The question of what happened to the Rapanui, Easter Island’s native population, is one of the world's most intriguing mysteries, while the myths surrounding the famous moai statues they created persist to this day. After wading through some wildly varying near-extinction theories, new SBS documentary Easter Island: The Truth Revealed puts forth a credible answer.
Were they wiped out by ecocide, slavery or… rats?
A commonly held belief is that the Rapanui committed ecocide by decimating the environment of Easter Island (traditionally known as Rapa Nui), which is located 3,700 kilometres from Chile’s west coast in the South Pacific Ocean.
The theory is linked to the mysterious centuries-old moai statues carved by the Rapanui, of which there are almost 900 scattered across the island. How were some of these massive monuments – the largest a whopping 10 metres tall and weighing 74,000 kilograms – moved to their current position?
One school of thought is that they were transported by the Rapanui some kilometres from the quarries where they were created, hauled on wooden sledges over log rails. So obsessed were they with the building of the moai, motivated by rival chiefs puffing their chests with larger and larger statues, that they eventually decimated the island’s lush forests. The wood traditionally used to build canoes for hunting fish was now in short supply, and more land had to be cleared to plant crops for a food source for the population.
But a recent study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology does much to debunk the theory that the Rapanui unintentionally killed themselves off by environmental mismanagement. In fact, the research suggests they were more sophisticated farmers than they’ve been given credit for.
Though the consensus is that Easter Island did indeed suffer an ecological catastrophe, no doubt helped along by human folly, one theory argues that it was rats – yes, rats – that were key culprits in the demise. Archaeologists have found that nuts retrieved from the extinct Easter Island palm show evidence of nibbling by Polynesian rats. By eating the nuts, the sizeable rat population could have prevented reseeding of the bountiful but slow-growing palms across the island, causing them to die out.
But the most likely cause of the downfall of Rapanui society is disease brought about by slavery. According to Easter Island: The Truth Revealed, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people – half the population – were taken in 1862 in a raid by slave traders from Peru to work there, predominately in agriculture.
After disease had ripped through the enslaved Rapanui following contact with Europeans, resulting in mass casualties, just 15 survivors were granted permission to return to Easter Island. They brought disease with them and much of the remaining population was decimated. A matter of years later, just 110 Rapanui existed, down from approximately 4,000 before the raid.
But the Rapanui people managed to survive. The Telegraph reports that as of 2013, out of a population of around 5,800 Easter Island inhabitants, half are Rapanui.
Moai mystery: walking statues, magic and… aliens?
All sorts of theories – including traditional Rapanui beliefs – exist as to how Easter Island’s iconic moai statues came to be, and how they were transported to their current resting spots.
The monuments, made of volcanic tuff, are thought to have been sculpted by the Rapanui sometime between 1250 and 1500 AD. They’re believed to represent authority and power, perhaps tribal chiefs, their bulbous heads featuring the faces of deified ancestors. Some of the most iconic of the monoliths were positioned in a row looking inland to watch over the Rapanui villages.
The idea that the moai “walked” to where they now stand isn’t as wacky as it sounds if you consider the theory that the Rapanui moved the upright monuments by attaching ropes to rock them from side to side to their destination.
But to the Rapanui, the moai actually did walk unaccompanied, with a form of magic integral to their religion. It’s a divine power known as “mana”, the “mental, supernatural and sacred power shared by the chiefs of the tribes, their priests and sorcerers”, and was said to be used by the ancient Rapanui to animate the moai to walk to their destination.
Then there’s the theory that aliens created the moai, as promulgated by the granddaddy of alien conspiracy theorists, author Erich von Däniken.
In his book Return to the Stars, von Däniken wrote:
“A small group of intelligent beings was stranded on Easter Island owing to a 'technical hitch'. The stranded group had a great store of knowledge, very advanced weapons and a method of working stone unknown to us... Perhaps to leave the natives a lasting memory of their stay, but perhaps also as a sign to the friends who were looking for them, the strangers extracted a colossal statue from the volcanic stone. Then they made more stone giants which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so that they were visible from afar.”
Make up your own mind when you watch Easter Island: The Truth Revealed at SBS On Demand: