Biggest Easter Island mysteries revealed by experts
Easter Island is a world of mystery. The apparent presence of the past constantly reminds us of the greatness that with few means was achieved here in ancient times. Thanks to oral tradition, scientific study and reports from early outside visitors, we know a lot about the island. Though, there is also a lot that we don’t know.
I asked 10 Easter Island experts and scientists about what they see as the biggest mysteries of this island. This is how they answered:
- When was Rapa Nui settled? 13%, 4 votes4 votes 13%4 votes - 13% of all votes
- Contact with other islands and continents - to what extent did it happen after settlement? 13%, 4 votes4 votes 13%4 votes - 13% of all votes
- Rongo-rongo - the lost writings 13%, 4 votes4 votes 13%4 votes - 13% of all votes
- Moai statue transportation 10%, 3 votes3 votes 10%3 votes - 10% of all votes
- What is the origin of the rapa nui people? 10%, 3 votes3 votes 10%3 votes - 10% of all votes
- What initiated the birdman traditions? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Why did mortuary practice change? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Where are the traces from the first colonizers? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- What was the maximum population? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Was there a collapse at all? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- How hard was the tuff when carving statues? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Arrival of the sweet potato 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Crematories - what was their purpose? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Why was only Puna Pau used for building pukao? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Coastal ramps 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- How could there be so much wealth? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- Why were so many moai statues built? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
- What diseases killed population after slave raids? 3%, 1 vote1 vote 3%1 vote - 3% of all votes
Please read the full answers from each of the experts below. To see which vote category each of the answers was considered to belong to, please hover over the title.
Dr Grant McCall has researched and taught anthropology at various universities and has authored several books on eastern Polynesian studies. A few of them are available here.
When was Rapanui settled?
In the Pacific Islands, there are those who favour a short chronology and those who favour a long chronology. A decade or so ago, the long chronology was favoured. Five to six decades ago, it was the short one. The settlement and whether it was in one hit or over time, is crucial to understanding the development of the island.
Did Rapanui have contact with other places after settlement?
The remoteness of Rapanui has been stressed since the first Europeans arrived in 1722. People could not believe that such a complex and engineering advanced culture could develop on its own. So, was Rapanui on the itinerary of Polynesian voyagers who traveled all over Oceania a thousand years ago? Traces likely can be found in items traded.
How were the moai moved?
There is likely to be more than one answer to this one. Rapanui today rarely agree on one method of doing anything, so it is likely that their ancestors were of the same disposition. It is not enough to demonstrate how the moai might have been moved, but how actually they were moved. Detailed analysis of specific moai for microscopic traces of materials used in their transport only will solve this mystery.
Dr. Stevenson has performed extensive studies at Easter Island and other islands, particularly investigating obsidian tools. A few of his many books can be found here.
Birdman traditions – what initiated them?
The Bird Man Cult can be considered a peripheral religious development based on personal achievement and the worship of Make Make. This is directly contradictory to the concept of ascribed status for elites, that is one of the core concepts of Ancestral Polynesian Society. Why did this radical change behind the concepts of leadership emerge?
Maximum ancient Rapa Nui population
What was the maximum size of the Rapa Nui population prior to European contact in AD1722? Population projections that estimate growth rates and eventual population size rely on estimates of the initial founding population. Estimates place this at 50-100 people based upon no firm data whatsoever. Is there any novel way to estimate early prehistoric population size based upon the archaeological record of Rapa Nui; or population size even later in time?
Radical change in mortuary practice
There was a radical change in mortuary practice from cremation to tomb burial in semi-pyramidal ahu. Did this occur prior to European contact? If so, what does this mean in terms of the Rapa Nui view of the afterlife?
Native rapa nui archaeologist, with a huge amount of contribution to science thanks to decades of extensive amounts of field work performed at the island.
How could there be so much wealth on the island?
This was a society that came out of nowhere. Imagine if you come to a new place. You would want to be looking for water, for food and protection, which are the three basic needs of the human being, wherever you’re from. Later you go on building ahu and moai, but that would not be possible without having a great wealth before. How did they evolve to be so rich in resources?
To understand the rongo-rongo, you have to first understand ancient society. There must have been a number of population in which it is necessary to transmit information. How did the rongo-rongo begin, why did it start, and why is each sign as it is? What did we want to pass on to other generations? Or maybe it’s a copy of another culture? In this world there is nothing unique. That is why it’s very important not only to look at the island – you have to look around.
The coastal ramps
The ramps should have been studied from the beginning. What types of ramps are there? For what type of boats – low, tall, large, small? Nothing is known about what they were used for; nothing about the purpose of the ramps. And there are many, all over the island. Only from the coast of Poike to Hanga Oteo there are about 13, and they were even more well-built than the one in Tahai. It’s a job for the next generation. I would love to have 10 more years, but I have several things to do, and I don’t have much time left. Who knows when my memory is going to fail (she laughs).
Dr Terry Hunt, professor of anthopology, has performed extensive archaeological research and field study in Polynesia for over 30 years, with a special focus on Rapa Nui. Received lots of attention for successfully making a moai replica walk using ropes in 2012. Read more about it in his book The Statues that Walked.
Moai statue transportation
Mysteries….. hmmmmm? A few years ago moai transport was a mystery, but the answer that Rapanui folks gave all along is now clear.
Connection between Rapa Nui and South America?
I would say a remaining mystery is the connection between Rapa Nui and South America. The introduction of the sweet potato is definitive evidence, but the connection is very likely via central Polynesia, and not necessarily with Rapa Nui directly. The sweet potato was introduced early in the colonization of the eastern Pacific and spread widely, including its arrival in Rapa Nui. The mysterious question is the superficial similarity (i.e., in appearance, but not in engineering) of the stone work that resembles the Inca (e.g., “Cuzco walls”) and ahu such as Vinapu. What do the similarities represent?
Disease impact from early European visits
A second “mystery” might be what diseases made the long journeys on early European ships to devastate Rapa Nui and other remote islands. This sad chapter is somewhat invisible to history, but perhaps research in skeletal paleopathology or other modern methods could reveal the answer.
Edwards is an eminence that lives among us at Rapa Nui, recognized for his deep knowledge and extensive Polynesian studies. Author of When the Universe was an Island, currently working on a Rapanui Planetarium.
The origin of the Rapanui people
There is no doubt that the Rapanui are of Polynesian origin and despite the oral traditions up to now we are not sure about their origin. If they constitute a single group or different groups that arrived at different times to the island from the Archipelago of the Gambier (Mangareva), Australes or Tuamotu, and even if they had contact with other cultures as far away as the Maori of New Zealand . We assume that contacts with distant islands such as Rapa Nui were sparse in the past, but could also have occurred otherwise. This may perhaps be determined in the future with scientific advances and further research in the area.
How hard was the tuff of volcano Rano Raraku that was used to carve the statues?
The tuff is made of soft material and easy to carve when it has not been exposed to air, only then it increases its hardness. In fact the traces left by their stone peaks on the walls of the quarries in those places best preserved, indicate that it was a very plastic material, since they are long lines in which the surface appears like polished by the sliding of the tool on a Material so soft it could probably scratch with the nail. If so, it would take very little time to carve a statue but they had to wait for the material to harden before it could be moved. The only way to find out is by taking a witness with a drill similar to the one used in the mines to know the hardness of the material. This could explain many riddles that exist about their transport, carving, etc..
Transportation of the statues
Stone sculptures called moai are not the same in shape or size. Initially they were smaller and were carved in several quarries around the island with different stone materials and then they were transported unfinished, probably on the dorsal side, that was straight, on rollers that rested on a rail composed by two parallel trunks on The ground, in the same way they used to draw their double canoes all over Polynesia from the water. Abandoned copies of these flatback sculptures are found in different parts of the island, and probably one of the largest is one that is approximately 3.80 meters long and is now facing the Ahu Naunau in Anakena Bay.
The later statues that were of great size and weight, were finished completely in the quarry and only they were added hats during the process of erection and we suppose that later the eyes to be consecrated. This was probably not to have to carry so much superfluous weight, and therefore could not be transported in the same way as the previous ones, because its back is not flat and it forms a curve in the neck. From there are born different theories about the method in which they were transported. Some think that they did it standing, which I find unlikely given the fragile material and the rugged terrain and it seems to me logical that they would have used a similar system to the previous one, which demands that the statue once finished and standing in the Quarries would be attached to the front a structure that would act as a sled, so that later when leaning forward could be transported using a system similar to the previous. However, the method of transportation of the larger statues has not been tested in spite of the different experiments carried out.
Cristián Moreno Pakarati
Native Rapa Nui historian, recognized in the local and scientific community for his wealth of knowledge. Co-author of Cartografía y conflicto en Rapa Nui: 1888 – 2014 which holds the most complete collection of Easter Island maps ever compiled, and More Manava, about the hardships of the rapa nui people during the rule of Easter Island Exploitation Company. Books available at Puka Book Store.
Meaning of the rongo-rongo tablets
The biggest mystery that exists is that of the rongo-rongo tablets. This is the only writted material from the ancient rapa nui culture. It’s not only that we don’t know how to read them – we don’t even know what they are about. Is it a religious chant? Are they payers to the gods, to the spirits? Were they prayers to wake up the moai, the spirits of the ancestors? Or were they simply chronicles, or genealogies? I think they have some religious meaning, that there is something spiritual about them, but what exactly, there’s no way of knowing.
Why were the pukao only made in Puna Pau?
I think a big mystery is why all of the pukao were made in Puna Pau. Some are going to say that it was because of the material, because there was red scoria there. But there is also red scoria in Haŋa Hemū, in Puku Ŋā’aha-‘aha and in Ovahe. Why were these sites not used as quarries? No big amounts of tools have been found in these areas, as in Puna Pau. Take the people of Anakena for example, wouldn’t it have been easier to go to Ovahe and make their pukao there? They preferred to go 10 times further to Puna Pau. There must have been a reason for this. Maybe Puna Pau had been a special place for some spiritual reason. Or simply because the color of the rock is more intensely red. The one in Haŋa Hemū is more violet. The one of Ovahe is more brown. The one of Puku Ŋā’aha-‘aha is darker and more opaque. Maybe it’s because of the red color, which is an unusual color of the island, that visually stands out. That may be the reason, but we don’t know for sure.
How frequent was the contact between Rapa Nui and other places?
I think this one can be resolved through archaeological work, but we’d need someone who is not only a specialist on Rapa Nui, but also in East Polynesia. How often did a catamaran, or a fleet arrive? Did it come a couple of times per month? Did it come a couple of times per year? Or a few times in a decade? It is clear that it did happen, since there is a lot of cultural influence, linguistic changes and introduction of plants that weren’t brought here with the first settlers. The sweet potato and the calabash came much later. Maybe this island was a place for resting and provisioning to continue traveling towards South America. That is another one of the most important mysteries that’s left.
Sergio Rapu Haoa
Native rapa nui archaeologist Sergio Rapu was the island’s first native governor and was in charge of restoring Ahu Nau-Nau at Anakena. Owner of Easter Island hotel Hotel Tupa.
The rongo-rongo tablets
Can we solve the rongo-rongo riddle? No one can, without finding another Rosetta Stone. If the rongo-rongo would have been deciphered, we would be able to know much more than what we know today.
The origin of the rapa nui people
We know that the origin is Polynesian, but we don’t know the specifics. It is still in speculation, and we don’t have a clear answer. Did we come from Mangareva? Or somewhere else? Some islands are more probable as an origin than others, but from which exact island we came is unknown.
Why were so many moai built?
Why did they build so many statues as they did? What did they gain by having so many? It’s not remembered in oral tradition, and scientists will probably not be able to find out the answer, so it’s still a mystery. I don’t know why. If I would have known, it wouldn’t have been a mystery anymore!
Swedish archaeologist, with a focus on osteology and Pacific studies. She organized the international Easter Island conference in 2007. In 1987 she was first in identifying ancient Rapa Nui rat bones to be those of the Pacific rat, further connecting Rapa Nui to the rest of Polynesia.
The crematories – what was their true purpose?
The crematories are part of the ahu structure, but there has been very little research on the dating and meaning of the activity and process of cremating human bones. It has been assumed that it has to do with cannibalism but this is not at all certain. Since I’m also an osteologist and specialise on cremated bones, we have done initial studies from our excavations in La Perouse in the mid-1990s. The custom of cremating human bones is alien to Polynesian societies.
Dating of colonisation
The dating of the human occupation of Rapa Nui is now squeezed down to a very short time span. The dating is important since this is entangled with discussion of migration processes in the central and east Polynesia and it needs more research.
The introduction of the sweet potato
It is probable that the sweet potato was not brought to Rapa Nui by the first settlers. Through DNA analysis, it has now been proven that the sweet potatoto is a South American plant that originated from southern Ecuador. This has implications of the South American contact. But who brought this plant, and when? Solving this riddle would answer many questions about prehistoric polynesian travel.
José Miguel Ramírez Aliaga
Chilean archaeologist credited with the important discovery of finding a Polynesian skeleton in the south of Chile, as well as a chicken that perfectly matches the DNA of the chickens that were brought to Rapa Nui with the first settlers. Read more about his investigacions at ResearchGate.
Where were the first colonizers from?
Among the great questions about Rapanui Culture, there is considerable agreement on its Polynesian origin. So far, no evidence has been found of scouts or less of American colonizers in Polynesia. The presence of a South American culture such as sweetpotato in Mangaia, Cook Islands, a thousand years ago, can only be explained – up to now – as an import made by Polynesian navigators who arrived in America and returned with the sweet potato, pumpkin, and probably other cultural features. The origin of the sweet potato is linked with Ecuador, due to the similarity between the word Caumari from the Cañari of the Gulf of Guayaquil and the Polynesian versions (kumá, kumara …). So far, there is no evidence of polynesian on the coasts of Ecuador or Peru, but we find them on the coasts of Arauco and Isla Mocha in southern Chile (prehispanic hen with polynesian hen’s DNA and human skeletons with polynesian traits ). Some of these elements appear in contexts of the Early Potters Period, which ends in southern central Chile about a thousand years ago.
At that time, there seems to have been an explosive movement of explorers in the Southeastern Pacific, which could lead some explorers to Rapa Nui and, more easily, to the shores of southern Chile. These explorers were able to leave from dozens of islands, but the traces of those who arrived until Rapa Nui can be through the Marquesas, Mangareva and Pitcairn.
When was Rapa Nui colonized?
Finding Rapa Nui (Te Pito or te Kainga, according to the manuscript with the traditions of Pua Arahoa) must have been very difficult, because it is at the axis of the turning of the currents in the Southeast Pacific, 2000 km from Pitcairn, and is A tiny island. They were able to pass many times, but those who arrived had to go home to look for the others, and to move all the plants and pets they would need for subsistence. There was no food on the earth, apart from the small coquitos of a palm similar to the Chilean palm.
On the new island there was a forest with important tree species, such as the toi, with powerful trunks that would serve to make boats and move moai, but the image of a forest formed almost exclusively by palm trees has spread. That is an absurd image, but the fundamental fact is that in Rapa Nui there were no plants and crops needed to sustain a complex society based on the redistribution of agricultural surpluses, especially tubers such as sweet potatoes.
If they had not been able to plant and grow tubers, it would have been the same as in the Chatham Islands. The Maori who settled there adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life, without the political or ideological expressions of the original society, nor their monumental expressions.
Where are the traces from the first colonizers?
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Dale F. Simpson Jr.
Geologist and archaeologist, currently working on mapping the ancient trade patterns and land control by finding out the origin of artifacts found all over Rapa Nui. Respected for his habit of sharing results of his investigations with the local community.
The meaning of the rongo-rongo writings
Honestly, I think understanding the meaning, context, authenticity and age of rongorongo are some of the last mysteries relating to the Rapanui culture. My question has always been: was rongorongo the result of a complex socio-political culture reaching the level of other pre-contact cultures that endemically invented proto-writing and/or writing (think Egyptian, Mayan, and Indus Valley)? Or, is rongorongo the product from the Spanish influence and the writing, and needed signatures found on their 1770 “treaty”? Also, were there multiple dialects of rongorongo depending on who was writing and/or reading the chanting tablets? As noted on petroglyph and pictogram panels throughout Polynesia, along with “inscriptions” on banana leaves in Hawaii with similar symbols and perhaps meanings, it is completely plausible that the ancient Rapanui created the first written proto-language and/or written language in the Pacific. For example, oral traditions mention that Hotu Matu’a (island’s first chief) came with 67 rongorongo tables in the first canoes suggesting that writing was carried out by the elite and brought to the island before the island’s great cultural emergence. Here, I tend to believe that rongorongo was an indigenous creation and the very socio-politically complex prehistoric Rapanui culture had all of the cultural elements (i.e. social hierarchy, complex economies and ideologies, monumental works, division of labour, and elite resource control) that precluded proto-writing and/or writing in other ancient cultures. Sadly, we still do not know the true meaning(s) of rongorongo, and it is possible that we will never know the fabled script’s origin; a true mystery.
When was Rapa Nui settled?
Very much a Polynesian archaeological conundrum. Debate exists been the long- and short-chronologists who study the island and Polynesia in general. Depending on which archaeological camp, there are those who believe the island was colonized between 800-1000A.D., compared to another school of thought that puts forward 1200A.D.
Was there continued contact with eastern Polynesia?
The other question is, did Rapa Nui have regular interisland contact with its mother colony, the interaction sphere of Mangareva, Henderson and Pitcairn? This is a truly an interesting question. Here, the oral tradition provides limited clues that demonstrate that there were return voyages to Hiva as the mythical homeland was sinking into the ocean. But, the oral tradition does say there were people already on Rapa Nui before Hotu Matu’a, suggesting multiple trips were made to the island. However, while the Polynesians were arguably some of the best ocean navigators humanity has seen, Rapa Nui is a very low and hard target to navigate to.
Was there a collapse at all?
By far the most important of questions as the road to deforestation and its social feedback on Rapa Nui is a fascinating and a possibly important parable; one with symbolic implications for how the rest of the world views environmental change and human impact. Again, researchers have put themselves in two camps. One that uses mainly palaeoecological records (ancient seeds, pollen, and microfossils), ethnohistoric and ethnographic evidence to support the island’s collapse about 1500-1600A.D., before European contact in 1722A.D. Conversely, the non-collapse camp uses multiple records and questions individual tenets of the collapse model to show how this interpretation about the island’s (pre)history is scientifically and anthropologically invalid. For example, it is important to understand that past environmental change provides limited conclusions in regards to societal change, as societies have the ability to adapt. However, palaeoecological information derived from the island’s lake records (Rano Aroi, Rano Raraku, and Rano Kau) is well established and used as the main evidence to support the island’s proposed collapse. But, the limitations of palynological interpretation are well known and widely discussed in the scientific community. Thus, as the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.
Biggest Easter Island mysteries according to public opinion
What do you think are the biggest mysteries of Rapa Nui? Please vote below, and leave a comment on why!
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