Easter Island is one of the most remote of the inhabited places on earth. Only some 150 square miles in area, it lies in the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America and 1,250 miles from the nearest inhabitable land of Pitcairn Island.
Easter Island has a unique story, much of which is surrounded in mystery. Its volcanic soil was not suited for crop production, as was the soil of other Polynesian islands. What made Easter Island different from the other islands in the area was that crop production took very little effort, as virtually the only crop that would grow in the sterile soil was the sweet potato.
This grew in abundance. There was no fishing or other means of food production other than the raising of a few flocks of chickens. Therefore, there was ample time for the clan chiefs to perform ceremonial activities.
The result was the creation of the most advanced of all the Polynesian societies and one of the most complex in the world for its limited resource base. The Easter Islanders engaged in two main activities which were elaborate rituals and monument construction. Some of the ceremonies involved recitation from Polynesian writings known as rongorongo. Another form of ritual was based on the bird cult at Orongo, and the remains of forty-seven special houses with raised platforms and high-relief rock carvings can be seen on the island.
Social activities centered upon separate ceremonial centers. These took the form of large stone platforms, similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia and known as ahu, which were used for burials, ancestor worship and to commemorate past clan chiefs. Over 300 of these platforms were constructed on the island, mainly near the coast.
A number of these ahu have sophisticated astronomical alignments, usually toward one of the solstices or the equinox. At each ceremonial site between one and fifteen of the huge stone statues were erected. Constructing them required extensive peasant labor. The statues were carved, using only obsidian stone tools, at the quarry at Rano Raraku. They were shaped to form a male head and torso. On top of the head was placed a 'topknot' of red stone weighing about ten tons.
The material for this part of the statue was obtained from a different quarry. The carving was a time-consuming task. The most challenging problem, however, was how to transport the statues, each some twenty feet in length and weighing several tens of tons, across the island and to then erect them on top of the ahu.
Lacking any draft animals, they had to rely on humans to drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as rollers. This required the cutting of almost every tree on the island as the statue construction increased. By 1600 the island was almost completely deforested and statue erection ceased , leaving many of the effigies stranded at the quarry.
The deforestation of the island not only marked the end of the elaborate social and ceremonial life, it also destroyed the daily routines for the population generally. From 1500 onward, the shortage of trees forced many to abandon building houses from timber and to live in caves. When the wood eventually ran out altogether about a century later, everyone had to use the only materials left. They eventually had only stone shelters dug into the hillsides or reed huts cut from the vegetation that grew round the edges of the crater lakes. Canoes could no longer be built and only reed boats incapable of long voyages were made.
Fishing was also more difficult because nets had previously been made from the paper mulberry tree (which could also be made into cloth) and that was no longer available. Removal of the tree cover also affected the soil of the island, which had never been fertilized properly due to the lack of animal manure to replace nutrients utilized by the crops. Increased exposure caused soil erosion and the leaching out of essential nutrients. The only source of food on the island unaffected by these problems was the chickens. As they became ever more important, they had to be protected from theft and the introduction of stone-built defensive chicken houses can be dated to this phase of the island's history. It became impossible to support 7,000 people on this diminishing resource base, and numbers fell rapidly, spelling the death knell of the island. Warfare broke out between various factions, there was some cannibalism, and for a time the island virtually died out.
In recent years, tourism has become established as the main source of income for Easter Island. When the winds and tides are favorable, ships anchor and use tenders to transport passengers through the perilous shoals at the entrance to the harbor. Once on shore, tours are given to explore the island and view the remaining effigies, all of which are impressive as to height and features.
Small shops sell mementoes such as photos of the statues, miniature replicas, and postcards. The island vistas are remarkable as seen from the sea, and the volcanic formations are of interest.