World Travel GuidesEaster Island, Chile

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Easter Island is one of the remotest islands in the world. Located at 27°9'S 109°25.5'W, it is 3600 km (2237 miles) from the coast of Chile, to which it belongs, and 2075 km (1290 miles) from the nearest landfall, Pitcairn Islands. This remoteness that helped Easter Island develop its own culture as well as to allow indigenous flora and fauna to evolve without outside interference - that is, until the last 500 years.

The official Spanish name of the island is Isla de Pascua, which is really a Spanish translation of the same. Among the local Polynesian inhabitants, it is known as Rapa Nui, meaning "Big Rapa". This name comes from the Polynesian people who were brought to Easter Island as laborers from their home island of Rapa, which they also called Rapa Inti, or "Little Rapa", in the Bass Islands in the French Polynesia, in as recent as the 1870s.

Moais of Ahu Tongariki
Moais of Ahu Tongariki
by Rivi (GNU Free Documentation License)

Even before these Polynesian people came to Easter Island, there was a now forgotten civilization which flourished there and then disappeared. Various scientists and archaeologists have placed the date of the arrival of these early settlers as 300-400 AD, 700-800 AD and as late as 1200 AD. They are still trying to figure out which is the right date.

In any case, we do not know for sure what these early settlers call themselves, or the island. We do know of some ancient names for the island, Te-Pito-O-Te-Henua, meaning ‘The Navel of the World’, and Mata-Ki-Te-Rani, meaning ‘Eyes Looking at Heaven’. However, these names are generally dismissed by mainstream archaeologists.

It is believed that early explorers and missionaries did come in contact with the remaining few natives when they arrived at Easter Island, but the majority of the local inhabitants trace their roots to the 19th century import from Rapa Island.

Moai at Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku
by Aurbina (public domain)

The Moai of Easter Island

Easter Island is renowned the world over for the many huge stone statues, called Moai, which litter the coastline. There is an estimated 800-1000 moais scattered around Easter Island. Many still lie buried and undiscovered.

The highest concentration of moais is found around the Rano Raraku, the ancient crater from which the moais were quarried. The quarry contains numerous unfinished moais at various stages of completion. From this quarry, the statues were hauled to various parts of the island and installed on ceremonial platforms called ahu.

There could be anywhere between one to fifteen moais standing on an ahu. Many of these moais are given eyes - adding eyes is believed to add power to the statues. Some of these statues also wear topknots or head dress called pukao. Some of these pukaos weigh several tons - one at Te Piko Kura weighs 11.5 tons. Scientists speculated that they were lashed to the moais as the statues were uprighted into position.

Moais of Hangaroa
Moais of Hangaroa
by Makemake (GNU Free Documentation License)

Early European Encounters with Easter Island

The name Easter Island was given by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, as the island was sighted on Easter Sunday, in 1722. Following the Roggeveen expedition, two Spanish ships under Don Felipe Gonzales arrived in 1770.

Next came Captain James Cook in 1774, and French explorer Le Comte de la Pérouse, in 1786. None of these visitors stopped for extended periods. They had arrived looking for food, water and wood, and found the island lacking in any of these. They did record seeing odd boat-shaped abodes, but no canoes - by then, the islanders had so damaged the ecology and forest of Easter Island that there were no more trees available to build canoes.

The initial encounter between the natives with European was one of curiosity. The natives have never seen the amount of wood used to build those seafaring ships. They would inspect the European ships, and then return the following day with long strings to re-measure, obviously to confirm to their leaders that the dimensions were of no exaggeration.

Unfortunately, the encounter with Europeans can have unpredictable results. Fearful of the natives, the Europeans had fired at them for little or no apparent reason. As a result, subsequent European arrivals to Easter Island was met with hostility.

Legend of Easter Island

Missionaries of the 19th century managed to record - how much is true is open to speculation - what the remaining natives told them through oral history and tradition. According to the legend, their ancestors came to Easter Island led by a warrior-king named of Hotu Matua landed in Easter Island. They arrived in a party of two canoes and landed at the coral sand beach of Anakena. Radiocarbon dating of the soil samples at Anakena placed human habitation or settlement at Anakena to be at 1200 AD.

With the arrival of Hotu Matua in Easter Island, a rigid class system was put in place. At the top of the hierachy was the king, who wielded absolute power like a god. Scientists believe that the moais were erected by this civilization. As the moais are found across the island, they believe that a homogenous culture had developed that governed the whole island.

The Birdman Culture

Later on, a coup by some warlords called matatoa brought about a new religion to Easter Island. This new religion, called Tangata Manu, or birdman culture, centred around the worship of Makemake, the god of fertility. Until then, it was an insignificant deity, but was made the chief god under the matatoa.

The birdman culture got its name because once a year, warlords from the different clans in Easter Island would send a representative, called hopu, on a grueling race. The hopu must swim across the treacherous straits between Easter Island and the islet of Motu Nui. There, they must find and collect the first eggs of the Sooty Tern (called the manu tara). Then they must swim back and climb the steep side of the Rano Kau extinct volcano, to present the eggs to their master at the village of Orongo. The first warlord to receive the eggs is entitled to be the overlord of the whole island. His clan is also given the sole rights to collect the bird eggs and fledglings from Moto Nui.

The birdman cult is now generally blamed for the widespread destruction of Easter Island. The winning clan of the yearly competition often rampage island's already depleting resources, destroying the trees and the ecosystem. As a result, the when European explorers arrived in the 18th century, they reported that the natives of Easter Island were suffering from famine and starvation, and were greatly reduced in numbers. Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to arrive in Easter Island, estimated that there were only 2000-3000 people living on Easter Island when he arrived.

Colonial History of Easter Island

Clan warfare was also widespread among the natives. This resulted in the toppling of the moais in the 18th century. Jacob Roggeveen's expedition in 1722 reported seeing only standing moais. But by the time Captain Cook visited the island in 1774, many of these moais have already been toppled. The toppling of moais continued into the 19th century, that by 1838, only those on the slopes of Rano Kau were still standing. Between 1824 and 1860, not much is known about Easter Island, as the hostile natives prevented expeditions from landing.

The native population was to suffer another heavy toll in 1862, when a Peruvian slave raiding ship arrived and violently abducted the natives to be taken back to Peru as slaves, to be sold as domestic servants and plantation laborers. 1407 natives were captured as slaves, but another 1500 or so were killed in the process. News of this practise, when came to light, brought much condemnation, angry editorials in newspapers within Peru and elsewhere, and protests from the French government and missionary societies. Afraid that it would damage Peru's reputation, the Peruvian government announced that they would "prohibit the introduction of Polynesian settlers".

With that announcement, Peru decided to send them back. What happened what that Peru sent a ship that could accommodate only 160 passengers but 470 island natives were packed on board. The ship was infected with smallpox, and the natives began dying. By the time the ship was ready to sail, 162 had died and the balance were infected with smallpox. When it arrived in Easter Island, only 15 was left. They were taken ashore and they in turn introduced smallpox into Easter Island and nearly wiped out the native population there.

Missionaries on Easter Island

Meanwhile, missionaries have also arrived in Easter Island and was using food and medicine as incentives for conversion. Diseases were still rampant on the island, and the native islanders continued to dwindle in numbers. To further add to the islanders' misery, an arms dealer named Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier decided to cleanse Easter Island of all Rapa Nui natives. He first arrived with two missionaries, Eugene Eyraud and Father Hippolyte Roussel. While the missionaries set about establishing a church and school, Dutrou-Bornier had other plans. He wanted to be king of the island. To achieve this, he started buying up the land outside the missionaries' control - he did this by exchanging worthless items for land - and proceeded to move the natives to Tahiti to work for his backers.

In 1871, the missionaries had a fall out with Dutrou-Bornier, for they refused to be subjected to his authority. This culminated with Dutrou-Bornier leading a gang of his men to burn and destroy the missionaries' properties. The missionaries were forced to leave Easter Island, and they evacuated some natives with them, to the Gambier Islands. Only 171 natives remained in 1871, mostly elderly men. Dutrou-Bornier proceeded to turn Easter Island into a huge sheep farm. His rule came to an end in 1877, when the islanders murdered him. By then, the number of islanders numbered just a little over one hundred people, representing about 3% of the total population of Easter Island just a decade earlier.

By 1914, living condition on Easter Island was so bad that the islanders begged the Chilean government to allow them to emigrate en masse to Tahiti. During those days, tourism was still an unheard of activity. The widespread suffering and general feeling of discontent fueled several islander uprisings, in 1914-1915 and again in 1964.

Since the 1970's, modern day tourists are beginning to discover Easter Island, making it the most important income earner for the island. As a way to promote its culture to tourists, the island holds the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival, which falls around late January and early February each year.

How to go to Easter Island

There are several flights by LAN Airlines connecting Easter Island with Tahiti and Santiago. Since it is very much a monopoly, expect a steep fare of between US$600-1200 for a return ticket from Santiago.

What to see and do

The moais are the main attraction of Easter Island. Remember that the moais are often on sacred sites, so be respectful when approaching them. Most of the time, the moais will be standing on the ceremonial platforms called ahu. Do not walk on the ahu as that is regarded as extremely disrespectful.

What to buy

There is only a small number of tourist shops on Easter Island, concentrated in the main town of Hanga Roa. Souvenirs are mostly trinkets with moai motif.

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