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What is Easter Island?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Easter Island is a famous and very isolated island in the southeast Pacific Ocean. It is well-known for its giant stone statues, the moai, created sometime between the years 1000 and 1700 – likely towards the earlier portion of that range. These statues number 887, and at one point there were about 10 islanders for every statue, for an island population of 10,000 or so. The island’s total area is 63 square miles (163.6 km2). It is 2,075 km (1,290 miles) east of Pitcairn, the closest inhabited island, and 3,600 km (2,237 miles) west of continental Chile. Easter Island is also among the youngest inhabited territories on Earth.

Easter Island is often taken as a case study of civilizational collapse. In the 17th-18th century there was a drastic decline in civilization, during which the island’s forests were entirely depleted, boats could no longer be built, destroying the fishing industry. As trees are often the bedrock of stable, food-producing ecosystems, these foundations were destroyed, and many of the island’s denizens starved. There were also numerous civil wars that would have been extremely bloody. Archaeological evidence indicates that chickens and rats became the primary diet of the islanders, and there were even indications of cannibalism. By the time the Europeans arrived in 1722, there were barely 1,000 inhabitants on island.

Prior to the collapse of Easter Island’s civilization in the 17th century, there was a Golden Age, during which the two-ton moai statues were constructed. These iconic statues had eyes painted white and faced inland. The islanders lacked metal tools, and shaped the statues using only basalt stone tools. The quarry for the statue material all originated from one point on the island, and the statues were dragged to their locations by the use of large wooden frames. Given how few people there were on the island and how massive the statues are, conspiracy theorists have long speculated the denizens of Easter Island had special assistance from extraterrestrials, though no anthropologists take this very seriously.

Easter Island is also known for having its own natively invented system of script, currently undeciphered, called Rongorongo. This is one of the few examples of a writing system created ex nihilo, that is, without outside influence. The script is so enigmatic that decades of efforts to decode it have been fruitless, and scientists don’t even agree on whether it is truly writing. Although at one time there were hundreds of wooden tablets and staffs with Rongorongo writing, only 26 currently remain.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By Mammmood — On Oct 07, 2011

@MrMoody - Yes, the Easter Island Moai can easily be explained by science. I think what makes people gravitate to these ancient alien theories is not just the enormity of the structures, but the mystery surrounding them.

I mean, here you have an island with few people and right smack dab in the middle are these tall statues that seem to serve no purpose.

I understand how some people’s imaginations could run wild and they could conjure up some higher and deeper purpose, especially since these statues are so tall and could conceivably be viewed as aerial markers of some sort.

By MrMoody — On Oct 06, 2011

I have watched many television shows that advanced the “ancient alien” theory of our ancestry, and the Moai of Easter Island are always presented as evidence of extraterrestrial intervention, as pointed out by the article.

Personally, I’ve never really understood these statues as being anything that remarkable, certainly nothing that could not be explained by conventional archaeology.

Now when it comes to the Great Pyramids of Egypt, that’s another story. I am not saying I subscribe to ancient alien theory there either, but these monuments are greater engineering feats (as acknowledged by modern day engineers) than the Moai of Easter Island are, in my opinion.

By SZapper — On Oct 06, 2011

Easter Island and its history are very interesting. For one thing, the island is mainly made up of three extinct volcanoes! However the last volcanic activity that actually took place on this island was thousands of years ago.

Anyway, I think it's very unfortunate that there isn't anyone left that understands Rongorongo. There are actually some islanders still living on Easter Island today. However, during the collapse of their civilization, everyone who knew about their culture died, and a lot was lost. Very sad.

By whitesand — On Oct 06, 2011

This is so fascinating to me! Of course, I have heard of the Easter Island statues, but all the information about the civilization coming to an end is new to me. I had no idea that the forest on the island had been depleted of trees resulting in no wood for boats and fishing.

I think it is amazing that they had created their own language for communication and writing. I just assumed their ancestors were from another country and they spoke that language. There is a lot of rich culture associated with Easter Island that I never knew about that's been described in this article.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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