As you can imagine, there isn’t a lack of theories about the giant Moai and how they were transported around the island. Your guide will likely carry a thick folder, which contains some of those theories, from “the aliens did it” to “the statues just walked” plus everything in between. In between, there are theories about traveling Incas, about traveling American Indians, about traveling Hawaiians, and of course about traveling aliens (again). For almost a hundred years, archeologists have been obsessed with how the statues were moved. What I wanted to know, though, was not how but why, and the answer (from my guide, at least) was amazingly simple. When the elder of a clan died (he called him a king although he must’ve meant chief), they would carve a statue. The richer the elder—the bigger the statue. Makes sense, actually, since the platforms with Moai are not allowed to be touched and even approached, and there are signs identifying them as ceremonial burial grounds. Could it be that the whole mystery of Easter Island is just an exercise in pride and vanity?
Some theories suggest that. So obsessed were the tribal chiefs with carving the statues bigger than “the Joneses,” that by some point, they completely depleted the island’s natural resources. There used to be a highly developed civil society, elaborate and intricately designed religious ceremonies; there were rich plantations providing an overabundance of food. Most importantly, there used to be lush forests and fertile lands, but once the trees had been cut down, high winds blew off the top fertile layer, having deemed the land almost unsuitable for farming.
Of course, there was probably more to the story. Overhunting, overfishing, over-zealous agriculture, overbuilding of roads and canoes—all those factors contributed to the inevitable catastrophe. Yet the tribes, oblivious to the effects of their actions kept building more. More and bigger Moai. By the time the tribes realized there weren’t enough resources left for everyone, it was too late. Soon, civil wars erupted for the control over whatever was left.
At some point (establishing a clear timeline of the island events after the loss of 97% of its population is not an easy task, apparently), a new religion came into being, the one that defied old Moai gods. The islanders’ obsession with building Moai gave way to another obsession: destroying Moai that they now held responsible for all their troubles. In just 60 years, from the 1770s to 1830s they toppled and tore down almost all statues on the island (so the statues we are seeing today are the ones that have been restored). A new cult was created, called Tangata Manu or the Bird Man. The rulers, from that point on were to be chosen by a fierce physical competition, and the old hereditary system was abolished.
Under these new “meritocratic” rules, “a competition was established, in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season’s first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern). The first swimmer to return with an egg and successfully climb back up the cliff to Orongo would be named “Birdman of the year” and secure control over distribution of the island’s resources for his clan for the year.” (Wikipedia: History of Easter Island).
The problem was, however, just like with other revolutions around the world, this one failed to establish peace and resolve deep-seated conflicts. The history of this tiny island-state is ripe with civil wars, tortures, horrendous executions, and even cannibalism; its population at some points dwindled from 15,000 to a little more than a few hundred people. Then, in the mid-1800s, Peruvian slave traders “came into town”: between 1862 and 1864, Peruvians kidnapped about 1500 Rapanui or one-third of the island population. When they were forced to return some of them back to the island due to the newly introduced enlightened Peruvian laws, the survivors brought with them smallpox that subsequently killed another thousand islanders. By the time of annexation by Chile in 1888, just a little over 100 Rapanui remained on Easter Island.
To be concluded…