South America

Easter Island / Rapa Nui

The island is volcanic in origin and one of the remotest places in the world that is inhabited and contains the statue quarry, bird man village and the richest rock art in the Pacific.  The archaeological record indicates one single development of culture from the first Polynesian settlers until the arrival of Europeans. Evidence indicates people from eastern Polynesia arrived in the early centuries of the Common Era and were trapped here. 

In 1955 an expedition led by Thor Heyerdahl performed the first stratigraphic excavations, obtained radiocarbon dates and also experimented in carving, moving and erecting statues. In the 1980s John Flenley analyzed pollen from sediments at the bottom of the freshwater lakes and discovered the island was originally covered by a rainforest.  When the colonists arrived on this island they began changing the landscape.

Using basalt picks the inhabitants carved more than 1,000 moai (statues), almost all of them from the soft volcanic tuff of Rano Raraku crater.  All were of a human figure with prominent nose and chin and elongated ears.  The bodies end at the abdomen with arms held tightly to the sides, hands in front.

In the final years of, prehistory the islanders stopped carving statues and the manufacture of spearheads and daggers of obsidian, a sharp volcanic glass, shattered a thousand years of peaceful coexistence.  Statues were toppled and their religion was abandoned. 

Their social system of ancestor worship was abandoned in favor of one featuring a warrior elite. An annual chief or “birdman” was chosen annually in a race. The rock art depicts the competition which ended with crowning a new birdman, sometimes holding an egg, symbolizing fertility.