Teaching Easter Island

Map of Easter Island Source: Google Maps

  • Author’s note: This is the second of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. We have recorded a podcast on the subject which will be available in a few weeks.

Getting Started

Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is located 2,250 miles from Chile and over 1,300 miles from the nearest Polynesian settlement. A mere 14 miles across at its widest point, Easter Island is a speck of land in the vast Pacific Ocean. And yet, when Europeans first arrived on its shores they encountered a complex society which had not only survived but flourished, as evidenced by the massive monolithic heads (moai) dotting its shores. How had island been settled? How had they managed to build the moai without modern tools?

The moai of Easter Island Source: Wikipedia

The moai of Easter Island
Source: Wikipedia

World history textbooks approach Easter Island in a variety of different ways. Patterns of World History includes a full page on Thor Heyerdahl, a famous Norwegian archaeologist who sought to prove that Easter Island was settled from Peru.1 In 1947 he sailed across the Pacific from South America to Polynesia in a balsa-wood raft called Kon-Tiki, demonstrating that such voyages were possible. Voyages in World History focuses on the navigational techniques of the Polynesians, and suggests they were able to reach South America. They also mention the moai, but note that construction ceased around 1600 CE, when an environmental crisis triggered by deforestation led to widespread conflict. Traditions and Encounters provides a more detailed account of this collapse, suggesting that rapid population growth from 1100-1500 led to the exhaustion of the island’s resources. The results were social divisions, violence, and eventually cannibalism. This narrative has become part of the big history curriculum, which includes Easter Island under the subtitle “overconsumption.” While the textbooks are careful to acknowledge the skill of Polynesian navigators, Easter Island is generally treated as a cautionary tale of environmental collapse.

My Original Lesson Plan

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands Source: Library of Congress

Reed Chart from Marshall Islands
Source: Library of Congress

I taught Easter Island in my earliest HST 101 course. While prepping for the course I became fascinated by the navigational skills of the Polynesians. Their double outrigger canoes could travel 100-150 miles each day, carry 18,000 pounds of cargo, and relied on the stars for navigation. I briefly mentioned Easter Island as the furthest eastern extent of Polynesian exploration. Several years later, I added a “Reed Chart from the Marshall Islands” from the Patterns of World History source book to show students how aware Polynesian navigators were of things like prevailing winds and ocean currents. I made a point of calling the Polynesians “bad-ass” for their exploratory voyages into the unknown, but I left it at that and moved on to more pressing topics like the Babylonians and Mycenaeans which I covered in the same lecture.

The Specialist Literature

I began to delve into the specialist literature on the Polynesians while putting together a summer reading list. After pulling a number of African history books from the chapter bibliographies of an early edition of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, I decided to include a few other monographs. One of these was Patrick Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds. This fascinating overview of the archaeological and linguistic evidence on the early Polynesians piqued my interest in the subject, especially a map of the “arcs of exploration.” The map made it into my powerpoint, and it led me to include the “Against the Grain” text on Heyerdahl in my newest version of HST 101. Easter Island thus became the focal point for an entire 50 minute class.

Map of Polynesian Exploration Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Map of Polynesian Exploration
Source: Kirch, On the Road of the Winds

Although Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage receives most of the attention, he energetically sought to prove that Easter Island had been home to South Americans who brought plants and artistic traditions with them. He even argued that Polynesians may have been captured and brought to Easter Island to work for these South American lords (now called Hanau Eepe or “long ears”). According to Heyerdahl, the Polynesian “short-ears” (Hanau Momoko) rebelled and massacred their overlords at the battle of the Poike ditch in the 17th century. No convincing evidence for these events has emerged, and Kirch dismissed Heyerdahl as someone who “was never taken seriously by scholars…”2 But Heyerdahl forced researchers to question some of their assumptions about the settlement of Easter Island. This led to Flenley and Bahn’s The Enigmas of Easter Island, which was explicitly written to counter Heyerdahl as well as the more unconventional thinking of Erich von Däniken. Flenley and Bahn sought to balance an appreciation for the ingenuity of the Polynesians with a more sobering account of environmental destruction. They used a combination of pollen records and radiocarbon dating to show Easter Island was settled around 400 CE by a small Polynesian population which lived in harmony with the environment for several centuries. Around 1100 the moai were constructed and the population expanded. Gradually the forests that covered the island were stripped bare, leading to complete ecological collapse by 1650.

Ahu Tongariki Source: Wikipedia

Ahu Tongariki
Source: Wikipedia

Flenley and Bahn’s major contribution was to contend that Easter Island was “a microcosm, a miniature model of the planet Earth.”3 This bleak insight was taken further by Jared Diamond. In his book Collapse, he suggested that the massive labor required to build the moai was the cause of Easter Island’s environmental crisis. Like Flenley and Bahn, he placed the blame squarely on the Polynesian inhabitants, asking “what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”4 To Diamond, Easter Island was a society that refused to make the cultural changes needed to preserve its resources. The parallels to the modern world, he writes, are “chillingly obvious.”

This grim picture, however, has not gone unchallenged. Flenley and Bahn published the original edition of their book in 1992, and a great deal of research had taken place since then. It is summarized in Hunt and Lipo’s The Statues That Walked. They use new radiocarbon dating to demonstrate Easter Island was settled hundreds of years later than originally assumed, likely around 1200 CE.5 Errors also persist with regards to the cause of deforestation, which was far more likely to have been caused by a massive influx of Polynesian rats (rattus exulans) eating palm nuts than human activity.6 Hunt and Lipo painstakingly describe the numerous ways the island’s inhabitants adapted to survive as the forests shrunk, including protected gardens (manavai) and lithic mulching which enabled a small population of about 3,000 people to survive.7 Even the violence triggered by the ecological crisis remains elusive – the archaeological record contains no purpose-built weapons prior to the arrival of Europeans, only the all-purpose obsidian “flakes” call mata’a. While these are certainly sharp, they are also asymmetric, heavy, and far better at cutting and scraping fibrous plants than killing other human beings.8 Hunt and Lipo paint a very different picture of Easter Island. If it truly is a metaphor for planet Earth, they suggest the people living there possess a remarkable capacity for cooperation, ingenuity, and survival.

Hunt and Lipo contend that the “collapse” Diamond describes took place after Europeans reached the region. They argue that a desire for Western goods began to replace worship of the ancestors, that sexual encounters with Europeans started an epidemic of venereal diseases, and that the rumors of cannibalism were used by Christian missionaries to demonize the islanders ‘heathen’ past. Ranchers who brought in thousands of sheep and forced the Polynesians to work for them completed the devastation of the environment.9 In effect, Hunt and Lipo suggest that Diamond, Flenley, and Bahn are guilty of blaming the victims of Western imperialism for its consequences. This is a crucial insight, but sadly it has not found its way into the majority of world history classrooms.

Anakena Beach Source: Wikipedia

Anakena Beach
Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Contrasting Arguments – Have half of the class read Diamond’s “Twilight at Easter” and the other half read Hunt and Lipo’s “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of ‘Ecocide’ on Rapa Nui” as homework. The first group should provide a summary of Diamond’s argument, and identify the key pieces of evidence he uses to make his case. The second group should examine how Hunt and Lipo critique Diamond’s argument. The focus should be on how arguments are constructed and whether Hunt and Lipo make a convincing case that Diamond’s interpretation is wrong.

Historical Skill = Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Environmental History, Making History

Creative Thinking – Have the students get into small groups and read Lizzie Wade’s article on the origins of sweet potatoes. Ask them what Polynesian navigators would have needed to know in order to reach South America. The idea is to get the students thinking about winds, currents, stars, sea birds, and ocean swells. Let them be creative – the goal is to give them an appreciation for how resourceful and brave these explorers were.

Historical Skill = Historical Empathy

Global Themes = Exploration

Hoa Hakananai'a Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a
Source: British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a – Have the class read MacGregor’s “Hoa Hakananai’a” or listen to it as a podcast. They should be asked what this statue reveals about the history of Easter Island. The students will note that the island was settled from 700-900 CE, that the small population constructed numerous statues without the aid of modern tools, and that this statue-building ended around 1600 due to a major ecological crisis. They should also note that this ecological change was etched into the statue in the form of carved Birdman figures, which were placed on the statue after it was moved to a new location. This could be used as the starting point for a larger discussion on the ecological changes which took place on Easter Island. Have the students use their laptops/smartphones/textbooks to learn what they can about the ecological crisis. If they discover that the Easter Islanders are held responsible, introduce them to Hunt and Lipo’s explanation which focuses on the role of Polynesian rats as well as the ingenious forms of cultivation created by Easter Islanders. Also, be sure to draw the student’s attention to the very end of MacGregor’s chapter, which briefly describes the arrival of the HMS Topaze in 1868. Make sure the students learn about the arrival of Europeans after 1722, who spread disease, destroyed the remaining indigenous flora and fauna, and engaged in blackbirding (slave raiding).

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Establishing Significance

Global Themes = World Religions, Imperialism

Doves vs Hawks – This exercise is based on chapter 6 (pp.93-107) from The Statues That Walked. Make cards for each student with equal numbers marked “hawk” or “dove.” The student should keep this card hidden. With a pen and pencil, they should walk around the room and encounter other students – each encounter is worth 10 points that represent the benefits of cooperation. If a “dove” meets a “dove” both gain 5 points and move on. If a “hawk” meets a “dove” the “hawk” intimidates the latter and gains all 10 points. But if a “hawk” meets a “hawk,” a fight happens. Using rock/paper/scissors or a flipped coin, the “hawks” determine the winner. He or she gains the full 10 points. However, as a cost of combat, the loser suffers injuries that result in a net -30 points. After a limited number of encounters (around 10 or 15) call an end to the game and have each side total up their points. It is likely that the majority of the top scores will belong to doves as opposed to hawks. The idea is to encourage the students to look beyond the Hobbesian scenario outlined by Diamond and think more about the benefits of long-term cooperation.

Historical Skills = Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Violence


  1. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 146
  2. Patrick Kirch, On the Road of the Winds, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 238
  3. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, 2ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 201
  4. Jared Diamond, Collapse, (New York: Penguin, 2011), 117
  5. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues That Walked, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 22-23
  6. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 27
  7. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 53
  8. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 98
  9. Hunt and Lipo, The Statues, 147-175

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