Easter Island

A Short History of Human Migration

Posted Apr 01, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

                                      "…Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

--Shelley, Ozymandias

Late in the afternoon of 5 April 1722, a group of 3 ships caught sight of a flat hunk of volcanic rock in the South Pacific.  It was Easter Sunday, so Jacob Roggeveen, who commanded the fleet, called the rock Easter Island: Paasch Eiland, in Dutch, from the Hebrew for Passover, Pesach.  Nobody knows what the islanders called it.  Other visitors would come up with Te Pito-te-henua, or “The End of the World;” but the natives had given that name to one of 3 headlands, and to them it just meant “Land’s End.”  As far as the islanders were concerned, their island never had a name.  They had words for every rock and inlet, but no word for their home as a whole.  There was no other island, or continent, within sight or remote sailing distance; it was the whole earth to them.

But for the intrepid sailors who settled on that 48,000-acre triangle of rock, toward the end of the first millennium, it was the end of a long trek.  On the order of 100,000 years after the first Homo sapiens left Africa for Asia, around 40,000 years after they left Asia for Oceania, and a couple of thousand years after they got to Fiji and Samoa, they made landfall on Easter Island.  The soil was rich and the climate was mild; it was an earthly paradise.

Some people worked hard to improve it.  Over the next several centuries, ‘urumanu, or commoners, motivated by their ‘ariki mau, or supreme chief, planted and built.  They cultivated sugar cane and bananas in volcanic gardens; they terraced plantations for the cultivation of taro.  And they put up immense stone mausoleums.  All of 313 stone platforms, or ahu, circle the island; less than every kilometer, another ahu punctuates the coast.  And those platforms were towered over by any of 887 inventoried moai, the 9-plus meter, 80-plus metric ton stone statues of dead ancestors that stood with their backs to the sea.  Some moai were topped with red scoria pukaos, the cylindrical hats that added another 10 tons; some had some eye sockets filled with white corals and red scoria pupils. They terrified people.

So what made the first Polynesians come to Easter Island?   Maybe they were running away.  From Africa, to Asia, to the far corners of the Pacific Ocean, chiefs hoarded women and children.  And commoners worked to support them; or they struck out and found new lands.  Whoever their motivation, a handful of explorers finally found Easter Island.  To get there, they had to sail into the wind, and against the current: nobody made it by accident.  Hotu Matu’a, who was remembered as the first settler, brought along his sons and women and plants: his name translates as “Great Parent.”

So what made the islanders stay?  Maybe there was no way to leave.  On whoever's orders, in the century before Jacob Roggeveen paid a visit, the last bit of forest on Easter Island was cut; and the last seaworthy vessels were built.  The islanders were stuck.  And the ecological side effects were enormous: soils eroded and crops failed; statues were toppled over, and their necks were cracked.  By the time James Cook stopped by for food and water in 1774, nothing was left of a great civilization but a few thousand survivors, some old legends, and heaps of old broken stones.  As the captain put it in his journal:  “We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures."

Other refugees had better luck.  People once farmed for the Pharaohs, or "Great Householders" of Egypt.  "The land became Pharaoh's; and as for the people, he made slaves of them" (Genesis 47:20-21).  They built Pharaohs'  enormous mausoleums, the pyramids of Saqqara and Giza.  "They say to us, 'Make bricks!'  And behold, your servants are beaten" (Exodus 5:16).  Pharaohs' agents scoured the countryside for women.  "And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh.  And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house" (Genesis 12:15).  But as another old legend goes, some of those slaves got away, to a land flowing with milk and honey.  For 40 years, Moses led the Israelites across the desert, to the land they were promised.  Where they left lots of descendants.


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Diamond, Jared.  2005.  Collapse.  New York: Viking Penguin.

Métraux, Alfred.  1957.  Easter Island, translated by M. Bullock.  New York: Oxford University Press.