From the airplane window the ocean extends forever. Impossible blue of water blending seamlessly into impossible blue of sky. Clouds, vast systems, reacting to events half a world away.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it was originally known.
It just a tiny speck of an island, out in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The concept of "The Middle of Nowhere" is overused and the meaning has become dull. In order to sharpen up things a bit, I offer the following facts.  Acapulco lies about 3085 miles NNE across uninterrupted Pacific Ocean. The Chilean coast is about 2300 miles due east. The only thing between here and there is the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. And should anyone be tempted to take comfort in the neighborly presence of those islands, bear in mind that the main island in that group is Robinson Crusoe Island, a name synonymous with being lost. French Polynesia is a relatively close 1400 miles to the west.  Make no mistake, this 45 square mile patch of volcanic soil is remote. It is somehow refreshing to learn that one of the original Polynesian names for the island was Te Pito o te Henua, "The Navel of the World." The island itself is a roughly triangular affair, about 9 wide and 15 miles long. It was formed within the last million years by a trio of volcanoes. The most recent eruption took place about a hundred thousand years ago. (Though, alarmingly, in the early part of the 20th century, steam was photographed emerging from the crater wall of Rano Kau.) Now, the islands topography is defined by the calderas of these three extinct (ish) volcanoes. Rano Kau spectacularly occupies the southwest corner. The entire northern apex of the island is taken up with Terevaka, which also boasts the tallest point on the island at a lofty 1660 feet. The eastern terminus of the island is made up by Poike. There are other lesser volcanic craters, which contribute to both the topography and history of the island. There are also lava tubes and caves throughout the island. In short, it is quite volcanic.

Despite the remote location, a lot has happened here. Easter Island is probably most famous for the large carved stone heads, or "moai".  And in recent years, the Island has become synonymous with complete environmental and civilizational collapse.  The story in brief: (and bear in mind these are all "best guess" attempts at recreating the history of the island.)

Somewhere between A.D. 700 and 900 humans arrived, most likely coming from the Pitcairn or Mangareva Islands. Legend has it that Hotu Matu'a, the first settler and supreme chief of Easter Island arrived on the north side of the island with a colonizing party.  It boggles the mind that a concerted effort at colonization was made across some 1300 miles of open ocean.  And it was colonization, not just a happenstance discovery of an island by an errant fisherman. These first settlers arrived on the shores of a densely forested island. Palm trees 65 feet high, and mixed forests of 20 or so different species of trees. The island was also a haven for birds. In all likelihood, Easter Island before human intervention was the most abundant nesting ground in the whole Pacific. (And this large colony of birds is probably what drew early Polynesian explorers to this tiny patch of land, the birds foraging flights expanded the footprint of the island.)

Between the years 1000 and 1600, the Moai were carved and transported and raised on platforms. The average Moai is about 13 feet tall and weighs around 10 tons. All of the Moai were carved from the volcanic stone of Rano Raraku. This means that the Moai that ring the entire shoreline of the island were all transported there from Rano Raraku. Though the Moai themselves are the definitive icon of Easter Island, they are in fact just one part of a larger ceremonial platform. The platforms themselves, called Ahu, were a reliquary for the remains of up to 1000 humans; some cremated, most buried.  Up for debate is exactly what these bodies represent. Ancestors? Human sacrifice? There is also the topknot. Many Moai are festooned with a red cylindrical topknot, called pukao.  Interestingly, the pukao are all carved out of the same red volcanic rock that is sourced at Puna Pau, in the southwest part of the island.  The island was home to multiple clans, each clan controlling a pie shaped wedge of the island. Because Moai and Pukao, as well as the tools to carve them with all are sourced from different areas of the island, we can only assume that there existed a system of agreements between the various clans which allowed access to resources as well as transport of Moai across the various clans territory.

By the year 1500,  the island was completely deforested. Most food sources were gone. And what remained of a population that once engaged in large scale construction projects and boasted an elaborate society was reduced to starvation and cannibalism.

The Ahu were desecrated and the Moai toppled as a result of clan warfare.

They committed cultural suicide.

I knew the loose outline of this story before I arrived on the island, but I did not allow myself to think about it too much while I was there because it feels almost too tragic to contemplate. Once aware of this history, the whole island stands in mute testament to Mankind's ability to screw things up.  Over the years, as I have developed a personal theory of man's existence on this earth: Civilization is just a thin veneer laid over the very base nature of survival.  "Red in tooth and claw", right?

In the 1860s Peruvian slave traders raided the island and carted off about half of the remaining population, some 1500 people.  A dozen of these returned to the island after a Tahitian bishop protested and international pressure forced Peru to repatriate the survivors. They brought smallpox with them which wiped out even more of the population. Then in 1867 a missionary brought tuberculosis to the island. by 1870 there were only about 100 islanders left.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is probably this: They didn't know it was happening until it was far, far too late.

Copyright Estate of Anthony Vail Sloan 2009