Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Rapa Nui (Easter island) - history and mystery

         Easter Island is one of the most interesting islands on our planet. First of all, it is incredibly remote. Secondly, it has one of the most interesting and mysterious aboriginal cultures around the world, who produced numerous artifacts including the famous moai. Thirdly, this culture produced also the Rongorongo script, one of the very few still undeciphered writing systems in the world. And fourth - it brought the island to an ecological catastrophe and subsequently survived a demographic one.
So let's start with the first one - remoteness. The closest populated place is is Pitcairn island ,2,075 km (1,289 mi) away. Administratively, the island is part of Chile which is 3500 km (2000 miles) away. Its airport, the Mataveri airport is also the most remote airport in the world.
          Now, the moai. For centuries before the Europeans found the island the local Polynesian population developed a distinct culture. One of the most important rituals of the culture was the erection of giant stone figures with unproportionally large heads on platforms around the island, called moai. The moai were erected in the period between 1100 and 1660 and altogether were around 887, all of them carved from a single mining source in the middle of the volcano. Half of them however stayed in the cavern where they were built. The other half were transported to the platforms around the island, by, yet unknown means. The largest moai weighs 82 tons and is around 10 m (32 ft) tall. Since the moai erecting culture was replaced with another religion and the whole island got into a big warring mess combined with overpopulation and the ecological catastrophe even before the Europeans arrived in 1722, we don't know much about why and how those statues were erected.
           With the loss of the culture and the dying out of the population another important knowledge was lost - the knowledge how to read their ancient writing system - Rongorongo. The writing appears on around 30 objects found around the island, mostly made of wood and no one has ever been able to decode it. It consists of stylized glyphs of people, objects and animals with an unusual reading pattern and direction: the reader begins at the bottom left-hand corner of a tablet, reads a line from left to right, then rotates the tablet 180 degrees to continue on the next line. When reading one line, the lines above and below it would appear upside down. Currently all objects with Rongorongo inscriptions are in the different museums around the world, none of which is on the island.
           But how did this knowledge get lost? First of all - it was inscribed mainly on wood. And from the 17-th century on wood was really hard to find on the island; the huge statues required a lot of wood to transport and without thinking of the future the islanders slowly cut down all the forests on the island and their culture and population started a slow decline. And finally in 1860 Peruvian slave owners came to the island and took away more than half of its population. But after international institutions condemned Peru, the slavers returned the few survivors who brought with them smallpox and tuberculosis and from the whole population survived just under 100 people.
Many are the mysteries of the Easter island and many are its wonders. I strongly encourage the reader to read more about it.

Coordinates:27° 7′ 0″ S, 109° 22′ 0″ W
Google Maps:,-109.366667&spn=0.1,0.1&t=h&q=-27.116667,-109.366667

Wikipedia article about the island:
Wikipedia article about Rongorongo:

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