de Vos: The other Easter
March 25, 2016
Easter Island is a tiny speck of volcanic rock in the remotest part of the Pacific. Some 30 times smaller than Grand County, the nearest neighbors are Tahiti, 2,500 miles to the west, and Chile, 2,300 miles to the east..
The Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen landed there on Easter, April 5th, 1722. He described it as "a desolate wasteland of singular poverty and barrenness." There were no trees, just grasses and shrubs. The natives huddled in volcanic caves with no firewood for warmth or cooking, subsisting on a meager diet of fish, roots and insects.
The natives that Roggeveen described in his journal were descendants of brave Polynesian seafarers who sailed thousands of miles across the open ocean, probably from the Marquesas Islands, sometime around 350AD.
Unlike Roggeveen, these first explorers found an island paradise with dense hardwood forests, immense palms with 6-foot diameter trunks and an incredible variety of birds that had blown in and adapted over the millennia.
The newcomers quickly set out to pave that paradise. Pollen records indicate that by the year 800, the destruction of the forest was well underway. For reasons totally unknown, two opposing factions in the society began to carve curiously stylized statues out of the volcanic rock. They competed by carving bigger and bigger statues despite obvious and devastating costs to their finite natural resources. The two sides created hundreds of 30-ton behemoths that they moved by hand. Using staggering amounts of timber and fiber to make the machines and ropes, they walked them upright like bowling pins, as far as 11 miles to their designated spot.
Despite an ample supply of hardwoods, by the 15th century, not a single tree remained on the island. The birds were hunted to exhaustion and the loss of habitat assured their extinction. The human population was decimated as food insecurity, tribal warfare and marauding became a way of life. In a final, savage battle, one side rounded up the other and burned them all in an immense pyre using the last pieces of firewood on the island.
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Archeologists have no explanation why islanders carved the stone statues that ultimately led to their own extinction. But carve them they did with gusto, eventually creating almost 900 statues, each a bit larger than the last. The largest, still lying where it was carved, weighs over half-a-million pounds and upright would stand as tall as a six-story building. The base prepared for it was 500 feet long and ten feet thick.
It was an incredible effort, spanning 13 centuries and generation after generation of engineers, craftsmen, laborers and support. So why, in their last decade, did they tear them all down? When explorer James Cook visited the island in 1774, he reported that hundreds of the statues were standing, but reports 90 years later say every single one had been toppled.
In 1770, Spain sent an expedition from Peru to explore the strange island. They reported back that there were about 3,000 indigenous people. The expedition unknowingly left the island with smallpox. In 1774, Sir James Cook counted 650 men and fewer than 30 women.
Peruvian slavers swept up most of the remainders. In 1877, Catholic missionaries counted just over a hundred remaining islanders living in extremely primitive conditions.
Chile claimed the island in 1888, immediately leasing it to sheep ranchers. Today you can visit, assuming you're keen on excruciatingly long airplane rides, but other than the statues, which you can see fine in photos, there's not a lot of good reason to go there.
Roggeveen named it Easter but it was certainly no picnic.
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