Sunday, 12 October 2014

Easter Island

One of the most fascinating things about Easter Island, for me, is how the obsessive building of stone statues actually led to a society that was so unsustainable (they focused a disproportionate amount of their resources on them) that the native inhabitants of Easter Island were almost entirely wiped out.

Easter Island was, for most of its history, one of the most isolated, territories on earth. Its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, have endured famines, epidemics of disease and cannibalism, civil war, slave raids and have seen their population crash on more than one occasion.

The Austronesian Polynesians who first settled the island are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west, and arrived there as recently as 1200 CE. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian rats. It is suggested that the reason settlers sought an isolated island was because of high levels of Ciguatera fish poisoning in their then current surrounding area.

Some contact between the the culture of Easter Islanders and South Americans is shown by the dispersion of the sweet potato: this staple of the pre-contact Polynesian diet is of South American origin, and there is no evidence that its seed could spread by floating across the ocean. Either Polynesians traveled to South America and back, or South American balsa rafts drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats. Jacob Roggeveen's expedition of 1722 was the first-recorded European contact with the island. He reported "remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height" and described the islanders, saying they were "of all shades of colour, yellow, white and brown" and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could "hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear". Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were "generally large in stature". Islanders' tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm.

According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island's habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners. The last king, along with his family, died as a slave in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines. Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having only nominal authority.

Several foreign vessels approached Easter Island during the early 19th and 18th centuries, but the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information emerged before the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted and the slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.

Since being given Chilean citizenship in 1966, the Rapa Nui have re-embraced their ancient culture, or what could be reconstructed of it, but since 97% of the population were killed in a few decades, much of the culture and heritage has been lost.

Mataveri International Airport is the island's only airport. In the 1980s, its runway was lengthened by the U.S. space program to 3,318m so that it could serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. This enabled regular wide body jet services and a consequent increase of tourism on the island, coupled with migration of people from mainland Chile which threatens to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. Land disputes have created political tensions since the 1980s, with part of the native Rapa Nui opposed to private property and in favor of traditional communal property.

On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island the status of special territories of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island will continue to be governed as a province of the Valparaíso Region.