Allie’s Nature Field Note: Easter Island

What does this creature or plant look like?

Easter Island or Isla de Pascua is a small, extremely isolated island off the coast of Chile. It’s covered in rolling green hills dotted with small trees and a view nearly everywhere off into the deep blue ocean. There’s no landmass in sight from Easter Island. Chile is over 2,000 miles away and the nearest island is over 1,000 miles away. Instead, you can wander the island and see the moai, these huge stone heads that dot the landscape in the hundreds. They rise up dozens of feet in above you. You have to crane your neck back to see them. Despite the hundreds of years they’ve stood on the island, you can still easily make out their heavy brow line, strong nose and pointed chin. They stand in the middle of a huge debate over the island: How did they get there and did their construction lead to a collapse of the people on the island?

How did I feel when I saw it?

I’ve never been to Easter Island. It was my dream to come to Chile and visit the island during a vacation, maybe even just for a long weekend. What I didn’t realize is how expensive tickets were. It turns out it’s cheaper to fly to Argentina, over the Andes mountains, than it was to fly to a small island! That got me thinking: how does Easter Island fit into Chilean culture? It’s easy to assume that it’s not an everyday vacation spot for the people here but it’s far too expensive. Yet the island was named one of Chile’s World Heritage Sites and is often flaunted as a point of pride for Chile.

Where does it live?

When I started to research Easter Island I realized right away that it had its own culture and people. Those people were called the Rapa Nui and it’s suggested that they got to the island through a 19 day canoe ride from the closest place: the Gambier or Marquesas Islands.

Can you imagine that? Going out into the ocean, with no guarantee of finding anything, on a dinky canoe? I’ve gone sea kayaking before, but I’ve always felt vulnerable once I get a certain ways out, I would never have had the guts to leave my home entirely and seek out something I couldn’t even spot on the far horizon. Since the island is so isolated it doesn’t surprise me at all that the first Polynesian settlers decided to stay for a while. I would do the same after nearly a month of travel at sea.

How does it use its environment to survive?

These people not only lived, they prospered. They developed a new language, hierarchy of power and religion. Those statues I mentioned earlier? They’re supposed to represent the Rapa Nui ancestors. The main religion of this island believed that the living and dead had a close relationship, and that one provided for the other. The statues could have been a way to show their respect for their elders, or to try and appease and give back to those in the underworld. But this show of gratitude has been linked to how the Rapa Nui destroyed themselves.

Sculptures like the moai couldn’t be moved by hand, they can weigh over 16,000 pounds! They didn’t even have animals to move it. I couldn’t imagine trying to bring over any large animals in just a canoe! One of the theories about how they moved them was by cutting down the large palm trees on the island, laying them down and making something like a conveyor belt to slide them over the landscape.

Some have said this type of transportation is what led to the downfall of the Rapa Nui. Scientists such as Jared Diamond linked the deforestation of the island (which was needed to move the statues) as starting an ecological disaster, which killed off most of the animals on the island and left the Rapa Nui to starve. With the trees gone they didn’t even have something to carve a new canoe out of to sail away!

But this all happened hundreds of years ago, and others say Jared Diamond is full of hot air. Another historian, Benny Peisnr, claims that Jared is just trying to use Easter Island as a way to scare people about taking care of the environment. He instead says that it wasn’t the lack of trees that killed them off (though now on the island there are no palm trees and nothing grows higher than ten feet tall) but rather the Europeans that began to take interest in the Island. One of the first Europeans was a Dutch Explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, who found the island in 1772 on Easter day (hence it’s name). He didn’t do much, though he reported a very small population back then. Over the next couple dozen decades the Spanish, Dutch and eventually Peruvian explorers found the island and this, according to Peisnr, is what wiped out the population. The diseases the Europeans brought, along with Peruvian slave traders looking for workers, killed off the majority of the population, not ecological disaster.

What can harm this creature? Are we worried about it?

In the midst of all this history, I learned that Easter Island didn’t even become a part of Chile until 1973, as a way to strengthen a dictator named Augusto Pinochet who had just forced his way to power. Since then Chile has rid itself of Pinochet, but not of Easter Island. It’s now a big tourist attraction for both Chilean and Polynesian culture. While the connection between these two places may not be very old, I still feel like the Chilean people are as wrapped up in the mystery of the island as I am. There is not a clear idea of what happened here, but both versions of the history teach us powerful lessons. One tells us of the devastation wrought by trying to take over others, another warns us that earth itself is just an island in space, and if we don’t take care of it, we could end up just like the Rapa Nui.

A mini-moai outside a chilean museam

A mini-maoi outside of the island

A small map of a small island

A small map of a small island

Moai on the island!

Moai on the island!

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