Early Europeans explorers described Easter Island as a wasteland. With no trees and no shrubs, the isolated Pacific island was nothing more than a New York-sized chunk of grassland. But peppering this seemingly dead landscape were almost 1,000 moai: Huge monolithic human statues weighing up to 86 tons.
Without materials for making rope or lumber, visitors wondered, how could the early inhabitants of Easter have mounted these enormous sculptures into place? Gradually, scientists unearthed the chilling details underlying the Island's statue-obsession. Five hundred years ago, they found, Easter Island had been a tropical paradise hosting lush forests and as many as 20,000 residents.
According to author Jared Diamond, it was the monuments themselves that drove Easter Island to its present ruin [source: Diamond]. Caught in a moai-building frenzy, Easter Islanders stripped the island's forests bare for materials. Without proper habitat, birds went extinct. And without lumber for making canoes, Islanders could no longer hunt for porpoises -- one of their main sources of food. Inevitably, the once-thriving residents of Easter Island were forced to resort to cannibalism.
Scientists have a pretty good idea why Easter Islanders built the moai. They were status symbols, pure and simple: Easter's rival groups were locked in a fatal race to one-up their competitors. But what continues to amaze researchers is how Easter Islanders were seemingly powerless to stop the destruction of their own home.