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What Happened to the Easter Island Landscape?

Easter Island Coast with Clouds

Easter Island Coast with Clouds

Easter Island is a tiny, 63-square mile island in the middle of nowhere–the coast of Chile over  3,686 km away.  It was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions and there are hundreds of sea caves along a very rocky coastline.  The absence of sand is one of the reasons the water is so blue.

Easter Island Coast with Cliffs

Easter Island Coast with Cliffs

In many areas, the waves pound the rocks and there are few places safe for anchorage.

Waves Pounding the Rocks, Easter Island

Waves Pounding the Rocks, Easter Island

According to one theory, a single family settled the island in AD 1200 and the population expanded from there.  When the island was first settled, it is estimated there were 16 million trees, some up to 100 feet high.  Jared Diamond's theory in his book "Collapse" is that they slashed and burned the trees to grow crops and committed "ecocide."  This, he believes, is what our entire planet is headed towards.  Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, two anthropologists from Hawaii believe it was the rats that were brought in on European ships that started traveling here that destroyed the trees.  Rats can apparently multiply extremely rapidly.  They believe Easter Island was a success story because the people adapted and ate rats and constructed stone gardens to trap water and utilize the minerals from the volcanic rocks to grow things in the deteriorating earth. Robert Kruwich is not so sure that learning to adapt to a failing environment whatever the cause can be called successful.  I would tend to agree that it would be better to fix underlying problems than eat rats.  In today's world, it would be better and less expensive to stop polluting and overusing our water than to find better ways of filtering our toxins or employing costly desalinization techniques that require a lot of energy.  

Predawn Landscape, Easter Island 

Predawn Landscape, Easter Island 

Whatever the cause, at one time there were no trees on Easter Island.  Then they reintroduced some eucalyptus trees on the island and now vegetation is beginning to come back.

Sunrise Easter Island

Sunrise Easter Island

At one time, when they were carving the 70 ton statues, their booming society with perhaps 10, 000 to 12,00 inhabitants was highly successful and evolved.  As Krucwich observed, starving people wouldn't be involved with making such gigantic megaliths.  It would take too much energy. Then the society was almost eradicated with just over 300 Rapa Nui remaining.  The Hawaiian anthropologists believe they died from sexually transmitted diseases from the Europeans and not from starvation.  In 1862 Peruvian slave raiders came and took many of the remaining Rapa Nui people.  A handful managed to return to the island, but they brought small pox with them leading to a great epidemic, at the end of which only 111 Rapa Nui remained.

Cemetery in Hanga Roa

Cemetery in Hanga Roa

This is the cemetery in Hanga Roa, the main town on Easter Island and the only one with running water and electricity.   In 2002, there were just over 3,300 people, still way below the number of inhabitants originally occupying this island.

Grave with  Pukao, Hanga Roa Cemetery

Grave with  Pukao, Hanga Roa Cemetery

Easter Island Catholic Church

Easter Island Catholic Church

This Roman Catholic Church Hango Roa, founded when the first missionaries arrived, has Tahitian symbols and elements from the Rongorongo tablet mixed with Catholic symbols, which makes it highly unusual.

Revolutionary Checkpoint, Easter Island

Revolutionary Checkpoint, Easter Island

Since its discovery by Jacob Roogeveen during his 1722 expedition, the island was visited by Spanish, British and French expeditions.  It was annexed to Chile in September 1988 and received the status of Special Territory of Chile in 2007.  In August 2010, some Rapa Nui occupied a hotel they believed was unfairly owned by the Chileans and on March 26, 2015 the local minority group Rapa Nui Parliament threw out the CONAF park rangers in a non-violent revolution.  Today the Rapa Nui people own and run the parks and all hotels must have a Rapa Nui owner, even if they are invested in by overseas companies.  The image above is of a checkpoint.  

Wild Mare and Baby Horse, Easter Island

Wild Mare and Baby Horse, Easter Island

Though the island's history is filled with sadness and destruction, life is slowly coming back.  The water is still incredibly blue and there is little pollution, although the Rapa Nui people test high for microbeads in their blood, due to the world plastic problem.  There are many wild horses roaming the island and I was fortunate enough to see this mother and baby on my last day, leaving me with an impression of new beginnings.