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Published Monday, March 9, 2015

Earlobe Stretching on Easter Island

easter island
Oooooh, those. I gotcha.

If you know one thing about the island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, it probably has something to do with the Moai (Pronounced moh-eye). If that doesn’t ring a bell, try the picture to the left:

That’s right, the people of Rapa Nui were the people who made those giant head statues that we later learned had feet buried under the ground. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen a documentary or two about the statues. How did they make them? How did they transport them from where they were mined to where they ended up? They weigh 80 tons. Was it with the help of UFOs? Where did all the people go, were they abducted by UFOs?

But in a story...

I like the new History Channel. Did you see that mermaids thing? Quality.

That involved much more tragic slave trade and less Close Encounters, Rapa Nui culture crashed and burned over just a few short centuries. To make a long story short, they started to run low on trees and food, relying more and more on the mainland. Peruvians were pushing them out. Probably without the help of UFOs.

As for the Moai, the clans of Rapa Nui went to war with each other and part of those battles involved toppling each other’s Moai. Over the course of a century and a half, westerners visiting the islands reported fewer and fewer Moai standing, and by 1868 there were none left standing on the island, except a few that were buried up to their necks. Today there are quite a few standing, because archaeologists and preservationists have gone out and stood them up again.

Over the course...

Of this breakdown in their society, something else changed. Their ears.

The first westerners to visit Rapa Nui were Spanish, and they arrived in 1566. The island then was prosperous and full of standing Moai. Between the Spanish visit and the arrival of the Dutch in 1722, the society there seemed to be thriving. People that the Dutch identified as probably being priests or clan chiefs wore elaborate head pieces of white feathers and had “balls” in their stretched earlobes the size of their fists.

It was said that when they weren’t filled with plugs or discs, the earlobes of the Rapa Nui people were so long they dangled to their shoulders, and that the men looped theirs up over the top of their ears for convenience.

The Moai, with their long lobes, reflected this.

Captain Cook,

easter island2
Easter Island statues depicting stretched lobes. Image courtesy of the British Museum

Who visited the island fifty years later, said that the islanders had their ears, “Pierced with large holes, through which four or five fingers might be thrust with ease.” The women wore pendants in their ears made from shark’s vertebrae, or decorated them with feathers.

By 1825, a captain named Beechy described the earlobe stretching as being about an inch and a quarter in diameter, and while it was still practiced, he said, it wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it once was. By the time that ship’s surgeon J. Linton Palmer visited in 1868 and wrote his account of the island, the people there were decimated by slave trade, the clan chiefs had been forced into exile on the mainland by the Peruvians, and missionaries were making inroads with the remaining population.

The rapid spread of Christianity among the people of Rapa Nui caused them to adopt more western ways, and the practices of body tattooing and earlobe stretching began to die out. The few people who remained on Rapa Nui and tried to keep living there were eventually forced onto a smaller portion of the island so the rest could be used for farming, and over the subsequent generations they either left the island or died out.

The Topaze, which carried Palmer and his crew to Rapa Nui in 1868, took back to England two of the smaller Moai statues and several of the discs made of shark’s vertebrae and tortoise shell that the men and women used to stretch and decorated their earlobes. They reside today in the British Museum.