Fittingly for one of the most remote inhabited places on earth, an air of mystery has always surrounded Easter Island. Lying in the southeastern Pacific Ocean over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from its closest island neighbour, Easter Island is famous worldwide for the extraordinary stone sculptures which maintain a brooding presence over the island. Hewn out of the local volcanic rock these monumental figures, known as moai, have been puzzling archaeologists ever since they were first seen by Europeans in the 18th century and now stand as tantalizing markers of a vanished civilization.
First settled by Polynesian seafarers – the Rapanui – about AD 700, Easter Island quickly developed a complex, sophisticated culture which flourished in a lush environment where dense forests supported a rich flora and fauna and food was plentiful, both on land and in the surrounding seas. By the time Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen visited the island in April 1722, however, much of this culture had disappeared and the population had declined drastically to just 2,000, having outstripped the resources available to sustain it. Thus a society had effectively destroyed itself by overexploiting its environment.
The island’s trees were the most serious loss since they had supported a varied plant and bird life and had limited the erosion of fertile top soils, especially the Easter Island palms which had grown as high as 24 m (80 ft) and had been used for the hulls of the islanders’ great sea-going canoes. The notion that the Easter Island people committed ecological suicide is popular among today’s harbingers of environmental doom, although other experts believe that the consequences of European contact – slave-trading, alien diseases and whaling – had a more decisive and damaging impact.
When was the Easter Island Disaster: Not known exactly, but sometime between the 14th and the 19th centuries.
Where was the Easter Island Disaster: Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Pacific Ocean
What was the Easter Island Disaster death toll: At its peak the Polynesian civilization on Easter Island is thought to have had a population in excess of 10,000. By 1877 a mere 111 islanders were left.
You should know: Rapa Nui now belongs to Chile, 3,600 km (2,250 mi) to the east.