There exists in the midst of the great ocean, in a region where nobody goes, a mysterious and isolated island.

PIERRE LOTI (1850-1923)

Easter Island

Rapa Nui


A Polynesian society blossomed on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) after hardy souls somehow managed to navigate a fleet of wooden canoes to this tiny isolated speck in the vast Pacific Ocean 3,700 km (2,300 miles) west of South America and 1,770 km (1,100 miles) from the nearest neighboring island, Pitcairn.
 
Carbon dating of artefacts shows the Polynesians landed around AD700. They apparently lived an isolated existence for the next thousand years. The Rapa Nui people developed a distinct architectural and artistic culture. That culture reached its zenith during the tenth to 16th centuries, when they carved and erected 887 moai (Easter Island heads) across the island.

Rapa Nui's Demise


It is generally thought that the Rapa Nui’s demise resulted from an environmental catastrophe of their own making. At some point in the island’s history, when both the art and the population were increasing, the island’s resources were overtaxed. It’s not clear how quickly the island ecosystem was wrecked, but a major factor appears to be the cutting of millions of giant palms to clear fields or make fires. Too many trees were cut down. Without trees you’ve got no canoes. Without canoes you’ve got no fish. It is also possible that Polynesian rats, arriving with human settlers, may have eaten enough seeds to help to decimate the trees. Either way, loss of the trees exposed the island’s rich volcanic soils to serious erosion.
 
There may also have been considerable warfare, there’s a layer of subsoil containing many obsidian spear points and analysis of human bones from that period show a lot of blows to heads and faces. A population that had grown to as many as 20,000 was seriously reduced. When Europeans arrived in 1722, they found the island mostly barren with only a few thousand inhabitants.
 
Over the next 150 years, with visits by European and American sailors, French traders and missionaries, Peruvian slave raiders, Chilean imperialists and Scottish ranchers (who introduced sheep and herded the natives off the land, fencing them into one small village) the Rapa Nui people were all but destroyed. By 1877 there were only 110 of them left on the island.

LEWIS GROSSBERGER

That great menacing Easter Island face.

The Moai


The moai (Easter Island heads) were carved by ancient Polynesians from volcanic rock between A.D. 1100 and 1500: the tallest statue, named Paro, is almost 10m high and weighs 75 tonnes. Some weigh up to 86 tons. They may have been representations of the indigenous peoples' ancestors with a new statue carved as each important tribal figure passed away.
As well as having bodies they had detachable eyes made of coral, inserted for special occasions. One such eye remains in the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum and fragments have been found elsewhere. Some statues also had a red topknot. How they placed these huge headpieces on top of the statues is unknown. Once finished, they were taken to their ahu - altar platform. All the heads were pushed over by the time of Captain Cook's visit (1774). Most are still toppled. All of the statues face inland.

According to Rapa Nui legend, the stone monoliths were put into place by a king who invoked divine power to command the statues to walk. Archaeologists have long preferred the more prosaic theory that they were heaved into position along a network of purpose-built tracks.

Researchers have long assumed that the quarry in an extinct volcano, Rano Raraku, where the statues were carved, was merely a workplace from which the roads fanned out to the coastal sites. The latest findings show that the volcano was in fact also a sacred site; volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld. 

DNA testing established that the Easter Islanders came from Polynesia.

Easter Island


The island received its current name, Easter Island, from the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen who was the first European to visit on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. 

Easter Island was annexed by Chile in the late 19th century.

In 2008, a Finnish tourist was found on Anakena beach hacking an ear off a moai.

Chicken Houses 


There are 1,233 ancient stone chicken houses on Easter Island.

The chicken houses or ‘Hare Moa’ date from the later period, after the trees had gone, so there were no canoes available for fishing. Thus chickens, which had been brought by the original settlers, were the only real source of meat. With food shortages there was presumably a temptation to steal from your neighbour, so they devised these chicken houses with a single hole entrance that would be filled with a suitable flush fitting stone. Without knowing which stone was the door, it was harder for your neighbour to steal the chickens.

Heads and Bodies


Easter Island ‘heads’ or Moai have bodies as well. The reason people think they are only heads is about 150 statues are buried up to the shoulders by erosion on the slope of a volcano, and are the most famous and most photographed of all the statues. In fact, they all have bodies. Archaeologists have been aware of these torsos since the earliest excavations in 1914.

Researchers have long assumed that the quarry in an extinct volcano, Rano Raraku, where the statues were carved, was merely a workplace from which the roads fanned out to the coastal sites. The latest findings show that the volcano was in fact also a sacred site; volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld.

Thor Heyerdahl thought the ancient Polynesians simply left the broken statues beside the tracks and they served no spiritual purpose but we now know that the statues were not abandoned but had individual platforms and faced in towards the road.

One Town Island


There is only one town on Easter Island. It's called Hanga Roa. More than two thirds of the island's inhabitants live in it.

Chilean Annex


Chile formally annexed Easter Island in 1888, and put the few remaining native Rapa Nui into a barbed-wire detention camp where they remained under guard until 1964.

In 1995, Easter Island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with most of the island protected in the Rapa Nui National Park.

NASA extended the airport landing strip in 1987 for possible space shuttle emergency landings.

The flag of Rapa Nui is white with a red reimiro - a wooden pectoral ornament once worn by the women of Rapa Nui - in the center.

About 60% of residents on Easter Island are descendants of the native Rapa Nui people.

There are 1,233 ancient stone chicken houses on Easter Island, and only 887 moai.