Island Without Shade: Rapa Nui

Moai of Easter Island at the Hanga Roa, Tahai site. The distant moai is the only one on the island that sports eyes!

Easter Island is a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific, created by a series of massive volcanic eruptions that transpired under water. Easter Island is basically a big mass of dried lava located 27.1130° S, 109.3496° W covering up only a small space of 64 sqare miles. The island is home to 5,761 people (updated in 2012). The island is 1,289 miles from the nearest land, Pitcairn having only 50 residents. Easter Island is one of the most remote islands in the world, yet the island is well known today and has four commonly used names: the English version, “Easter Island,” the Polynesian name, “Rapa Nui,” its European/French rendition, “Île de Pâques,” and finally its Spanish title, “Isla de Pascua.” Easter Island boasts 70 volcanic cones and three principal craters. Terevaka is the tallest crater on the island at 11,674 feet tall. Rano Kau whose crater can be seen from space, and Rano Raraku are the other two volcanoes that help make the triangular shape of Easter Island.

Satellite view of Rapa Nui. Rano Kau crater is located at the southwestern point. Rano Raraku is located west of the northeastern point boasting a small lake.

The island that became ‘the island without shade’ was found around 800 CE when the first Polynesians arrived in their canoes. Seven centuries later, the island population grew to an estimated 15,000. Around the 11th century started a rampage of moai rock statue carving through the 17th century. These moais were 20-ton volcanic ash rock carvings erected to praise loved ones that had passed away: primarily chiefs and gods. With the erecting of these moais came the deforestation of the Island. How do we know there were trees? In 2006 a group of scientists arrived on Easter Island to examine and take samples in the crater lakes. The samples provided proof that the island was previously heavily forested, with a giant percentage of the trees being palm.

Bryce Rigney having ridden horseback to the highest point on the island, Terevaka, looking back on Hanga Roa…no trees!

Theories for the deforestation prompted the question: Where are the trees? One of the most believed theories for the deforestation of Easter Island was the chopping of trees for moving the giant moai statues. Each time the carvers went to move the 20-ton carvings they would chop down trees to roll and lower the moai’s into their designated areas. Under the increasing weight of the moai the tree logs would shatter and crush quicker, demanding more trees to be cut down. As the competition to build the biggest and best moais expanded, the population of trees diminished but the moai building didn’t stop. Not only was the carving of Moai involved in the destroying of trees, but another theory involved the huge rat/rodent population. Purposefully brought along by the Polynesians as a source of food, the wild rats dug down under the trees and crops to eat the roots, eventually killing the tree or crop. The rats also consumed any new palm growth, so there were no new growth trees.

Anakena Beach. These moai are the best preserved because they were buried in the sand for a couple centuries.

The third theory used mostly by the local islanders is a combination of drought and fire. With the help of a few Chilean scientists they were able to figure out that sometime during the time of the moai building and the rat explosion, there was a huge drought. This drought continued for more than five years and likely contributed to a huge fire, which raged through the remaining forests. So with the drought, the starving rats, the needy humans (wood and bark were used for fuel, tapa clothing, building houses and boats, wood statues, etc.), and the demanding giant moai statues, all the island’s trees completely disappeared. This left the aboriginal people trapped with nothing but the possibility of war to fight over the remaining resources (fishing grounds, water access and some agriculture) and cannibalism.

Dangerous cannibals….huh? No, Tapati dancers!

Without trees and solid crops, a peak population of 15,000 indigenous islanders started to diminish. The first noted contact with Europeans was when Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer who came upon the uncharted island on Easter Sunday, 1722, with several ships looking for Terra Australis. Their week-long anchor (only one day on land) hoping to obtain water and supplies of which there was little, undoubtedly impacted the islanders who suffered 12 dead from musket shots during a skirmish and later sickness due to close contact with diseased sailors. Likely because of the islands insignificance in natural resources, the next visitors didn’t come until 1770: a Spanish expedition from Peru arriving to claim the island for Spain. Not having forgotten the Dutch, the trapped islanders (no more trees to build boats) and clan chiefs cooperated by signing a written contract acceding to Spain. (The islanders had likely never seen written language before – it is speculated that seeing written language provided the inspiration for their own written language on wooden tablets: Rongo Rongo.) At this time, the Spanish reported finding the proud moai statues standing upright. After six days the fleet departed with a 21-cannon salute! Imagine the impression the sound made on a trapped population left to contend with disease caused by the sailors.

Representation of a Rongo Rongo tablet.

Incidentally, the Spanish never came again, but four years later, Captain James Cook, he and his crew very sick, arrived hoping to replenish the ship’s water and food supplies. “The British found the island to be in a noticeably worse condition than the Spanish had reported four years earlier, and it is likely that there had been heavy fighting on the island during that short period. Statues had been toppled, the islanders were in extremely poor health, and such were the lack of available supplies, that Cook set sail four days later;” Grant-Peterkin. Due to starvation, unrest and disease introduced by sailors, it seems that riots between clans escalated where moais were torn down (the last moai reported standing was in 1836). Cannibalism erupted; people started eating one another to survive. A brutal warrior, ‘might makes right’ type society developed, one of complete anarchy. At some point the population dropped to a low number of around 750 people.

Birdman stone slab paintings.

It is suggested as early as the end of the 1600’s and beginning of the 1700’s due to lack of resources and unrest well before the first Europeans, the beginnings of the Birdman competition/religion were underway. In the later part of the 1700’s and over the turn of the century into 1800, the savior of the few survivors was the adoption of the new Bird Man religion idealizing bird’s eggs and worshipping the God: Make Make. Each clan would choose a single man to represent them to compete for leadership of the year. The annual race was a 300-yard climb from the top of the vertical drop of volcano Rano Kau ridge to the bottom. Then it was a 3-kilometer swim to the furthest islet, Motu Nui (the breeding ground for the sooty tern bird).

The three little motus just off Orongo Village. The sooty terns inhabited the furthest, Motu nui.

From there the candidates would grab the first egg from one of the bird nests, swim and climb back up the ridge, struggling not to break the egg. The candidate who succeeded either designated the pre-selected leader of his clan as Birdman or became the next Birdman himself.On the ridge of the Rano Kau volcano at the Orongo Historial Village site, the houses built for competitors and supporters have been completely reconstructed. The houses are all made of giant slate slabs layered up to a height of about 6 or 7 feet. To be up there was really a great sight. My favorite was being able to see the three islets in the distance knowing that at one point on Rapa Nui the brave representatives swam across to capture an egg. During this period, the population grew back to about 3000 inhabitants. However, the Birdman religions’ demise was prompted by the Peruvian’s need for cheep labor. In 1862, the population regrowth of Rapa Nui was uprooted during a series of raids where up to 1,500 of the strongest and most knowledgeable (including clan chiefs and medicine men) were taken to work as slaves in Peruvian agriculture and mines. At some point, only 15 of those were returned to the island due to illness, once again introducing more disease: syphilis, smallpox, leprosy, etc.). The last recorded Bird Man race was in 1866. In 1867 the Catholic missionaries abolished the Birdman practices. Ten years later, in an 1877 census, the island population reported a low number of 111 people.

Birdman petroglyphs at Orongo Village.
Trent Rigney, Eric Rigney and Bryce Rigney all smiles near a faux Rapa Nui petroglyph just outside Orongo village..
Ahu Tongariki at Sunrise, Rapa Nui on February 2, 2017.

In 800 CE a group of about 700 Polynesians landed on a heavily forested island with palm trees, edible plants, and tons of seabirds and fish. Nine centuries later the same island was completely deforested, and covered with 1,032 carved moais. In May 1960 a Chilean earthquake measuring 9.5 hit and brought a series of three 70-foot waves that scoured the south side of the island destroying abandoned slate houses, jostling around the previously toppled moai statues and generally wreaking havoc with leftover Rapa Nui artifacts. After the tsunami the island was a seemingly un-repairable wreck. But with the help and interest of archeologists like Thor Heyerdahl, Japanese businessmen, the Chilean government, and ambitious locals, the island and its culture were pieced back together starting in the late 1950’s eventually making it the very popular tourist attraction it is today!



Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, 1st Edition, Hughes, Holly. 2006. Published by: Wiley Publishing, Inc. New Jersey USA.

  • Easter Island, Fieldstone, Sarah. Tazkai LLC,
  • Child of the Sea, Cornell, Dorna. 2012, Cornell Sailings, LTD, UK.
  • A Companion To Easter Island (Guide to Rapa Nui), Grant-Peterkin, James.


  • Explore Sacred Sites & Ancient Civilizations Explore Easter Island September, 14 2016, By: Jan
    Thor Heyerdahl (top right wearing all blue) excavation of an abandoned moai at the Rano Raraku quarry.

    by Bryce Rigney with Leslie Rigney

6 thoughts on “Island Without Shade: Rapa Nui”

  1. Bryce: this a most informative and well written article. Thanks for doing it. I also learned a lot about this beautiful island and it’s history. Papa

    1. The intention was for me to research and learn about the island as I wrote it. Btw I was forced to write it by parents, lol. Sorry it took so long to reply, Bryce

    1. Much thanks for the A! Can’t wait to return to Oak view, for a few more bounces on that trampoline. And maybe you could give me a ride in one of those fancy cars of yours.

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