Jacob Roggeveen is standing on board his ship Arend as its bow splits the surface of the silent ocean. He grew up in Middelburg in the Netherlands and set out with 250 men to search the mythical continent Terra Australis Incognita, a southern continent of enormous dimensions, first hypothesized by the ancient greeks. His plan is to circumvent the earth and discover this unknown continent to bring back its riches to Holland. On Easter Sunday 1722, after 1900 Nautical Miles 3500 km of only seeing and tasting the salty blue of the ocean, a tiny spot of land is finally in sight. Rapa Nui, it is called. Or, Easter Islands, as Jacob later renames it.

“There was great rejoicing among the people and every one hoped that this low land might prove to be a foretoken of the coastline of the unknown Southern continent.” (Felipe et al., p. 93)

What he finds, though, is a lonely, barren, rocky island; grass covers its small surface, far away from any large landmass. As Jacob arrives the inhabitants of the island swarm around their ship with small catamarans. 

“A great many canoes came off to the ships: these people showed us at that time their great cupidity for every thing they saw; and were so daring that they took the seamen’s hats and caps from off their heads” (Felipe et al., p. 98)

After some exchange aboard the ship, they land on the island. As the party approaches the natives, fire opens and 10 – 12 natives are shot. Jacob later notes this down as a “tragic misunderstanding”. Other than the incident, the Dutch sailors and the indigenous Rapa Nui (the people are called like the island) get along well and exchange gifts. The expedition marveles at the oversized stone statues (Moai) erected all over the island and record the native’s rituals in their books. When asked how the Moai were made, the Rapa Nui did not know the answer.

Today, the Easter Islands and its history remain a mystery. Where did its inhabitants come from? When did they come? And what happened afterwards? Genetic, linguistic, and cultural evidence suggests that polynesians (those people living on the islands of the central Pacific Ocean) originated from today’s Taiwan, from where they spread to the Philippine archipelago and eastern Indonesia in 2500 BC. The migration was probably triggered by a suddenly cooling climate. In eastern Indonesia, they mixed with the local Papuan people. By 800 BC, the seafaring polynesians had reached Samoa and Tonga. Following a “Long Pause” of 1000 years, polynesians spread towards Hawai’i, Rapa Nui (Easter Islands), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). During these migrations, polynesians must have sailed thousands of kilometers across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean in the hope of finding a new spot of solid ground. Immense navigation skills, and seamanship would have to be necessary to accomplish such a journey. The estimates on when polynesians reached the Easter Islands vary widely. Initially, it was assumed that they found this easternmost point (the Easter Islands) at around 900 AD. Recently, though, historians have put the estimates at a much later date.

A map of the migration of Polynesians eastwards towards Polynesia

Things don’t quite add up with Jacob’s descriptions of the island: there wasn’t a single tree on the island, but the inhabitants had numerous wooden ships when Jacob discovered the island. There are numerous stone statues (Moai), but none of the Rapa Nui seemed to know how to make them when the Europeans arrived. Historians have tried to explain these paradoxes as follows: When the people that would become the Rapa Nui came from Marae Renga (Cook Islands) in two canoes in 900 AD, they found the Easter Islands covered in trees. At first, their life was rudimentary, leaving few archaeological records. The population of that time was growing slowly. In 1200 AD, the population started to grow at a faster pace, their society became more advanced. Pressure on the delicate environment of the island increased, as the population reached a peak of 15 000 inhabitants, living off farming and fishery. Especially the sweet potato was an important crop for securing their subsistence. This was, then the Moai were carved to venerate the dead and ensure sufficient harvest, prosperity, and health. The rationale was: if the living provide for the dead, the dead will provide for the living. A strict and complex hierarchical system existed. The Rapa Nui were living in a civilization.

This was also the time when the last trees were cut, leaving the Rapa Nui without wood. When Jacob arrived, the Rapa Nui were split into two tribes, more or less peacefully living alongside each other, but the population had gone down significantly to 2000 – 3000 inhabitants. The Moai proudly protected the island’s inhabitants, and the Rapa Nui still had boats, but they couldn’t make new ones. The Rapa Nui found themselves in a precarious and unsustainable situation. And sure enough, disaster struck soon after Jacob left: famine and war between the two tribes of the island broke out. Fields were burned down, and the erosion resulting from the extreme deforestation destroyed the leftover lands which weren’t already destroyed by fire. Each tribe toppled the Moai statues of the other one to deny them their ancestor’s support so that soon they lay around the island in disarray. Lawlessness prevailed until the 1860s. All land-bird species had gone extinct as well as all 21 species of trees. The population was decimated, one tribe was completely wiped out. This disaster and some later blackbirding decreased the Rapanui to only 6% of their original population size, 111 people.  

The moral of this story is that we must take care of our environment. Our world is also just a tiny island in the vastness of the black sea of stars. If we cut all the trees (which we are able to do) our civilization will collapse, or worse, humans might cease to exist.

Moai statues on the Easter Islands

Though the moral of the story stands and gains in importance by the day, a lot does not add up with this narrative that is told about the Easter Islands. There is no evidence of human existence on the island before 1200 AD; the sweet potato originates in South America, but the Rapa Nui farmed it too; the seeds unearthed by archeologists have very clearly been gnawed on by rats; and, although the island could have supported a population of up to 15 000, there is no evidence to suggest that it ever did. Newer research using radiocarbon dating has concluded that the first settlement was much later, in 1200 AD, and the population immediately started to grow. Some also believe that the Easter Islands were, at least partly, populated by South American, not Polynesian peoples, which would explain the sweet potato on the Easter Islands. It is more likely, though, that the Rapa Nui maintained long-distance trade relationships to South America. Although less paradigmatic to the research on the Rapa Nui’s history, such trade relationships are a testimony to the skillfulness of the East Island’s seafarers, finding their way 4000 km across the Pacific Ocean without any landmarks around them, exclusively using the stars to guide them. The trade probably led to the import of the sweet potato to the Easter Islands and is the reason for the walls on the Easter Islands being built like those of the Inca in South America.

What is paradigmatic to the history of the Easter Islands, though, are the traces the rats left behind on the seeds unearthed around the island. Latest theories suggest that it wasn’t humans that cut the trees, but their little companions they brought along. Rats must have feasted on the abundance of tree seeds, growing exponentially. In ideal conditions, rat populations can double within 47 days. It would not take too long for rat populations to have reached several millions and to consume any seeds the trees of the island would produce.

There is also no material evidence that suggests that a war happened. It is assumed that the “war” in the oral history of the Rapa Nui was actually a war of toppling the Moai of the other tribe, not a war of arms. As a result, there most likely never was a major population decline prior to the blackbirding.

Even after “correcting” the history of the Easter Islands in such fundamental ways, things don’t quite add up: if rats were clearly such a big problem and the Rapa Nui were so dependent on wood for their ships, why didn’t someone save some seeds and grow trees in a protected environment? Rats were introduced to most polynesian islands, but few were completely deforested; what caused the Easter Islands to face such a fate? In the end, the real moral of the story is, that so much is still a mystery to us, that the mists of history are dense, and that even the most advanced radiocarbon dating technologies cannot fully clear them. The keys to our enigma don’t lie that far back, though: the Easter Islands were relatively isolated until the 1860s, while the rest of the world witnessed globalization; the trees disappeared only several hundred years ago. The Moai have now been reconstructed and are visited by many tourists to perform their ritual Instagram posts. And Terra Australis Incognita remains to be discovered.


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Image Sources:

Fig. 1, Eccles, David. Polynesian Migration.svg. March 3, 2018. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Polynesian_Migration.svg.

Based on Chambers (2008)
Fig. 2, Sewell, Ian. AhuTongariki.JPG. September 20, 2006. Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AhuTongariki.JPG.

By Finn Gleichmann

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