First European contact with Easter Island occurred on Easter Day of 1722, when three Dutch ships under the command of Jacob Rogaveen stopped for a 1-day visit at the very isolated South Pacific island, just over 3000 km west of Chile. The visitors observed a small, treeless island populated by what they thought were about 3000 islanders and, to their surprise, by a large number of giant statues. The outside world had no previous knowledge of Easter Island and the islanders apparently had no awareness of the outside world. The visit must have been a shock to the Easter Islanders, but no systematic account of their reaction survives and no further contact with Europeans occurred until 1770, when a Spanish vessel made a brief stop.
The first systematic study of Easter Island dates from the 1774 visit of James Cook. At least one member of Cook’s crew could understand the Polynesian dialect spoken by the Easter Islanders. This allowed Cook to infer that the Easter Island population was in fact Polynesian. In addition, Cook learned that the islanders believed that the statues had been built and moved to their then-current locations by some supernatural force. Certainly the islanders of 1774 had no concept of how to carve or move the statues. Cook estimated that the island’s population was about 2000, which would have been insufficient to move the statues using any technology available on the island.
The mystery of how the statues came into existence remained a topic of increasingly fanciful speculation from Cook’s day forward. Among the more striking theories advanced to explain the mystery include Thor Heyerdahl’s view that the statues had been built by an advanced South American civilization that had discovered and colonized Easter Island before somehow being displaced by a less advanced Polynesian society. In an effort to support his theory, Heyerdahl undertook a famous voyage to Easter Island, in a reed boat named the Kon Tiki, starting from off the coast of Chile. An alternative and even more exotic theory was that Easter Island was the remnant of the hypothesized archipelago civilization of ‘‘Mu’’ that, similar in concept to Atlantis, had sunk beneath the ocean due to geological events. Perhaps the most remarkable theory was that of Eric von Daniken, who wrote a best-selling book (Chariots of the Gods) and produced a popular 1970s television series, which proposed that the statues had been built by extraterrestrials.
These imaginative explanations have been displaced by scientific evidence, including carbon dating of core samples taken from Easter Island and a genetic study of skeletal remains on Easter Island. This evidence has allowed the development of a rather different understanding of Easter Island’s past. This understanding, based on resource depletion and collapse, explains both the statues and the decline of the Easter Island civilization.