Mysterious Easter Island Statues
Moai at Ranoraraku Easter Island's initial settlement has been dated around 300–400 A.D. which would coincide approximately with the arrival of the first settlers on Hawaii. However, rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the early settlement dates in Polynesia, and Rapa Nui is now considered to have been settled about 700-1100 AD.

An ongoing study by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo suggests a still later date. As they argue:

“Radiocarbon dates for the earliest stratigraphic layers at Anakena, Easter Island, and analysis of previous radiocarbon dates imply that the island was colonized late, about 1200 A.D. Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement.”

According to oral tradition the first settlement was located in Anakena. Jared Diamond notes in "Collapse" that Caleta Anakena is the landing point that provides the best shelter from prevailing swells, as well as a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings.

It seems likely to have been an early place of settlement.

This hypothesis contradicts radiocarbon dating, according to which other sites preceded Anakena by many years, especially the Tahai, whose radiocarbon dates precede Anakena's by several centuries.

The island was most probably populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Marquesas Islands, 3,200 km (2,000 mi) away, or the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600 km (1,600 mi) away).

Example of Rongorongo Script When James Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, who was a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan with an 80% similarity in vocabulary.

In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was carried out, reaching Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days.

According to oral traditions recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs.

The high chief was the eldest descendent through firstborn lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a.

It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead where the dead provided everything the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune, etc.) and the living through offerings could provide the dead with a better place in the spirit world.

Most settlements were located on the coast and moai were erected all along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.

As the island became increasingly overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult.

This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition.

The god responsible for creating humans, Makemake, played an important role in this process.

Katherine Routhledge, who systematically collected the island's traditions in her expedition in 1919, showed that the competitions for Bird Man (Rapanui: tangata manu) started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878, with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who formally arrived on the island in 1864.

European accounts from 1722 and 1770 mention standing statues, but Cook's expedition, which visited the island in 1774, noted that several moai were lying face down, having been toppled in warfare.

The first-recorded European contact with the island was on Easter Island, April 5, 1722, when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited the island for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island.

The number may have been greater, since some may have been frightened into hiding by a misunderstanding that led Roggeveen's men to fire on the natives, killing more than a dozen men and wounding several more.

Makemake Petroglyph The next foreign visitors (on November 15, 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia. They reported the island as largely uncultivated, with a seashore lined with stone statues.

Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island; he reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down.

In 1825, the British ship HMS Blossom visited and reported having seen no standing statues in the places they visited.

Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by then the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.

A series of devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.

In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. There were violent abductions for several months, eventually capturing around 1500 men and women, half of the island's population.

Easter Island Map Among the great many people they captured was the island's paramount chief and his heir as well as those who knew how to read and write Easter Island's rongorongo script, the only evidence of Polynesian script to have been found to date.

When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped in several Polynesian islands, they knowingly disembarked carriers of smallpox together with a few survivors on each of the islands.

This created devastating epidemics from Easter Island all the way to the Marquesas islands.

Easter Island's population was reduced to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.

Tuberculosis, introduced by whalers in the mid-19th century, had already killed several islanders when the first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, died from this disease in 1867.

About a quarter of the island's population succumbed along with him.

In the following years, the managers of the sheep ranch and the missionaries started buying the newly available lands of the deceased, and this led to great confrontations between the two.

"Queen Mother" Koreto with her daughters "Queen" Caroline and Harriette in 1877 sold Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple of hundred Rapanui to Tahiti to work for his backers.

In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated all but 171 Rapanui to the Gambier islands.

Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring.

From that point on and into the present day, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or having left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.

Statues at Ahu Tongariki

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