It's believed that Easter Island was colonized around A.D. 600 by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands or Mangareva, as part of an eastward migratory trend that originated in Southeast Asia around 2000 B.C. Here developed one of the most remarkable cultures in all of Polynesia.
Long platforms or ahu bearing slender statues known as moai were built near the coasts, with long retaining walls facing the sea. Each ahu generally carried four to six moai towering four to eight meters high. These statues, or aringa ora (living faces), were portraits of known ancestors, and they looked inland towards the villages to project the mana (protective power) of the aku-aku (ancestral spirits) they represented. About 887 moai have been counted on Easter Island, of which 288 were actually erected on the ahu.
The vast majority of moai were all cut from the same quarry at Rano Raraku, the yellowish volcanic tuff shaped by stone tools. Some writers have theorized that the statues were "walked" to their platforms by a couple of dozen men using ropes to lean the upright figures from side to side while moving forward; others claim they were pulled along on a sledge or log rollers.
Some statues bore a large cylindrical topknot (pukao) carved from the reddish stone of Puna Pau. Eyes of cut coral were fitted into the faces. South of Puna Pau, Maunga Orito contains black obsidian, which the islanders used for weapons and tools.
Other unique features of Easter Island are the strange canoe-shaped house foundations (hare paenga) with holes for wall supports, the so-called chicken houses (hare moa) thought to be tombs, and the incised wooden tablets (rongorongo), the only ancient form of writing known in Oceania. Only 25 examples survive, and Dr. Steven Roger Fischer, Director of the Institute of Polynesian Languages and Literatures in Auckland, has shown how the neat rows of symbols on the boards record procreation chants. Some scholars believe that the development of rongorongo was prompted by early exposure to European writing.
The oldest ahu (Ahu Tahai) is dated 690 A.D. and the most recent (Ahu Akivi) dated to 1460, after which the focus of the culture shifted from statue carving to the "birdman" cult at Orongo. Overpopulation, depletion of resources, and famine may explain the change. In 1774 Captain Cook reported internecine fighting among the islanders, with statues toppled and their platforms damaged, and by 1840 all of the moai had been thrown off their ahu, either by earthquakes or rival tribes.
Continue to History: Fantasy and fact »