How Easter Island Works

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, I think that if I could go any place in the world, it would be Easter Island.

Jane McGrath: Really? It's a beautiful place.

Candace Gibson: Have you been?

Jane McGrath: I haven't. I've just seen pictures, but it looks beautiful.

Candace Gibson: I am obsessed with it, and I was looking up videos of Easter Island the other day and I stumbled upon this fabulous piece of information. And that is that Easter Island has its own marathon. And now I love running long distances.

Jane McGrath: Really?

Candace Gibson: I love half marathons and full marathons. And I'm very slow. I won't profess to be the first at the finish line, or even the 800th, but I don't think there'd be anything cooler than running around the moai of Easter of Island.

Jane McGrath: And it's not that big of an island, actually. I was looking at it. I saw that it was about 64 square miles. And that's about - just a point of reference - that's the size of Washington DC.

Candace Gibson: It is itty-bitty. And furthermore, it is in the middle of nowhere. I think its closest land neighbor - a big land neighbor as there's other islands somewhat close by - would be Chile. And that is about 2,299 miles away.

Jane McGrath: That's right. If you look at a globe, it looks like just a tiny little spec on the globe. And it's fascinating that people were able to find it as early as they did.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. Considering that these are the Polynesians who lived, probably, in South America. We're not quite sure where they came from and we're not quite sure why they left. Whether there was some sort of dispute that arose, or whether some go ambitious and wanted to start their own colony elsewhere. But because the Polynesians are such great sailors and navigators, they were able to make it to this island. We know that they sailed in wooden boats that were probably lashed together with reeds wrapped really tightly like ropes. And they were probably adrift in the ocean for about two weeks before they hit land, Easter Island.

Jane McGrath: And that was around 400 AD and so you can understand how archeological evidence can't really indicate what exactly motivated these people, because they ended up being isolated on this island for so long.

Candace Gibson: Furthermore, speaking of isolation, we're not sure how many went the first time. And when they arrived at Easter Island, we're not sure if they settled there because they picked it, they knew it existed and that was their final destination. Or if they were so desperate, they picked any land that they could've seen.

Jane McGrath: Regardless, they actually came very prepared for being ready to survive wherever they landed.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, they had a type of leafy green with them to grow. They had sweet potatoes -

Jane McGrath: One of my favorites.

Candace Gibson: - and bananas. Oh, I know. Who doesn't love a sweet potato? Gosh. I think they also had a couple of chickens. And again, when they pulled up to Easter Island, I can't imagine how they must have felt. Because parts of Easter Islands were just gorgeous, a very verdant paradise! I think that today, archeo logists suspect that there may have been at one time 16 million palm trees. Just an Eden in the middle of the ocean! But the part that they docked at was a less welcoming landscape. And that's the thing about Easter Island. As tiny as it is, this little triangle shaped island, it has very diverse landscapes. It has white sandy beaches and it has these very jagged and forbidden cliffs.

Jane McGrath: Sure. A volcano, so -

Candace Gibson: Volcanoes and palm trees. So who knows what they thought. But they set to task and they did pretty well. They cultivated the land they increased their population and they became a very sophisticated society.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and you can see how it was probably pretty hard at first, especially because they brought most of their sustenance with them, as we said. And what was actually on the island itself before they came there was not much. There were lizards, maybe, and insects. But they actually had to start from the ground up, mostly.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. They were able to dolphins and other types of fish in the waters, but it's important to know that Easter Island is not just remote as far as people go and animals, like you were saying. There aren't very many nutrients in the water, or there weren't at that time. So not much could be sustaine! So there were birds that would pass over, and some people think that's how it got to be such a verdant little paradise, is that the birds would bring seeds that they deposited and grew into a forest.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And this is actually a point of contention about how things go there. We're trying to figure out where the original people came from, and some historians claim, "Oh, these people came from Chile obviously. That's the closest land." But when European explorers eventually stumbled upon the island, a Polynesian on the ship was actually able to converse with the people there. And so they were obviously speaking a variation on Polynesian. So they think the people came from Polynesia.

Candace Gibson: And so we could tell you all about Easter Island all day, and if you don't know much about it you may be saying, "Okay, sure. So it's a tiny little island, things are green; people came from nowhere - great." But the really important thing about Easter Island is the moai. And ultimately the moai brought about the height of the civilization and then their very darkest hour. And the history of Easter Island, not just how they got there because that part is interesting in and of itself, but it gets so haunting. And it really gives me chills every time I think about it. These people had a very specific religion and culture, and their spirituality was manifested through art - storytelling, string figures, and sculpture. And when they got to Easter Island, the volcanoes and the quarries had all of this ash that was perfect for making sculpture. So they made these giant heads. And they're very stylized looking. If you've never seen a picture of them, I would encourage you to look up the Easter Island moai immediately.

Jane McGrath: And this is what people usually associated with Easter Island, is these huge heads.

Candace Gibson: These huge heads.

Jane McGrath: And what I found interesting is they're actually found other places. Other cultures did have something like this, but it was the Easter Islanders who actually had the most sophisticated, the biggest, and the most incredible ones.

Candace Gibson: Well, and you have to wonder, too. I think they might have gotten bored and there was a sense of competitiveness among them. Because they would build these giant heads - and just to give you guys an idea, average wise they could weigh up to 82 tons and stand up to 32 feet high. They were huge. They were just giant heads. They didn't have necks, but they had these really long earlobes. And they were very stylized in their features, with their long noses. And their eyes were sometimes ornamented with coral or obsidian. But they look very phallic. And perhaps archeologists say that's because the population was always struggling to reproduce.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. They were obsessed with fertility gods, I believe.

Candace Gibson: They were. So they could be phallic in homage to fertility gods. And speaking of which, because the population was so challenged, they had to inbreed and so, even to this day, you'll find some Easter Islanders who have six toes on each foot. Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's very interesting. I guess it also stems from the fact that they had a class system, even within this tiny island. Their population had classes, like an upper class and a working class sort of thing. And I imagine that contributed to separating how people bred.

Candace Gibson: I think so. And when it came to the moai, this was such a manifestation of honor and spirituality. I think everyone was a participant no matter the class. I don't know that for a fact, but I assume that people would come together. And there was a very specific process with creating the moai. The artist would start in the quarry and start putting the rock together and carving it down and chiseling it. And essentially it would be on a little block by the time they finished carving it. And they would create these deep rivets alongside the blocks. So finally, there was a tiny little sliver of stone that connected the head to the quarry. And this was the keel. And once they could sever the keel, they would lay the head on a series of logs. And archeologists are in dispute about how they transported these heavy monoliths.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and it's sort of like the Stonehenge of Easter Island, because historians are boggled by the fact, "How could these people have the technology and the ingenuity to move these humongous structures." That's a huge feat.

Candace Gibson: It is. And people imagine that about 70 men got together and pulled them with ropes fashioned from parts of trees, or else they laid them on a series of logs. Two layers of logs laid perpendicular to each other, they'd grease them with palm oil and they'd roll them on a platform. And I imagine this was such a painstaking process. I think that it could take up to two weeks to move the moai.

Jane McGrath: It must've been important to them.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. It was very important to them because they put such labor into it. And their final resting spot were on ahu, or platforms. And the Moai faced inland, toward the island. It was obviously meant to watch over the residents and protect them.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. So they put these around the perimeter, right? So all of these around the perimeter were looking inward? It's really interesting.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and we think over the course of 500 years, about 900 of them were carved. And you can see where the artists got competitive, because there were so many that were left unfinished in the quarry. And archeologists found them later on, ones that had a flaw, maybe, or ones that were broken - whether in transit or in construction - they were just abandoned completely.

Jane McGrath: So they were perfectionists, I imagine.

Candace Gibson: They were perfectionists. This was how they were expressing their devotion to the gods. And they got bigger over time, too. They started out more modest and then there was one that they called El Gigante. And it's so big, of course it was in the quarry. No one could possibly have moved it. But herein lies the problem with what they were doing.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, so if we go back to how they transported them, Candace suggested that they were using logs. And it must have taken a lot and obviously they made a lot of these moai. So they ended up cutting down a whole lot of trees. And this ended up being their huge flaw, their huge mistake.

Candace Gibson: You're right, because over time they had such an abundance of resources, I think they used it throwing caution to the wind. So they -

Jane McGrath: Today, we think of trees as the most renewable resource there is, but on that isolated island they must've just used up -

Candace Gibson: You're right, when you're living in isolation like that, when you use up your resources - no matter how renewable it is - if you're not getting any more seeds to plant and you're not cultivating the landscape, it's over. And that's what happened. Not only did they cut down all the trees, but they essentially caused all the topsoil on the island to wash away because the roots weren't there to hold it down. Furthermore, they were using the trees to make boats to go out and fish for dolphins and porpoises.

Jane McGrath: And this is especially sad to me, just that they couldn't make boats anymore. They couldn't fish because they couldn't make boats because they didn't have trees.

Candace Gibson: And what's worse than that, not only could they not fish, not only could they not grow crops - after they realized that they had destroyed their island and all the trees were gone, they didn't have anything left to make boats with to flee the island.

Jane McGrath: Exactly, yeah.

Candace Gibson: They were prisoners of their own making. And that's when things got really dark and really dangerous. People started starving. Some scholars posit that some may have resorted to cannibalism.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true. And this a point of contention because some historians, notably Jared Diamond, say that these islanders resorted to cannibalism after other food sources dwindled. And he points to how cannibalism is - the islanders' oral tradition is rife with cannibalism and talk of it. And there's a little bit of archeological evidence that human bones were found in these pits of garbage. These were the pits where they threw their food trash. And so people like Jared Diamond use this to say, "Oh, they must have resorted to cannibalism." Other historians are like, "Oh, no. There's not enough evidence to say that. And we shouldn't say that unless we're sure." And they say that maybe after people naturally died, there were rituals that people did with people's bones. We know that happened, too. So it's a point of contention.

Candace Gibson: So however you interpret these relics of bones, you can look at the things that are alongside them that date to around the same time, and you see that this is the first time on Easter Island that they've manufactured weapons like spears and arrows and things like this. So we know that there was strife.

Jane McGrath: They suffered from war between the tribes, right?

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And we know that when they came there were very few of them. Around 1150 AD the population was somewhere from 7,000-9,000. 1600s that was the height of the civilization. It was around 10,000 in population then. But then when things started declining and population started dwindling, we see that people broke off into different clans. And essentially, they were all fighting for the very tiny parcels of arable land that were left. And it was very difficult to stake a claim to this, because I think the Easter Islanders were respectful of their gods and respectful of women and children. Even the scholars who point to the fact that they may have resorted to cannibalism point out that women and children never watched this happen. I don't know if that means that men were the only ones who resorted to cannibalism, if they ate it in private away from women and children - but they were still trying to hold their civilization together. But it got harder and harder, and finally there was this cult that rose out of all this distress. And it was called the Birdm9an cult. And the premise was pretty simple. Be the first person to grab the egg from a sooty turn's nest and you're going to be the leader for 12 moons. And that may sound like a pretty simple feat, but the sooty turn's nests are in the highest cliffs on the island, so it would involve a swim, then a rock climb, and then a massive trek back to be the first person to have this egg. And if you lost this contest, it was all bets off because the losers were typically expected to stab themselves with spears. So the Birdman cult does sound pretty drastic, but through this there actually was a rebirth in arable land and cultivation of crops. I think the sweet potato reared its head again, so thank goodness for tubers.

Jane McGrath: And they were still struggling to an extent. And this is when Europeans actually started stumbling upon these people and they finally had contact and access to the outside world. But this ended up causing a lot of harm as well as good, because obviously Europeans come with their own diseases that they have become immune to. And so they exposed these diseases to the islanders at the time. So that hurt their population even more.

Candace Gibson: And I think that when the 19th century came around, the population had dwindled to only just a little over 100 - maybe 100 Easter Islanders. And not only did the Westerners bring their diseases, they also brought their religion and their ideas. And one of the reasons it's called Easter Island is because when it was first discovered by Europeans it was Easter Sunday.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting that throughout the 19th century, eventually Christian missionaries did come over and start converting the islanders - most of them, I guess. And they ended up sacrificing most of their culture, which is necessary when you sacrifice your religion.

Candace Gibson: Right. When the Christian missionaries came, the exchange for giving up their religion and culture - their storytelling and tattoos and everybody else - was that they learned how to use their land to be a ranch, essentially. So they had livestock and they were able to say, "Okay, so we have this treeless land now that's not good for much, but it is good for using as a ranch." And at this time, the Easter Islanders - I think, for the most part they were very wearied with their culture. And when things had gotten really dark they turned to the moai and they blamed them, blamed the gods, for what had befallen them. Whether they realized that it was their own over enthusiastic production of the sculptures that brought them down, they started knocking them down.

Jane McGrath: And like you said, we're not real sure why it happened. I remember reading one theory, that when the population split into different clans, one clan would destroy those statues because they believed those were the opposite clan's power. So there's all kinds of theories about this, but regardless it is interesting that they made such amazing feats and yet they ended up tearing it down.

Candace Gibson: They did. And you can see where they gouged out the eyes, the coral and obsidian eyes. And they would arrange really sharp stones under where the head would fall so that when they knocked it from the ahu, they head would sever. So they were in essence decapitating these gods. And it wasn't until archeologists came back and tried to restructure them that they were able to rehoist the moai. And I think today the Easter Islanders very much accept that as part of their culture. But another thing that they lost forever was their language, which was Rongorongo. And it actually came about from a very dirty trick that the Spanish pulled back in 1772. They came over and essentially tricked the tribal leader into signing a treaty that turned Easter Island over to Spanish control. So while that in itself was not diplomatic to any extent, it inspired the Easter Islanders to create their own system of writing. And so there are still tablets today with Rongorongo that exist. And I think Easter Islanders continue to carve these little symbols, but no one knows what it means. Because, again, part of giving up the culture to Christian missionaries was getting ranches established and getting their crops reestablished and essentially surviving. So they made that choice.

Jane McGrath: That's interesting that both the introduction of writing sort of hurt and helped them in a way. It's certainly a nasty trick to be like, "Hey, this is what writing is. Write anything on this line," and you're sacrificing your island unknowingly.

Candace Gibson: But it also brought about the fall of the Birdman cult, too, because the tribal leader was able to reassert his power through writing. So it's just such an interesting history, and the Easter Islanders are very proud of their history. I think that today there are maybe around 2,000 people on the island.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, their population has rebounded, thankfully.

Candace Gibson: They have. And they have, I think, joint citizenship with Chile so they can go back and forth. And if you want to go to Easter Island, I think you have to find to Chile first and then there are flights certain days of the week that go out to Easter Island.

Jane McGrath: And it's awesome that Easter Island has an airport now, so people can come and archeologists can study and tourists can find out the rich culture. It's pretty interesting. And Chile has control over it because the annexed it in 1888. We should probably mention that.

Candace Gibson: But the culture of Easter Island is still alive. The people are incredibly friendly. I think that people have written that, as they've traveled to Easter Island, if hotel rooms are booked, you can stay with any Easter Island family in their house and they'll happily welcome you. So it seems like such a great place to visit. I can't wait to go. Mark my words. 2010, if I'm not there, someone come shake me, please. So if you want to learn even more about Easter Island and other ancient civilizations, be sure to check out

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to