The Downfall of the Easter Island

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The Downfall of the Easter Island

Brian Hwang

Mr. deGroof

Grade 10 Composition

Have you ever heard of the mysterious Easter Island? A remote place from the rest of the world, the island is located in the Pacific Ocean 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America. It was originally discovered by Dutch seafarers in 1722 (Fall of the Easter islanders). Locally known as Rapa Nui, the Easter Island is home to extensive art works, with the most significant being the Moai statues. Since the discovery of the Easter Island, people have long been fascinated by the mysterious Moai. However, not all people know the truth behind them. The carving of the statues may be the original cause that led to a chain effect, which contributed to the fall of the ancient civilization that once prospered on the Easter Island.

True, it was the Moai statues on the island that made it such a great place for tourism. At a large number of 887, the Moai are distributed over the island that measures only 15 miles by 7 miles. The earliest Moai were small, round headed statues with large round eye-sockets and arms across the chest. Later on, the Moai began to increase in size and the heads became more in proportion to the torsos. In the end, the statues have become tall and slender figures (Sentinels in Stone).

The ancient civilization of the island once flourished and reached a population of more than 9000 people at its peak in about 1550. Archaeological evidence and DNA studies show that the original migrants were Polynesian, and they navigated to the western Pacific. During the following one thousand and four hundred years of isolation, the culture developed and the population was divided into a number of clans that populated the various parts of the island. The clans quarried the volcanic cliffs of Rano Raraku’s crater on the south east side of the island, carving Moai to adorn their shrines, called Ahu (Sentinels in Stone). The Ahus are, in average, about four feet high (Stone Giants).

In addition to the carving of the Moai, there were actually several other factors contributing to the fall of the ancient Easter Island civilization. The decline was the result of a combination of deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion, which were due to the overuse of resources for building too many Moai and agriculture. In addition, there are also evidences of cannibalism, though the intensity and severity remained unknown to us (Decline). As all these happened, the population was gradually exceeding the capacity of the environment as well. In the end, when Captain James Cook of England arrived at the island, this was what he saw: “He found only about 600 men and fewer than 30 women eking out a marginal existence. The stone heads had been overturned, apparently to spite those who revered them. Some had been abandoned unfinished, only partly carved out of the mountainside (Fall of the Easter Islanders).

So, how and why would a prospering civilization overuse and deplete their resources and “eat their own tail”? As I mentioned earlier, that the carving of the Moai

statues may be the original cause that led to the downfall of the civilization. As rivalry among tribes became increasingly intensified, the competition to see which chieftain had the biggest Moai began. According to widely accepted theories, the gods were worshipped through the statues, which depicted ancestral power and descent; if one wished to have big results, or whenever there are big issues, the solution is always bigger statues. A major motivation was a concept

Mana, a mystical combination of prestige, power, and prosperity. In a belief system that had ancestral worship, the Moai represented a clan’s forbearers who were believed to bestow Mana on living chieftains (Sentinels in Stone).

As a result of this belief, the entire society was dedicated to making larger and more Moai. They are created in one piece with an average weight of 20 tons and measuring at 20 feet tall or even more. Since they were so heavy, it was harder moving them compared to the carving process. The ropes used to control the Moai during the further processes of carving and to move them to the Ahus are estimated to be at least 600 feet long and at least three inches thick, which is quite a significant amount of rope, and a rather great amount of tree bark to manufacture it (Sentinels in Stone).

With the society’s blind devotion to religion, the significant amount of natural resources required for the construction of the Moai has nearly depleted the island’s reserves. Later on, the islanders were no longer able to move the statues from its original construction site. The large palm trees and the Mulberry used to make ropes subsequently disappeared (Sentinels in Stone). The loss of the protection from sturdy trees and their roots caused rain to wash away topsoil, thus the erosion to the land increased significantly. No crops could be grown in these conditions. To make the situation worse, there were even more Easter Islanders to sustain: population peaked at this period. At this time, they didn't even have enough wood to build canoes to escape the island (Howstuffworks). With the resources depleted, and food became scarce, the social order fell apart.

They turned against the Moai. Whether they blamed their ancestral deities for cursing their civilization or realized that over-development had been their demise, the islanders began to destroy the statues. Warfare broke out between clans, and there is a possibility that the cannibalism between islanders occurred at this particular time, causing the already decreasing population to drop even quicker. When the Europeans arrived, they introduced nasty stuff like cockroaches, rats, and diseases that infiltrated the island. As a dreadful consequence, the island’s population fell to 110 people by the turn of the 18th century. By the 1830s, the last Moai fell (HowStuffWorks).

There are actually several theories regarding the fall of the Easter Island. What was mentioned above is the one I think best explains this part of history and sounds the most reasonable. The other theories are either flawed or not well backed up. For example: some theories even said that there is a possibility of aliens’ arrival to the island! Those contentions have been proven wrong through experiments done by archeologists. Thus, I chose to believe and follow this theory (National Geographic).

In 1888, Chile annexed the Easter Island. Since its annexation, Easter Island has been given a new life. It is currently home to 2,000 islanders with Chilean citizenship. “Polynesian culture thrives, enmeshed with a modern lifestyle. The standing Moai, re-erected by archaeologists, demonstrate the Rapanui's reconciliation with their past (HowStuffWorks).”

The rather sad history of the small island in the Pacific is a clear and significant warning, showing the devastating effects of the combination of overpopulating and the overexploitation of resources, and the dreadful consequences it may bring to people. Today, humans have caused great destruction to our world. We have been exploiting at a grand scale, thus causing the gradual depletion of some resources; as a result of improving our lives and industrialization, serious pollution to our environment is occurring all around us. If we continue the current devastation to our world, what happened in the past to the Easter Islanders may reoccur at a much greater scale.


"Decline." ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2012. .
Keener, Candace. "How Easter Island Works." HowStuffWorks. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012. .
National Geographic Staff. "Easter Island Mystery Solved? New Theory Says Giant Statues Rocked." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 22 June 2012. Web. 9 Jan. 2013. .
"Stone Giants." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012. .
Sullivan, Walter. "WHAT CAUSED FALL OF EASTER ISLANDERS?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Jan. 1984. Web. 23 Dec. 2012. .
“The Rise & Fall of Easter Island’s Culture.” Sentinels in Stone. N.p., n.d. Web 13 Dec.2012

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