published on 12 April 2019 in earth

Easter with extinct friends

Easter Island is shaped like a triangle with three extinct volcanoes placed at the vertices, and has a total area of 163 square kilometres, therefore just a little smaller than Milan. It lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand or so kilometres from any other inhabited place. Easter Island is the remotest place on Earth. How humans arrived on the island to some extent still remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that canoes loaded with courageous Polynesians, chickens and some stowaway rats left the Pitcairn and Mangareva Islands and that they landed on the rugged coasts of Easter Island in 900 AD. The island’s name derives from the fact that the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen was the first European to land there on Easter Sunday in 1722.

Easter Island is famous for the Moai, the equally famous gigantic statues rising from the land with large heads and severe expressions looking towards the centre of the island. These statues are up to 10 metres tall weighing as much as 80 tons, and made from single blocks of tuff, a volcanic rock that is easy to carve. There are 680 statues, often kilometres away from the tuff quarries where they were carved laid on the ground with their faces upwards. The mystery that still remains to be solved, one of the most fascinating of archaeology, is how the population managed to lift and transport such heavy blocks, without draught animals, without metal tools and without the wheel. Undoubtedly the islanders used very strong ropes and many rigid poles cut from the trees. Yet this poses a problem: there are no trees on the island.

But it was not always so. Easter Island was once covered by a luxuriant forest. One by one, the trees were felled under blows from the islanders’ stone axes. There was a very high demand for timber, both to transport the Moai, and to build canoes and dwellings, as well as for firewood for heating and to fuel the crematoriums that still contain enormous quantities of human ashes. Space to grow fruit and vegetables was also needed. There were several clans on the island led by chiefs who competed to see who could build the largest Moai. The larger the Moai were, the more timber was needed. Easter Island was deforested within just a few centuries.

By analysing the waste accumulated in the ancient dumps, archaeologists have discovered that the islanders initially ate dolphins, seals, fish, sea birds and chicken. The islanders were also able farmers and grew fruit and vegetables on the land reclaimed from the forest.

With deforestation, trees began to become scarce and the consequences were disastrous. Without tall trees it was impossible to build canoes, and without canoes the islanders could not fish. Dolphins, seals and fish disappeared from their diet and were replaced by poultry and rats which, unlike the islanders, prospered. Without the protection of the trees, rain and wind eroded the soil, making it difficult to farm and nothing grew in the fields any more. Without trees, it was impossible to move the Moai and indeed hundreds that had begun to be carved but never finished can be found abandoned in the tuff quarries. Of these there was one that was even larger than the others, a monster 21 metres tall (like a five-storey building) weighing an estimated 270 tons. No one would have been able to lift and transport this symbol of blind and endless ambition.

When the very last tree was felled, hunger had become an unbearable torture and it was thus that the islanders began to eat each other. Insurrections, conflict between the clans and cannibalism decimated the population.

Perhaps the inhabitants of Easter Island did not even know that beyond the vastness of the Ocean there were other peoples, just as we do not know whether there is someone else beyond the boundaries of the Solar System. There is a risk that the history of Easter Island will resemble ours. Easter Island drifted solitarily like a small planet in an immense space. Earth is like a rock with limited resources which, if not governed wisely, are doomed to end. The consequences are unimaginable. Today, Easter Island is a tourist attraction and approximately seven thousand people live there permanently.

by Andrea Bellati

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006