over hundreds of years – continue their traditions in the face of tremendous odds.’

Dating of the iconic Easter Island heads revealed the erection of the monuments was a gradual process. 

A central platform was made first, and statues, crematoriums and plazas were added afterwards. 

‘What we found is that once people started to build monuments shortly after arrival to the island, they continued this construction well into the period after Europeans arrived,’ said Mr Lipo. 

‘This would not have been the case had there been some pre-contact ‘collapse’– indeed, we should have seen all construction stop well before 1722. 

‘The lack of such a pattern supports our claims and directly falsifies those who continue to support the ‘collapse’ account. 

The research was published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.  

Rapa Nui is believed to have been settled in the 13th century by Polynesian seafarers. Most of its famed sculptures were from Ranu Raraku quarry

 Rapa Nui is believed to have been settled in the 13th century by Polynesian seafarers. Most of its famed sculptures were from Ranu Raraku quarry 

WHAT ARE THE STATUES ON EASTER ISLAND AND WHAT DO THEY MEAN?

What are the statues? 

The Moai are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island, between 1,250 and 1,500 AD.

All the figures have overly-large heads and are thought to be living faces of deified ancestors.

The 887 statues gaze inland across the island with an average height of 13ft (four metres).

Nobody really knows how the colossal stone statues that guard Easter Island were moved into position.

Nor why during the decades following the island’s discovery by Dutch explorers in 1722, each statue was systematically toppled, or how the population of Rapa Nui islanders was decimated.

Shrouded in mystery, this tiny triangular landmass, stranded in the middle of the South Pacific and 1,289 miles from its nearest neighbour, has been the subject of endless books, articles and scientific theories.  

All but 53 of the Moai were carved from tuff , compressed volcanic ash, and around 100 wear red pukao of scoria.

What do they mean? 

In 1979 archaeologists said the statues were designed to hold coral eyes.

The figures are believed to be symbol of authority and power.

They may have embodied former chiefs and were repositories of spirits or ‘mana’.

They are positioned so that ancient ancestors watch over the villages, while seven look out to sea to help travellers find land.

But it is a mystery as to how the vast carved stones were transported into position. 

In their remote location off the coast of Chile, the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island were believed to have been wiped out by bloody warfare, as they fought over the island’s dwindling resources.

All they left behind were the iconic giant stone heads and an island littered with sharp triangles of volcanic glass, which some archaeologists have long believed were used as weapons.

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