The first comprehensive explorations of Easter Island were carried out by Katherine Routledge in 1914-1915, Alfred Métraux in 1934, and Thor Heyerdahl in 1955-1956. Earlier, in 1947, Heyerdahl had achieved notoriety by sailing 6,500 km from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in a balsa raft, the Kon Tiki. His 1955 Norwegian Archaeological Expedition was intended to uncover proof that Polynesia was populated from South America, and Heyerdahl developed a romantic legend that still excites the popular imagination today.
Heyerdahl postulated that Easter Island's first inhabitants (the "long ears") arrived from South America around A.D. 380. They dug a three-km-long defensive trench isolating the Poike Peninsula and built elevated platforms of perfectly fitted basalt blocks. Heyerdahl noted a second wave of immigrants, also from South America, who destroyed the structures of the first group and replaced them with the moai-bearing ahu mentioned above. Heyerdahl saw the toppling of the moai as a result of the arrival of Polynesian invaders (the "short ears") who arrived from the Marquesas and conquered the original inhabitants in 1680. According to Heyerdahl, the birdman cult, centering on the sacred village of Orongo, was initiated by the victors although it's now believed the cult began as early as A.D. 1550.
Modern archaeologists discount the South American theory and see the statues as having developed from the typical backrests of Polynesian marae. The civil war would have resulted from overexploitation of the island's environment, leading to starvation and the collapse of the old order. Previous destruction of the forests would have deprived the inhabitants of the means of building canoes to sail off in search of other islands. The Poike trench was only a series of discontinuous ditches dug to grow crops, probably taro. Despite decades of study by some of the world's top archaeologists, no South American artifacts have ever been excavated on the island.
Heyerdahl argued that the perfectly fitted, polished stonework of the stone wall of Ahu Vinapu (Ahu Tahira) was analogous to pre-Incan stone structures in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but fine stonework can be found elsewhere in Polynesia (for example, the langi, or stone-lined royal burial mounds, of Mu'a on Tongatapu). Easter Island's walls are a facade holding in rubble fill, while Peruvian stonework is solid block construction.
Recent DNA evidence proves that the Rapanui originated in Southeast Asia. In academic circles Heyerdahl (who passed away in 2002) was always considered a maverick who started out with a conclusion to prove instead of doing his homework first. And his whole hypothesis is rather insulting to the island's present Polynesian population, as it denied them any credit for the archaeological wonders we admire today.
A sequel to this story occurred in 1999 when members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society sailed the catamaran Hokule'a from Hawaii to Easter Island and back using the traditional navigational techniques the ancients would have used. By crossing from Mangareva to Rapa Nui in just 17.5 days, the Hokule'a demonstrated vividly the mastery of the seas for which the Polynesians are renowned.
Continue to History: European Contact »