You might recognize Easter Island as home to all those large, carved stone heads. Maybe you’re even familiar with some of the mystery that surrounds the island itself. Historians have held on to the belief that we know a thing or two about the puzzling past of this place, until recently when we dug a little deeper.

New archaeological research has unearthed some important clues that challenge long-held beliefs about the strange and inexplicable ancient society of Easter Island. What they’ve found suggests that this little island has a far more complex and sophisticated history than anyone imagined…

Easter Island is located 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile with its closest “populated” neighbor being the Pitcairn Islands (home to a mere 50 residents) another 1,200 miles away. Despite its dramatic isolation, Easter Island stands out for far more peculiar reasons.

Heads UP! If you didn’t already know, Easter Island is home to nearly 1,000 statues that flaunt unique craftsmanship unlike anything else in the world. All of the sculptures here are monolithic, meaning they were carved out of a single giant piece of stone.

These stone heads, which are really the face of Easter Island, were long thought to be just that… heads. But digging down a little deeper recently revealed that these old hard heads are much more than just pretty faces.

The island, known in the local language as Rapa Nui, was originally settled by seafaring Polynesians, an ancient people from a subregion of Oceania. According to oral tradition, the early settlers arrived by two canoes led by Hotu Matu’a — the island’s first chief.

Though humble in numbers at first, Rapa Nui’s population quickly escalated to thousands, as we can see by their indelible and prolific cultural facade. The Rapa Nui were obviously getting busy, and not just carving rock. But hey, more people, more giant stone faces?

The iconic sculpted heads, known as moai, are scattered across the island. These moai are relics honoring Rapa Nui ancestors in what is presumed to have been a very spiritual society. Drawings and glyphs were made to honor nature, animals, and the spirits of those who have passed on.

For years historians believed that the people of Easter Island who created these incredible sculptures we ogle at today, had a dark and dramatic end. How could a civilization with such a level of artistry and sophistication just disappear? Without any neighbors, where would they even go?

Evidence led us to believe that the ancient residents depleted natural resources through deforestation and an overwhelming population growth, to the point that incited desperation and civil violence. There was even some serious talk of alien intervention. 

With thousands of residents and massive heads, only a handful of loose theories attempting to explain what happened to the Rapa Nui people existed. What actually became of these ancient denizens remained uncertain… until one group of archaeologists decided to get to the bottom of it, once and for all. 

The Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) was founded in 1982 by archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who then received help from co-director Cristián Arévalo Pakarati in 2000. These two now represent the longest continual international scientific collaboration in Rapa Nui history! 

The EISP originally formed with the goal to map and archive the island’s sculptures. Of course, preservation has always been a big part of the project’s mission, but it wasn’t until 2017 that their work began to expose groundbreaking evidence…

Tilburg and her team were granted permission to excavate around the moai, revealing giant bodies to match those big ol’ heads — some standing as tall as 70 feet! After all these years imagine discovering that the heads we all know and love were really just the tip of the iceberg.

The stone bodies that the archaeologists revealed host detailed carvings that give insight into the lives of the early Rapa Nui. The carvings that historians have identified represent astrology, religious symbols, and names of artists and ancestors.

Along with the discovery of the full-figured moai, the team also dug up the instruments that created them. About 1,600 tools made of basalt and a dark volcanic rock were recovered from the excavating performed by the EISP. 

The discovery of these pieces promised to reveal new information about the Rapa Nui’s mysterious past. With all of the hundreds of tools recovered, the team must have wondered if maybe these ancient people really did meet their end in a massive war. 

The analysis done on 17 of the recovered tools, known colloquially as toki, revealed that all of the stone used to fashion these instruments were endemic to the same quarry on the island. One quarry with a monopoly on basalt, what could that mean?

This particular quarry, which is one of three on Rapa Nui, clearly held the optimal basalt for the toki. The ubiquity of this material in all of the tools dug up and tested by the EISP team delivered some rock-hard evidence to historians.

For instance, if the Rapa Nui were all collecting raw materials from the same quarry to make their tools, this confirms that the society must be living and working in a peaceful and collaborative manner. If thou loves his neighbor, may he share-eth in the optimal tool-making material for creating stone in his own image? 

This further supports why they were so successful as a people and were able to create structures that still wow people today. This new idea contrasts with previously held beliefs about the early inhabitants dark past. But it still leaves us wondering, what did happen to the Rapa Nui?

It is now speculated that the arrival of early colonists and the convention of slavery obliterated the population. It’s difficult to know exactly what happened due to the island’s isolation, but archaeologists like Tilburg continue to study the clues left behind, slowly piecing together this ancient puzzle.

Today, a small population of Rapa Nui still live on Easter Island. They carry on a unique culture and strong sense of pride for their rich history. The mysterious area has also made another official name for itself…

On March 22nd, 1996, Rapa Nui National Park was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The National Park, which encompasses the majority of the island, secured its status due to its worldwide notoriety, and of course the iconic and mystical moai.

The work and dedication of people like Van Tilburg are resurrecting the secrets of a long lost world. But as history always serves as a great teacher, the realization of the Rapa Nui civilization is a reminder of what can be achieved when we unite and work together.

The EISP continues their work to preserve, map, and archive the moai of Easter Island. A progressive action to conserve, a mystery to debunk, and a site well worth seeing!

This huge new discovery on Easter Island proves that we really can’t take anything at face value. We all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and now we can also confidently say the heads of Easter Island weren’t built by feuding people who brought on their own demise…

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