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 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!
Before the advent of science, many cultures had legends and rituals to explain the inexplicable. But just because there are concrete scientific explanations for many ancient beliefs, that doesn’t mean that there still aren’t mysteries to be solved.
The First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the Heiltsuk people have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists have dismissed their claim of ownership for one glaring reason…
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
kris krüg / Flickr