A small remote volcanic island of 166 square kilometres in the south Pacific first colonized from Marquesas Island (Polynesia) about ad 800, followed by unbroken and mainly isolated development until the first European contact on Easter Day 1722 by the Dutch navigator Roggeveen. Pioneering excavations and surveys were undertaken in 1955 by the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl.
At the time of its initial colonization Easter Island was covered in a rich rainforest dominated by the Chilean wine palm, which began to be cleared for a subsistence economy focused on chickens, bananas, dryland taro, yam, ti, and sweet potato, all of which were introduced by the first settlers or soon after. Early types of ahu were built with small relatively crude statues on or in front of them. Between ad 1000 and 1500 considerable effort was devoted to the construction of more and bigger ceremonial platforms and the carving of hundreds of large stone statues known as moai in the volcanic tuff quarries of the Rano Raraku crater at the eastern end of the island. These moai, each weighing up to 82 tons, are thought to represent ancestor figures. More than 230 were taken from the quarry to platforms around the edge of the island, where they were set up singly or in groups of up to fifteen with their backs to the sea, watching over the villages and settlements. At the most important and prestigious platforms the moai were given eyes of white coral, and a separate pukao or top‐knot of red scoria was placed on the head. During the same period the island saw rapid deforestation, with the result that wood for engineering works, building canoes, and other day‐to‐day needs became extremely scarce. Soil erosion damaged much of the cultivated ground, and rats appear to have become a major pest.
Interest in the moai came to an abrupt end around ad 1500 with nearly 400 part‐made examples still in the quarry. During the following centuries obsidian spearheads and daggers were made in great numbers and there appears to have been widespread internecine conflict and competition for resources, as starvation led to raiding and perhaps even cannibalism. Statues were toppled and the tradition of ancestor worship was replaced by a religion featuring a warrior elite. A chief or ‘birdman’ was chosen each year at the ceremonial village of Orongo perched high on the cliff between the Rano Raraku crater and the ocean. Orongo has a rich rock‐art tradition that features numerous carvings of ‘birdmen’, sometimes holding a sooty‐tern egg, which symbolized fertility. This was the system noted by the first European contacts and which ended with the arrival of missionaries in the 1860s.
P. Bahn and J. Flenley, Easter Island: earth island. 1992, London: Thames & Hudson