How Easter Island Works

Easter Island's Collapse

Moai were toppled, decapitated & tortured by angry Rapanui.
Moai were toppled, decapitated & tortured by angry Rapanui.

In the 1600s, Easter Island was at the height of its civilization. Moai production was at an all-time high. From 1400 to 1600 A.D., 887 moai were produced. Of those, only 288 made it to their ahu, while the rest remained in the volcano or were left in limbo between Rano Raraku and their ahu [source: NOVA]. Some of these moai were too unwieldy to handle -- "El Gigante," the largest moai at 71.93 feet (21.6 meters) and 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons) -- never made it out of the pit. Archaeological evidence suggests that fiercely competitive artists would abandon their work on a moai if it became flawed.

This careless use of resources was the primary contributor to Easter Island's collapse. The Rapanui were so intent on their projects that they underestimated the extent of their resources. Trees were cleared to make pathways for moai transport, which required a number of logs for rolling. Furthermore, the Rapanui cultivated wide expanses of land for harvesting crops and felled even more trees to build deep-sea fishing canoes. What was once an untouched, verdant paradise became a treeless wasteland.

Without the protection of sturdy trees and their roots, rain washed away topsoil. The land began to erode. Crops couldn't grow in these conditions. And now, there were even more Rapanui to sustain: Population peaked at 10,000. There was no hope for the Rapanui -- they didn't even have wood to build canoes to escape the island.

They turned against the moai. Whether they blamed their ancestral deities for cursing their civilization or realized that over-development had been their demise, the Rapanui forsook the statues. They gouged out their eyes and toppled them. Some moai were decapitated: Rapanui arranged rocks where the neck of the moai landed to sever the huge heads from their bodies.

The Rapanui also turned against each other. The ariki mau, head chief, had long governed the island, but now the Rapanui split into factions that fought for proprietary rights to still-fertile land. These factions were led by matato'a -- warrior leaders. Archaeological evidence shows that the spears and daggers, or mata'a, o­n the island were crafted during this dark hour. Others, defeated, crept into caves, where they spent the rest of their days.


A race to capture the sooty tern's egg determined the Birdman for the next 12 moons. A race to capture the sooty tern's egg determined the Birdman for the next 12 moons.
A race to capture the sooty tern's egg determined the Birdman for the next 12 moons.
Anastasia Ryapolova/

Still others turned to a new god for help: Makemake. They formed the Birdman Cult, which elected a Birdman as their leader for 12 moons [source: Fischer]. The Birdman, whom islanders believed was Makemake reincarnated, was chosen through a competition to find the first egg of the sooty tern. Competitors would race to the highest cliffs to procure the treasure. The title of Birdman ensured food for the cult leader's tribesmen. This was a contest no one wanted to lose: defeated competitors were expected to stab themselves repeatedly with spears.

When it seemed that things couldn't get any worse on Easter Island, new voyagers landed on its shores. Next, we'll learn what changes they made.