The real killer of the original Easter Islanders came across the ocean. After 1722, it became popular for explorers to visit Easter Island, bringing their own diseases. Syphilis appears in the bones of the native people for the first time. But the final blow came in 1862 when slave traders landed from Peru and took away 1,500 people, a third of the population. Transported to South America, within one year all but 15 were dead. They were brought back to their homes. Little did the Islanders know with what they had returned. A smallpox epidemic left only 111 alive by 1877.
Against the guns and germs of the modern world, what chance had the birdmen stood? Jo Anne van Tilburg regards their story as one of triumph over adversity, a hymn to the human spirit. Others like anthropologist Charlie Love point to a testing ground for the development of remote societies, one that reached equilibrium at a bloody end. The mystery of Easter Island is also a story of terrible folly.