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Easter Island

Easter Island

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in Pascuan, is the most isolated point on the globe. Chilean possession, this volcanic land lost in the middle of the immensity of the Pacific is similar to many others. However, it enjoys world renown because of the many mysteries that surround it.

Easter Island is located 2,000 km from the first inhabited land (Pitcairn Island) and thousands of miles from the South American coast. For millennia, the world did not know about this isolated island in the middle of the Pacific. In 1687, an English buccaneer, Edward David, spotted an unknown sandy island as he circled the Galapagos Islands towards Cape Horn. The first European to set foot on its soil - on Easter Day 1722 - is Dutch Admiral Jakob Roggeveen, who has set out on a search for Terra Australis under the mandate of the Dutch West India Company. There is a surprising discovery: the island is inhabited by a socially organized community, but, above all, impressive statues are erected on its contours - mostly still standing. Fifty years later, Spanish sailors of Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo take possession of the island, which they call "San Carlos" in 1770. In 1774, the English explorer James Cook and then the Count of La Perouse in 1786 while traveling the world stopped there to admire the "moai", these gigantic gods of stone grouped into ceremonial sites, the "ahu". Westerners are gradually taking the measure of the remarkable heritage of the island, concentrated on several sites: Rano Raraku, main moai quarry located in a volcanic crater, where were shaped nearly 90% of the 887 moai recorded on the island - 397 of them are still there; Ahu Nau Nau Anakena, the best known, restored in the 1980s by the Pascuan archaeologists; the ahu of Tongariki, the largest of all, has 15 statues of the best bill; and Tahai, a ceremonial complex overlooking the sea west of the island, which has become famous for its spectacular sunsets.

Guardians of the earth

The moai are the representations of illustrious, noble or sovereign ancestors charged with watching over their clan after their death and protecting their people against the outside world. Most statues are erected on the coast. Their eyes are turned towards the earth, thus turning their backs to the sea. The dating methods applied to the charcoal found on the ahu made it possible to evaluate that the first ahu without statues date from around 1100 and that the last moai were built around 1600. The oldest monoliths are of human size; then, they take a bigger stature. The largest moai, found lying in the career of Rano Raraku, measures 21.6 m. It is unclear whether this room was made to be erected. The largest moai ever erected is the Te Paro, which is found on the Ahu Te Pito Kura: it measures 9.8 m without its "pukao" for a weight of 74 tons. The smallest, located near the Poike volcano, measures 1,13 m. The heaviest, present in Tongariki, weighs nearly 88 tons. Some of them wear a kind of imposing headdress weighing several tons, the "pukao", made of red tuff extracted and worked in the quarry of Puna Pau, south of the island. After edification, the moai was probably decked out of its orbits. Thus, in 1979, two scientists, Sonia Haoa and Sergio Rapu, discovered at the foot of an ahu a complete eye of moai, consisting of a half-globe of white coral and an iris in red volcanic tuff. In the course of the eighteenth century, statuary crafts declined. Only small moai, very rustic, are still produced for a few decades, before a new cult, celebrated by "petroglyphs" - reliefs engraved in stone - is not necessary: ​​that of the "man-dolphin".

The origins of the stand

The fascination of Westerners for Easter Island is due to the innumerable mysteries it contains. The first concerns the transport and construction of monoliths: the distance separating the quarries from the locations of the statues makes historians perplexed. A full-scale test under the patronage of archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl showed that a team of 50 to 70 people was able to pull the sled on logs, moving a moai of about 12 tons over a distance of 14 km in less than a week. Referring to traditional stories about "walking statues", researchers have shown that moai can be transported vertically using stabilizing ropes. The hypothesis of a voyage by sea has not yet been the subject of any experimentation. The other mystery that challenges the first explorers is the origin of the Easter Islanders. In 1947, the Kon Tiki experiment, conducted by Heyerdahl, links Peru to the Tuamotu archipelago and proves the possibility of such a raft crossing, calling into question the hypothesis of an exclusively Polynesian settlement. Since then, the DNA analyzes of the current populations have revealed their Polynesian, Marquesan, probably Mangarevan (from the current Gambier archipelago) and Native American ancestry, but not only ... Results reveal that some Easter Islanders carry a singular gene characteristic of Basque populations. This new element led to an original hypothesis: in 1526, the San Lesmes caravel, part of the Magellan expedition, would have lost the rest of the squadron during a storm. There is reason to believe that the sailors of the San Lesmes, some of whom were of Basque origin, had landed on Easter Island and settled there, leaving their descendants with a genetic marker.

The ancient South American heritage

Links with South American civilizations concentrate the bulk of the historical debate. The stone statues of the island seem to have been inspired by the monoliths of ancient Tiahuanaco, Bolivia, and San Agustin, Colombia. The stone walls of Ahu Vinapu, in the south of the island, would have similarities with the great walls of Cuzco, capital of the Incas, and with the funerary towers called "chullpas" of the Andean plateau. The mysterious "Moko" wooden statuettes resemble the cuy, a typical Andean guinea pig breed. The Incaque presence is believed to be a result of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui's maritime expedition in the 15th century. Heyerdahl supposes a stand in two stages. The "short ears" ("Hanau Momoko" according to pascuane oral tradition) came from Polynesia in the 6th century. The "long ears" ("Hanau Eepe"), of American origin, settle later on the island. According to legend, they erect the Moai and Ahu and enslave the "short ears". A bloody revolt would have put an end to their domination and interrupted forever the construction of the statues. But an even greater mystery covers the central piece of pascuane culture: the "rongorongo", a hieroglyphic writing not yet deciphered, discovered in 1770 by the Spaniards. These series of complex symbols engraved on wooden tablets are very close to the Polynesian genealogical hymns. The "Mamari" tablet also contains two lines that could correspond to a Maori-style lunar calendar. The mystery persists over the meaning of the symbols despite the computer power available to decrypt them. We have nevertheless identified 14,000 hieroglyphic symbols, including 600 basic signs spread across 28 tablets.

A society facing its ecosystem

The largest and most refined moai are being built when everything stops abruptly in the seventeenth century. The ahu are abandoned, and the statues reversed. The pascuans then seem to abandon the cult of the ancestors to concentrate on their intestine wars. Recent studies consider that a series of earthquakes could also be at the origin of this upheaval or have accompanied it. Unusually cold weather or drought over a few decades may have pushed the islanders to invoke the clemency of the gods, which would explain the frenzy of moai constructions shortly before the events. Resource management, an omnipresent parameter in the history of the island, must also be taken into account. In several centuries of presence, natives have destroyed their environment, starting with the trees that once covered the entire surface of the island. As proof, while the pascuane funerary tradition favors cremation - and therefore requires fuel - funerary caves in which hundreds of bodies pile up appear. A new island cult reveres bearded humanoid creatures, the "dolphin-men", carved on stones from the Orongo site. Anakena Square also bears the remains of a real dolphin cemetery. From this came a reflection: the rarefaction of the animal, due to hunting, would have had such an impact on the environment that the Pascuans would have decided to worship him. More generally, would Easter Island have lived what the world is currently living? Proponents of this theory believe that a rise in population coupled with a decrease in resources and an increase in inequality is at the root of the violence and destruction.