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Easter Island - Faces of Mystery
Controversies
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Who were the Easter Islanders?

Old drawing, Easter island nativeEaster island nativeFor reasons still unknown they began carving giant statues out of volcanic rock. These monuments, known, as "moai" are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered. The people of Easter Island called themselves the Rapa Nui. Where did they come from and why did they disappear? Science has learned much about the enigma of Easter Island and has put to rest some of the more bizarre theories, but questions and controversies remain.

flat mother earth symbol, carved in woodDarwin pointed out how groups of animals living in remote places eventually take on unique characteristics and eventually turn them into distinct species. Such is the case with the people of Easter Island. As unique as a culture as they had become, the Rapa Nui left clues as to their origins in their language, art, and beliefs. Contemporary archeologists think it's an open and shut case - the first and only people ever to live on Easter Island were from an individual group of Polynesians that, once finding Easter, then had no contact with any other races.Until of course, that fateful day in 1722 when, on Easter Sunday, Dutch commander Jacob Roggeveen, became the first European to "discover" the island. What his crew witnessed and recorded once on the island has fueled speculation about the origins of the Rapa Nui ever since. Explore this site to get the latest information on the island's history and current research.

They reported a mixed race island with both dark skinned and light living together. Some were even described as having red hair and being sun-burnt looking! This does not fit well in the Polynesian only scenario and despite recent evidence that backs up a migration from another island in the South Pacific, archeologists still must argue the claims of the most well-known, but now, outcast archeologist/explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

Roggeveen's notes tell of the islanders being organized into several classes. The light skinned islanders wore large disks in extended earlobes. Their bodies were heavily tattooed and they worshipped the giant statues and performed ceremonies before them. How could light skinned people be living amongst Polynesians on such a remote island? According to Heyerdahl Easter Island was settled in stages over a period of years by at least two different cultures. One from Polynesia and the other from South America, possibly Peru, where mummies of red -headed individuals have been found along side those of black hair.

Heyerdahl also points to similarities between stone monuments in Bolivia that resemble the "kneeling" statue found on Rano Raraku. In Heyerdahl's view, the sea was alive thousands of years ago with large ocean going canoes that discovered and colonized islands far earlier than history suggests. He points to stories of an advanced Redheaded race in South America and currents that swept from Peru to Easter Island and his own famous trip in 1947 on a reed raft known as the Kon-Tiki expedition.

Contemporary archeologists will have none of it. They point to the long history of Polynesian settlement in the South Pacific and linguistic evidence that they say places origins most likely in the Marquesas or Pitcarn Island.

Thor Heyerdahl Kon KikiHeyerdahl, they say, dismisses Easter Island legends that speak of an origin from the west. Occording to them botanical and anthomorphic data collected clearly back up their view that the island was colonized only once from the west.

The attacks against his beliefs have been almost universal from the archeological community which will not even refer to Heyerdahl as an archeologist anymore. Heyerdahl has made it clear the feeling is mutual. Both sides in the debate accuse each other with making the evidence fit their own beliefs.

But there is a third origin story that as far fetched as it seems has scientific proof behind it. Around 1536 a Spanish ship, the San Lesmems was lost near Tahiti. Legends tell of the Basque survivors intermarrying with the Polynesians. Either they or their descendants set off from Tahiti to try and return home in the 1600's and were never seen again. Interestingly, genetic testing of pure blood Rapa Nui revealed the presence of Basque genes.

Could Easter Island have been settled by a lost crew of Polynesian and Spanish seafarers? Perhaps science will eventually give us a definitive answer on who the Rapa Nui were. Where ever they came from, the Rapa Nui were an amazing people. They built a highly organized and efficient society on a tiny island out of little or nothing and in the few short years it existed created an enigma that has puzzled the world ever since.


Next: How were the Moai moved?


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