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Easter Island

Easter Island (Spanish Isla de Pascua, Polynesian Rapa Nui) is an island in the south Pacific Ocean, west and slightly north of Santiago, Chile and part of the territory of Chile (Valparaíso Region). The island is approximately triangular, with the southwest tip located at approximately 27°10' S, 109°25' W, and is around 2,000 kilometers from the next nearest inhabited island. The island is famous for its numerous prehistoric stone statues located along the coastlines. Population: approx. 2,000.

The history of Easter Island

The history of Easter Island can be related with the aid of a reconstructed king list of Easter Island, complete with events and approximate dates since A.D. 400. Its current native population is of Polynesian descent. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization. The European discovery of the island, by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen, occurred in 1722 on Easter Day. Roggeveen found only 400 inhabitants on the island, but it appears that there were as many as 10,000 of them in earlier times. The civilization of Easter Island had degenerated drastically during the centuries before the arrival of the Dutch, owing to the overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of the extremely isolated island with its limited natural resources. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 (by Policarpo Toro).


The monolithic stone heads on the island, called moai, are numerous (there are more than 600 known) and distributed around the entire island. Most of the moai were carved out of the rock at Rano Raraku, where nearly 400 more moai remain in various stages of completion. The quarry there seems to have been abandoned abruptly, with half-carved statues left in the rock. Practically all of the completed moai were subsequently toppled by native islanders in the period after construction ceased. The meaning of the moai is still unclear, and many theories surround these statues.

The most common theory is that the statues were carved by the Polynesian inhabitants of the islands 500 or more years ago. They are thought to have been representations of deceased ancestors or perhaps important living personages, as well as family status symbols. They must have been extremely expensive to craft; not only would the actual carving of each statue require years of effort, but they would then have to be hauled across the island to their final locations. It is not known exactly how the moai were moved, but the process almost certainly required wooden sledges and/or rollers.

Deforestation and Decline

Modern Easter Island has no trees to speak of. The island once possessed a forest of palm trees, but it is thought that 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 this 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 on human remains around this time.

The small surviving population of Easter Island eventually developed new traditions to allot the few remaining resources. In the cult of the birdman, 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 egg of the Sooty Tern. The first to return with one 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.

Rongo Rongo

There are tablets found on the island bearing a mysterious script. The script, known as Rongo Rongo, has never been deciphered despite the work of generations of linguists. A Hungarian scholar, Wilhelm or Guillaume de Hevesy, in 1932 called attention to the apparent similarities between some of the rongo-rongo characters of Easter Island and those of the prehistoric script of the Indus Valley in India, correlating dozens (at least 40) of the former with corresponding signs on seals from Mohenjo-daro. This correlation has been re-published in later books, for example by Z.A. Simon (1984: 95). The rongo-rongo may mean peace-peace, and their texts may record peace treaty documents, possibly between the long ears and the conquering short ears. Such explanations have, however, been strongly disputed.


See also: Makemake, Kumulipo, Hiro, Polynesian mythology


Approximately 2,000 people live on the island. Nearly all of them live in the town of Hanga Roa. 70% a are Polynesian, and most of the remainder come from the Chilean mainland.

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