On 27th April we visited Ana Te Pahu, one of Easter Island’s lava tubes, around the middle of the day. We were also here on the 25th and I was nearby on the 24th. It is also known as the “Banana Cave”. Ana means cave and Te is “the” and according to Wikipedia, Pahu is a Polynesian musical instrument, a kind of drum, used in Tahiti amongst other places, so probably the Rapanui name means Cave for playing the drum.
Google maps location (then zoom out to find the green arrow and zoom in again).
During the time of warfare after the end of the Classical period, many Rapanui took refuge in lava tubes. They fortified the entrances and in some cases removed stones from ahus and hare paenga (houses) for this purpose. The lava tubes were more than temporary places of refuge as demonstrated by items they left behind, including food traces and various implements. They also had some advantages for cultivating food, including wind protection and better collection and retention of water.
What do we learn from the early accounts of European visitors?
By somewhere between 1400 and 1600, the Rapanui had seriously eroded their ecological base. Most or all of the wood and birds were gone, as were the larger shellfish. Dolphin, once a plentiful food source, was no longer available and because there was little wood for canoes, they could also no longer fish for tuna. There was little firewood and they were reduced to burning grasses, sugarcane detritus and other farming byproducts. With few clothes, an average minimum of 15ºC in winter would have been chilly (and it might have been a little cooler then, due to the Little Ice Age).
Because resources were not evenly divided amongst the island, some areas would have been affected more than others. The north-west, in particular, had lost their fishing and had the poorest agricultural land. Areas around Tongariki and Vinapu still possessed the best rock for carving but this counted for less and less as time went on. The best agricultural land was in the South and West (though maybe also around Tongariki). Vinapu and Hanga Poukura, both at the Orongo end of the south coast, had the best three quarries for obsidian, used for sharp blades including spear heads, and this may have become increasingly important.
In the period of the decline of the Classical culture, there was famine and fighting became intense, with much evidence of obsidian spearheads. There was also a high incidence of charred and fractured human bones, often of juveniles, suggesting likely cannibalism.
It is often suggested that there was a revolution or a coup during this period and that the matato’a or warrior class cast down the ahus and moai and overthrew the ariki and the priests. This is much too dramatic and simplistic.
When Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most or all of the ahu and moai were still standing. Also, the traditional religion appeared to be intact and the ivi atua (priests) were still playing a prominent role.
When Gonzales arrived in 1770, there was still some veneration of the ahus but the Spanish observed no priests. Women appeared to call out Make Make as the Spanish priests passed them, which may indicate the increasing ascendancy of the new religion of Make Make. They also observed several people bearing the wounds of obsidian spearheads. Two small Spanish boats sailed round and mapped the island and they made few comments about moai and ahu, overturned or otherwise. However, moai were usually overturned forwards onto their faces, away from the sea, and overturned moai may not have been visible from the low viewpoint of a small boat, perhaps often kept some distance off the coast by rough seas.
When Cook arrived in 1774, he reported that there were no signs of veneration of the ahu. He also reported that a major ahu, probably Akahanga, had most of its moai overturned. Tongariki and Anakena must have been still standing though there were many places the British did not see. Cook also gave graphic details of the scarcity of good quality water and how compromised the Rapanui’s consumption of water must have been. The ground on Easter Island is porous so deforestation and erosion would have made the problems of water supply much worse. Access to good quality water would also have been unevenly divided amongst the tribes.
It appears, therefore, that the overthrowing of the ahus occurred after European contact. This suggests the following sequence of events:
Fierce competition for diminishing resources led to vicious warfare between the tribes. The traditional culture still continued. New ahu were still built for some time, sometimes incorporating old moai. Then after the Europeans arrived, the Rapanui started toppling their own moai. Why would that be?
Well, the ariki and ivi atua (chiefs and priests) had a direct line to the Gods or in the case of the ariki mau were actual immortal. They had a special compact with the people who went to extraordinary lengths to erect statues to the ancestors of individual ariki so that the ariki and ivi atua could intervene with the Gods and guarantee continuing success and prosperity. But now, the newcomers could strike men down with their fire spears, they came in ships made from unimaginable amount of wood and rope, they had clothes and hats and cloth far finer than paper mulberry bark, and they had lots of red feathers. (Cook at least knew the value of red feathers for trading in Eastern Polynesia). How could the ariki and ivi atua still claim to be bringers of prosperity with a direct line to the old Gods?
So if we accept that traditional Easter Island society was largely intact when the Europeans arrived, that makes it likely that the example of their fleeting visits tipped it over the edge. Of course in another sense, Easter Island society had already crashed before Roggeveen arrived and the population had already fallen by 50% or more from the peak of something like 10,000.
Roggeveen estimated the population of the island in 1722 at 3,000 (this from a letter by an Englishman living in Chile who talked to officers of the returning ships, also later reported in an English newspaper). Gonzalez also estimated the population at 3,000. (There was another estimate of around 1,000 but I discount that because it does not tally with the 800 who met the ship and the large numbers who met the launch at the other end of the island). Cook put the population much lower, 600 to 700, two-thirds male.
These estimates are all imprecise. The population would have been scattered all over the island, we don’t know how many would have been in the lava tubes and that may also have differed between the dates. The visitors all saw most of the island by sea but how much they really saw is hard to say. Roggeveen only visited on land for a few hours. Gonzales sent two launches around the island to map it and covered little of the island on foot. There was a walk from Anakena to Poike to plant flags and an unrecorded diversionary walk to “the West”. Cook’s party walked around about one quarter of the island only.
On the face of it, though, the population appears to have declined significantly from the peak of the classical period to 1722. Then it may have remained roughly steady until 1770, though we know there was warfare in this period. Perhaps the numbers killed were roughly equivalent to the natural population increase. Then there might have been a significant reduction, though Cook’s figures still seem too low. If there were, it may have been as much due to disease as war.
The dismantling of the moai and ahus would still have taken a long time, fifty to one hundred years; there is no reason to assume there was anything sudden about it. Increasingly, there were many other trials for the Rapanui to contend with. European diseases were not the least of them, culminating in the genocidal raids by the Peruvian slavers in the 1860s. Remarkably, they survived even that and Easter Island today remains unmistakably Polynesian.
Google Maps location (zoom out to find the green arrow, then zoom in; the cave entrance is about 100 metres directly north).