Rapa Nui, or Easter Island – one of the world's most isolated islands yet world famous and home to the iconic mysterious statues, or moai. A place where a civilization flourished and essentially flared out before “discovery” by Europeans, leaving behind some very unique monuments, and many unanswered questions. Today it is a rather quiet place and does indeed seem far removed from the rest of the world.
The general theory regarding the history of Rapa Nui is roughly this: settled by Polynesians around 400 to 800AD, the population rapidly expanded in isolation over the next several hundred years, peaking at over 20,000 (today the population is about 4000). Unfortunately, the island was not particularly well endowed with biodiversity, and was unable to support this increased population. This resource crisis led to internal strife and warfare. The stone monuments and statues, mostly erected between 1000 and 1400 AD, were destroyed during the upheaval. By the time of European arrival on Easter Sunday 1722, some of the statues were found to be lying on the ground. By the mid 1800's none were left standing. At this time the population was estimated to be 4,000. In subsequent years slave raids removed about 40 percent of these, and disease reduced the population to about 150, essentially erasing a great deal of the unique culture.
We spent the better part of two days touring around the island, and were lucky to have as our guide and host a man who had first come here in 1964 as an archeology student. He shared some great insights in to what they found at the time, and how in 45 short years many of the statues have eroded considerably. If some way cannot be found to protect these monuments, it will not be long before many are lost forever.
Luckily for today's visitors some restoration projects have been undertaken over the years and a number of the statues are now standing (perhaps not exactly in their original location, but they are standing). Even in their various states of deterioration they are massive and impressive. Imagining the amount of work to produce and move them (without beasts of burden or anything beyond the crudest stone tools) is mind boggling.
Perhaps the most interesting site is the quarry itself, where statues in all stages of completion can be seen. Many have been placed vertically in holes for finishing. The holes have filled in over time, giving the appearance that the massive heads are sprouting out of the ground, a literal statue garden.
Next, and final, stop: Tahiti!