Jon De Vos – Might be Easter, but it’s no picnic
September 24, 2009
Easter Island is the most isolated spot in the world. It’s 2,000 miles from South America, the nearest continent, and 1,400 miles away from its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island.
This peculiar piece of real estate was not even discovered until 1722 when a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, first touched down on its shores. This tiny 64 square mile speck in the Pacific Ocean has a mild climate and fertile, volcanic soil. It should have been a tropical paradise.
Roggeveen’s description of the island was not that of paradise. He described a desolate wasteland with “singular poverty and barrenness.” The flora consisted nothing but grasses and a few shrubs and two species of tiny trees. The natives had no firewood to warm themselves during the wet and windy winters. The native animals included nothing larger than insects, and chickens were the only domestic animals.
When Captain James Cook stopped there for a brief visit in 1774, he was able to determine that the natives were Polynesian, as one of Cook’s crew members was able to converse with them. Later DNA studies verified this fact.
Despite the Polynesian’s well-deserved fame as a great seafaring people, Cook found only a few small and frail canoes, capable of carrying only two people each. There were no longer any trees left from which to build ocean going vessels. Even 50 years earlier, Roggeveen found the natives to be totally isolated and unaware that other people existed.
The other astounding thing that Roggeveen discovered were 200 stone statues standing on huge stone platforms lining the coast. Some of the statues were 33 feet tall and weighed more than 82 tons.
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“The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment,” he wrote, “because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes.” He added that the islanders had, “No wheels, no draft animals and no source of power except their own muscles.”
He found an additional 700 statues lying uncompleted. Some of them were much larger than the ones standing, weighing 270 tons and lying 65 feet long. The largest is just shy of 72 feet tall, weighing an estimated 150 tons. The stone platforms the statues stood on were 500 feet long and 10 feet thick. To deepen the mystery, the statues were still standing in 1777 but less than a hundred years later in 1864, they had all been knocked down. Why were they carved? Why did they stop?
Archeologists have determined that the settlers of the island arrived about 400 A.D. These settlers did find paradise with dense hardwood forests and 80 foot palm trees with six foot diameter trunks, and an astonishing variety of birds.
Yet pollen records indicate that by the year 800, the destruction of the forests was well under way and by 1400 the last palm tree was cut down. Numbers of other trees declined quickly during this same time.
It was a case of “Jobs over Trees” because by this time rival tribes were carving bigger and still bigger stone statues in a game of societal one-upmanship. Enormous amounts of timber were used to make the machines and the ropes required to move the statues around. The population grew but despite a seemingly inexhaustible supply of trees, by the 15th century, the last tree on the island was cut down. The birds were hunted to exhaustion and the loss of their habitat assured their extinction. The human population dwindled to one-tenth its former number as tribal warfare and marauding became a way of life
From paradise to a living hell, their social decline was not over as the natives turned to cannibalism for survival. Lashing out at each other in anger for their own cultural short-sightedness, they began to topple rival’s statues. By 1864 the last statue was thrown down and desecrated and a once vigorous and thriving civilization was lost forever.
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