Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Easter Island (Polynesian: Rapa Nui; Spanish: Isla de Pascua) is an island in the South Pacific belonging to Chile. The name "Easter Island" was given by the Dutch explorer who discovered it on Easter Sunday 1722.

Located in the South Pacific between Chile and Tahiti, Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, 1,290 miles to the west. The triangular-shaped island covers only 64 square miles and was formed out of an ancient volcanic eruption.

Easter Island is famous for its tight-lipped statues that stand across the island, erected by the Rapa Nui people between the 10th and 16th centuries AD. Exactly why and how these ancient wonders were assembled is still not fully understood.

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History of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Although many imaginative theories have been offered for the origins of the Easter Island people and statues, archaeologists and historians believe they have a reliable outline of most of the island's history.

Easter Island's human history began with the settlement of the island by Polynesians around 400 AD, who probably arrived from the islands of Mangareva or Pitcairn to the west. These Polynesian settlers brought bananas, taro, sweet potato, sugarcane, paper mulberry and chickens and established a relatively advanced and complex civilization.

"Easter Island" is of course a European name, but even "Rapa Nui" was not the original name for the island. It was coined by labor immigrants from the original Rapa in the Bass Islands who likened it to their home island. The Rapanui name of Rapa Nui is Te pito o te henua ("Navel of the World") due to its isolation, but this too seems to be derived from another location, possibly a Marquesan landmark.

The European discovery of the island, by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen, occurred in 1722 on Easter Sunday. Roggeveen found about 2,000-3,000 inhabitants on the island, but it appears that there were as many as 10,000-15,000 of them in the 16th and 17th centuries. The civilization of Easter Island had already degenerated drastically during the 100 years before the arrival of the Dutch, owing to the overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of the extremely isolated island with its limited natural resources.

Easter Island has very few trees, but this was not always the case. The island once possessed a forest of palms, but it seems the native Easter Islanders completely deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues, as well as constructing fishing boats and buildings. There is evidence that the disappearance of the island's trees coincided with the collapse of the Easter Island civilization. Midden contents from that time period show a sudden drop in quantity of fish and bird bones as the islanders lost the means to construct fishing vessels and the birds lost their nesting sites. Chickens and rats became leading items of diet. There is also some evidence of cannibalism.

The small surviving population of Easter Island eventually developed new traditions to allot the few remaining resources. In the cult of the Birdman (manutara), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each tribe, chosen by the leaders, would dive into the sea and swim across to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the first egg laid by a Sooty Tern during the season. The first swimmer to return with an egg would secure control of the island's resources for his tribe for the rest of the year. This tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans.

However, by the mid-19th century the population had recovered to about 4,000 inhabitants. Then in a mere 20 years, deportation to Peru and Chile and diseases brought by Westerners almost exterminated the whole population, with only 111 inhabitants left on the island in 1877. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 (by Policarpo Toro). The native Rapanui are gradually recovering from their low population levels.

Today, the tremendous increase of tourism on the island coupled with a large inflow of people from mainland Chile are threatening to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. The possession of the land has created political tensions in the past 20 years, with part of the native Rapanui opposed to private property and in favor of the traditional communal property of their ancestors.

What to See at Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Ahu Tahai

The ahu (ceremonial platform) at Tahai sits near a canoe ramp made of rounded beach stones and is thought to be among the earliest ahu structures on the island, dating from 690 AD. It was restored by the American archaeologist William Mulloy.

Rano Raraku

The island's famous moai statues were made from the volcanic rock of this mountain quarry and are scattered across its slopes in various stages of completion.

Rano Kau

A hike to the summit of this 400m volcano offers panoramic views of the island's solitude in the South Pacific.

Ahu Tongariki

15 of the island's famous moai statues stand here in a military lineup upon a flat rock platform.

Orongo

This lake-filled crater is filled with remnants of the Birdman cult practiced until 1867.

Quick Facts on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Site Information
Names:Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Dates:10th-16th centuries
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:27.109409° S, 109.362030° W
Address:Easter Island, Chile
Lodging:View hotels near Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

References

  1. Explore Easter Island – PBS Nova Secrets of Lost Empires
    An excellent resource that is probably the second-best thing to actually being there. You can click on any area of the island and see several pictures and commentary on the area. There are also QuickTime movies and panoramic photographs.
  2. Secrets of Easter Island – PBS Nova
    Follow a team of archaeologists and a 75-person crew as they attempt to move a 10-ton moai using only ancient tools.
  3. Easter Island - Met Museum Timeline of Art History
  4. Easter Island – Mysterious Places
  5. Easter Island - Wikipedia
  6. Moai - Wikipedia
  7. The Easter Island Foundation's Guide to Easter Island
    Provides "All you'll need to know when preparing your trip to Easter Island." Includes an extensive photo gallery and debunking of numerous theories that explain the Easter Island "mysteries." A useful resource.
  8. A Heady Experience - Washington Post, April 24, 2005 - Travel review of Easter Island.
  9. "Let Sleeping Moai Lie" by Roderick Eime - Eime describes his lifelong fascination with such mysteries as Easter Island and chronicles his recent three-day trip there. He also includes background information, history of the island, several photographs and travel tips.
  10. Easter Island Quest - Travel guide with maps, photos, articles on Rapa Nui culture and more.

More Information

Moai at Ahu Tongariki. © Nathan Nelson
Moai of Ahu Akivi. © Jason Devitt
© Vera & Jean-Christophe
Moai of Ahu Tongariki. © vtveen
Moai of Ahu Tahai. © vtveen
© Vera & Jean-Christophe
Back of a Moai statue overlooking the island. © Gary Arndt
Birdman petroglyph at the site of Orongo, representing the creator god Makemake. © Tim Waters
Cave paintings near Hanga Roa. © Nathan Nelson
The beautiful sea off the coast of Easter Island. © Nathan Nelson

Map of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Below is a location map and aerial view of Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.