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Easter Island

Easter Island is a Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeastern most point of the Polynesian triangle. A special territory of Chile annexed in 1888, Easter Island is widely famous for its 887 extant monumental statues, called moai , created by the early Rapanui people. It is a World Heritage Site (as determined by UNESCO) with much of the island protected within the Rapa Nui National Park. In recent times the island has been used as a cautionary tale for the cultural and environmental dangers brought upon by the overexploitation of resources, however this theory is now being contested by ethnographers and archaeologists alike who argue that the introduction of diseases carried by European colonizers and slave raiding,B. Peiser (2005) From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui Energy & Environment volume 16 No. 3&4 2005 which devastated the population in the 1800s, had a much greater social impact than environmental decline and that introduced animals, first rats and then sheep, were greatly responsible for the island's loss of native flora which came closest to deforestation as recently as 1930-1960.


The name "Easter Island" was given by the island's first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday 1722, while searching for Davis or David's island and named it Paasch-Eyland (18th century Dutch for "Easter Island"). The island's official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means "Easter Island".

The current Polynesian name of the island, "Rapa Nui" or "Big Rapa", was coined following the slave raids carried out in Rapa Nui in the early 1860s because of Easter Island's geographic resemblance to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group. However, Thor Heyerdahl has claimed that the naming would have been the opposite, Rapa being the original name of Easter Island, and Rapa Iti was named by its refugees.

There are several hypotheses about the "original" Polynesian name for Easter Island, including Te o te henua, meaning "The Navel of the land" or "The ends of the land". Pito means both navel and umbilical cord which was considered to be the link between the world of the living (kainga) and the spiritworld Po, lying in the depths of the ocean further East. Since Easter Island is the easternmost Polynesian island it's possible the name refers to it being the "ends" of the world of the living, however after Alphonse Pinart translated it as "the Navel of the World" in his ''Voyage a l'Ile de Paquespublished in 1877, this second meaning has been lost. Some oral traditions claim that the island was first named Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka, or the "Little piece of land of Hau Maka". Another name, Mata-ki-Te-rangi,'' means "Eyes looking to the sky."

Location and physical geography

Easter Island is one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. Its closest inhabited neighbor is Pitcairn Island, with fewer than a hundred inhabitants 2075 kms to the West. It has a latitude close to that of Caldera, Chile; lies west of continental Chile at its nearest point (between Lota and Lebu). .

The island is approx long by at its widest point  its overall shape has been described as a triangle. It has an area of 163.6 km , and a maximum altitude of 507 metres. There are three Rano (freshwater crater lakes), at Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi, near the summit of Terevaka, but no permanent streams or rivers.

Climate and weather

The climate of Easter Island is subtropical maritime. The lowest temperatures are registered in July and August ( and the highest in February , the summer season in the southern hemisphere. Winters are relatively mild. The rainiest month is April, though the island experiences year-round rainfall. As an isolated island Easter Island is constantly exposed to winds which help to keep the temperature fairly cool. Precipitation averages per year. Occasionally, heavy rainfall and rainstorms strike the island. These occur mostly in the winter months (June-August). Since it is close to the Pacific High and outside the range of the ITCZ, cyclones and hurricanes do not occur around Easter island.


The underlying island geology is one of extinct volcanoes. Easter Island is a volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes: Terevaka (altitude 507 metres) forms the bulk of the island. Two other volcanoes, Poike and Rano Kau, form the eastern and southern headlands and give the island its roughly triangular shape. There are numerous lesser cones and other volcanic features, including the crater Rano Raraku, the cinder cone Puna Pau and many volcanic caves including lava tubes. Poike used to be an island until volcanic material from Terevaka united it to Easter Island. The island is dominated by hawaiite and basalt flows which are rich in iron and show affinity with igneous rocks found in Galapagos Islands.

Easter Island and surrounding islets such as Motu Nui, Motu Iti are the summit of a large volcanic mountain rising over two thousand metres from the sea bed. It is part of the Sala y Gomez Ridge, a (mostly submarine) mountain range with dozens of seamounts starting with Pukao and then Moai, two seamounts to the west of Easter Island, and extending east to the Nazca Seamount.

Pukao, Moai and Easter Island were formed in the last 750,000 years, with the most recent eruption a little over a hundred thousand years ago. They are the youngest mountains of the Sala y Gomez Ridge, which has been formed by the Nazca Plate floating over the Easter hotspot. Alternative explanation is the activity of the Easter Fracture Zone. Only at Easter Island, its surrounding islets and Sala y Gomez does the Sala y Gomez Ridge form dry land.

In the first half of the 20th century, steam purportedly came out of the Rano Kau crater wall. This was photographed by the island's manager, Mr Edmunds. [*]. According to geologists the last volcanic activity on the island occurred 10,000 years ago.


The history of Easter Island is rich and controversial. Its inhabitants have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids and colonialism, and near deforestation; their population has declined precipitously more than once. They have left a cultural legacy that has brought them fame disproportionate to their population.

300400 CE has been put forward as a date for initial settlement of Easter Island, which would coincide approximately to the arrival of the first settlers on Hawaii. However, rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the early settlement dates in Polynesia and Rapa Nui is now considered to have been settled between 700 to 1,100 CE. According to oral tradition the first settlement was located in Anakena. There is an ongoing study by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo that suggests: Radiocarbon dates for the earliest stratigraphic layers at Anakena, Easter Island, and analysis of previous radiocarbon dates imply that the island was colonized late, about 1200 CE. Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement. Jared Diamond points out in "Collapse" that Caleta Anakena is the landing point which provides the best shelter from prevailing swells, together with a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings, so it seems likely to have been an early place of settlement. All of this however, contradicts archeological data where the radiocarbon dating of other sites precedes Anakena by many years, especially that of the Tahai, which precedes Anakena's dates by several hundred years.

The island was most probably populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Marquesas Islands , or the Gambier Islands . When Captain Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, who was a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan with an 80% of similarity in words. In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was carried out, reaching Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days.

According to oral traditions recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through firstborn lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. The most visible element in the culture was the production of massive statues called moai that represented deified ancestors. It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead where the dead provided everything the living needed and the living through offerings could provide the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Most settlements were located on the coast and moai were erected all along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.

As the island became increasingly overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended making way for the "Birdman Cult" which maintained the idea that the ancestors were to provide for their descendants but the medium through which they would contact the dead were no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition in which the god Makemake, the god responsible for creating humans, played an important role. Katherine Routhledge (who systematically collected the island's traditions in her expedition in 1919) showed that the competitions for birdman started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878 with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who had formally arrived on the island in 1864. Petroglyphs representing Bird Men on Easter Island are exactly the same as some petroglyphs in Hawaii, indicating that this was probably a concept that the original settlers brought with them and that only the competition itself was unique to Easter Island.

European accounts from 1722 and 1770 mention seeing standing statues, but Cook's expedition who visited the island in 1774 mentioned that several moai were lying face down and had been toppled in warfare.

According to Diamond and Heyerdahl's version of history, the ''huri mo'ai'' - the "statue-toppling" - continued into the 1830s as a part of fierce internal wars. By 1838 the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku, and Hoa Hakananai'a in Orongo, and Ariki Paro in Ahu Te Pito Kura. However, there is very little archaeological evidence of pre-European societal collapse. In fact, bone pathology and osteometric data from islanders of that period clearly suggest few fatalities can be attributed directly to violence .

The first recorded European contact with the island was on April 5 (Easter Sunday), 1722 when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited the island for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island. The number may have been greater however, since some may have been frightened into hiding by a misunderstanding that led Roggeveen's men to fire on the natives killing more than a dozen men and wounding several more. The next foreign visitors were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia. They reported the island as largely uncultivated, with a seashore lined with stone statues. Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island, he reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down. In 1825, the British ship HMS Blossom visited and reported having seen no standing statues in the places they visited. Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by then the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.

A series of devastating events killed or removed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, a great percentage of the island's population. Among the great many people they captured was the island's paramount chief and his heir as well as those who knew how to read and write Easter Island's rongorongo script, the only evidence of Polynesian script to have been found to date. When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped in several Polynesian islands, they knowingly disembarked carriers of smallpox together with a few survivors on each of the islands, creating devastating epidemics from Easter Island all the way to the Marquesas islands. Easter Island's population was reduced to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Tuberculosis introduced by whalers in the mid 1800's had already killed several islanders when the first Christian missionary, Eugene Eyraud, died from it in 1867 taking a quarter of the island's population with him. In the following years, the managers of the sheep ranch and the missionaries started buying the newly available lands of the deceased, and this led to great confrontations between the two.

Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple of hundred Rapanui to Tahiti to work for his backers. In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated all but 171 Rapanui to the Gambier islands. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring. From that point on and into the present day, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or having left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.

Easter Island was annexed by Chile on September 9, 1888, by Policarpo Toro, by means of the "Treaty of Annexation of the Island" (Tratado de Anexion de la isla). Toro, then representing the government of Chile signed with Atamu Tekena, designated "King" of Easter Island by the Chilean government once the paramount chief and his heir had died. The validity of this treaty is being contested by some Rapanui today.

Until the 1960s, the surviving Rapanui were confined to the settlement of Hanga Roa while the rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm until 1953. The island was then managed by the Chilean Navy until 1966, at which point the island was reopened in its entirety. In 1966, the Rapanui were given Chilean citizenship.Diamond, Jared (2005), Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive, page 112.

On July 30, 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and the Juan Fernandez Islands (a.k.a Robinson Crusoe Island) the status of special territories of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island will continue to be governed as a province of the V Region of Valparaiso.


Easter Island, together with its closest neighbor, the tiny island of Isla Sala y Gomez further east, is recognized by ecologists as a distinct ecoregion, the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests. The original subtropical moist broadleaf forests are now gone, but paleobotanical studies of fossil pollen and tree moulds left by lava flows indicate that the island was formerly forested, with a range of trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. A large now extinct palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees as attested by fossil evidence and like its Chilean counterpart probably took close to 100 years to reach its adult height. Work carried out by Tony Hunt and others indicates that the Polynesian rat, which the original settlers brought with them, played a very important role in the disappearance of the Rapanui palm. Rat teeth marks can be observed in 99% of the nuts found preserved in caves or excavated in different sites, indicating that the Polynesian rat impeded the palm's reproduction. That, together with the fact that palms were cleared to make the settlements, led to their extinction almost 350 years before present.C. Michael Hogan. 2008. Chilean Wine Palm: Jubaea chilensis, GlobalTwitcher.com, ed. N. Stromberg

The toromiro tree (Sophora toromiro) was prehistorically present on Easter Island, and is now extinct in the wild. However, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Goteborg Botanical Garden are jointly leading a scientific program to reintroduce the toromiro to Easter Island. With the palm and the toromiro virtually gone, there was considerably less rainfall as a result of less condensation. After the island was used to feed thousands of sheep for almost a century, by the mid 1900's the island was mostly covered in grassland with ''nga'atuor bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus tatora) in the crater lakes of Rano Raraku and Rano Kau. The presence of these reeds, which are called totora'' in the Andes, was used to support the argument of a South American origin of the statue builders, but pollen analysis of lake sediments shows these reeds have grown on the island for over 30,000 years. Before the arrival of humans, Easter Island had vast seabird colonies containing probably over 30 resident species, perhaps the world's richest. Such colonies are no longer found on the main island. There is fossil evidence for five species of landbirds , all of which have become extinct.

The immunosuppressant drug sirolimus was first discovered in the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus in a soil sample from Easter Island. The drug is also known as rapamycin, after Rapa Nui. and is now being tested for having shown to extend longevity in mice.

Trees are sparse on modern Easter Island, rarely forming natural groves and it has been argued whether or not the native Easter Islanders deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues, and in providing sustenance for an overpopulated island. Experimental archaeology has demonstrated that some statues certainly could have been placed on "Y" shaped wooden frames called miro manga erua and then pulled to their final destinations on ceremonial sites. Other theories involve the use of "ladders" (parallel wooden rails) over which the statues could have been dragged.Diamond, Jared, Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking, 2005, p. 107 ISBN 978-0670033379 If they used palms to transport the statues, why were the Easter Islanders carving the largest statues in the late 1600s at a time when the palms are close to extinction; how did they plan to move them? Rapanui traditions metaphorically refer to spiritual power (mana) as the means by which the moai were "walked" from the quarry.

Given the island's southern latitude, the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (about 1650 to 1850) may have exacerbated deforestation, though this remains speculative. Many researchers [Finney (1994), Hunter Anderson (1998); P.D. Nunn ; Orliac and Orliac (1998)] point to the climatic downtrend caused by the Little Ice Age as one of the contributing factors to the problem of resource stress and to the disappearance of the palm tree from the Island. Experts, however, do not agree on when exactly the islands palms became extinct.

Jared Diamond dismisses past climate change as a dominant factor on the island's deforestation in his book Collapse which offers his perspective into the collapse of the ancient Easter Islanders. Influenced by the romantic interpretation of Easter's history by Thor Heyerdahl's (as he acknowledges in chapter 2 of Collapse), Diamond insists that the disappearance of the island's trees seems to coincide with a decline of its civilization around the 17th and 18th century. This is linked to the fact that they stopped making statues at that time and started destroying the ahu. But the link is weakened because the Bird Man cult continued thriving and survived the great impact caused by the arrival of explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, and slave raiders.

Midden contents show a sudden drop in quantities of fish and bird bones as the islanders lost the means to construct fishing vessels and the birds lost their nesting sites. Soil erosion because of lack of trees is apparent in some places. Sediment samples document that up to half of the native plants had become extinct and that the vegetation of the island was drastically altered. However, Polynesians were primarily farmers, not fishermen, and their diet consisted mainly of cultivated staples such as taro root, sweet potato, yams, cassava, and bananas, while chickens were more important sources of protein than fish. Cannibalism occurred in all Polynesian islands at both times of plenty and times of famine so the fact that it occurred in Easter Island is not really good evidence for a collapse of civilization.

In his article "From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui", Benny Peiser notes evidence of self-sufficiency on Easter Island when Europeans first arrived. The island still had smaller trees, mainly toromiro, which became extinct in the 20th century probably because of its extremely slow growth and changes in the island's ecosystem. Cornelis Bouman, Jakob Roggeveen's captain, stated in his log book, "... of yams, bananas and small coconut palms we saw little and no other trees or crops." According to Carl Friedrich Behrens, Roggeveen's officer, "The natives presented palm branches as peace offerings. According to ethnographer Alfred Metraux, the most common type of house was called "hare paenga" known today as "boat house" because the roof resembled an overturned boat. The foundation of the houses were made of buried basalt slabs with holes for wooden beams to connect with each other throughout the width of the house. These were then covered with a layer of totora reed, followed by a layer of woven sugarcane leaves, and lastly a layer of woven grass. There were reports by European visitors claiming to have seen "boles of large palm trees". Peiser considers these reports to indicate that considerable numbers of large trees still existed at that time, which is perhaps contradicted by the Bouman quote above. It should be considered that the plantations were often located further inland, by foothills, inside open-ceiling lava tubes, and other places protected from the strong salt winds and salt spray affecting areas closer to the coast. It's possible many of the Europeans didn't venture too far inland, especially if one considers that the statue quarry which is only one kilometer from the coast and has an impressive cliff high was not explored until well into the 1800s.

Easter Island has suffered from heavy soil erosion in recent centuries, perhaps aggravated by agriculture and massive deforestation. This process seems to have been gradual and may have been aggravated by extensive sheep farming of the Williamson-Balfour Company throughout most of the 20th century. Jakob Roggeveen reported that Easter Island was exceptionally fertile. "Fowls are the only animals they keep. They cultivate bananas, sugar cane, and above all sweet potatoes." In 1786 Jean-Francois de La Perouse visited Easter Island and his gardener declared that "three days' work a year" would be enough to support the population.

Rollin, a major in the Perouse expedition of 1786, wrote, "Instead of meeting with men exhausted by famine... I found, on the contrary, a considerable population, with more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island; and a soil, which, with very little labour, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants."

According to Diamond, oral traditions of the current islanders seem obsessed with cannibalism, which he readily suggests as evidence supporting a rapid collapse. For example, he states , to severely insult an enemy one would say, "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." This, Diamond asserts, means the food supply of the people ultimately ran out;. Cannibalism, however, was widespread across Polynesian cultures, rendering his conclusion rather speculative.. Human bones have not been found in earth ovens other than the ones behind the religious platforms indicating that cannibalism in Easter Island was a ritualistic practice. Contemporary ethnographic research has proven there is scarcely any significant or tangible evidence for the practice of cannibalism anywhere and at any point in time in the Island . Not surprisingly, the first scientific exploration of the Easter Island (1914), recorded that the indigenous population strongly rejected allegations that they or their ancestors had ever been cannibals .



The most important myths are:

Tangata manu, the Birdman cult which was practiced until the 1860s.

Makemake, an important god.

Aku-aku, the guardians of the sacred family caves.

Moai-kava-kava a ghost man of the Hanau epe (long-ears.)

Hekai ite umu pare haonga takapu Hanau epe kai noruego, the sacred chant to appease the aku-aku before entering a family cave.

Stone work

The Rapa Nui people had a Stone Age civilization and made extensive use of several different types of local stone:

Basalt, a hard, dense stone used for toki and at least one of the moai.

Obsidian, a volcanic glass with sharp edges used for sharp-edged implements such as Mataa and also for the black iris of the eyes of the moai.

Red scoria from Puna Pau, a very light red stone used for the pukao and a few moai.

Tuff from Rano Raraku, a much more easily worked rock than basalt, and was used for most of the moai.

Moai (statues)

The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is world-famous, were carved from 1,100-1,680 CE (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections so far. Although often identified as "Easter Island heads", the statues are actually complete torsos, the figures kneeling on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs. Some upright moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils.

Almost all (95%) moai were carved out of distinctive, compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash or tuff found at a single site inside the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. The native islanders who carved them used only stone hand chisels, mainly basalt toki, which still lie in place all over the quarry. The stone chisels were re-sharpened by chipping off a new edge when dulled. The volcanic stone the moai were carved from was first wetted to soften it before sculpting began, then again periodically during the process. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single moai would take a team of five or six men approximately one year to complete. Each statue represented the deceased head of a lineage.

Only a quarter of the statues were installed, while nearly half still remain in the quarry at Rano Raraku and the rest elsewhere on the island, probably on their way to final locations. The largest moai ever raised on a platform is known as "Paro" weighing 82 tons and long. There are several other statues of similar weight that were transported to several ahu on both the North and South coasts. It is not yet known how they transported the statues, but some have suggested that they required a miro manga erua, a Y-shaped sledge with cross pieces, pulled with ropes made from the tough bark of the hau-hau tree, and tied fast around the statue's neck. Anywhere from 180 to 250 men were required for pulling, depending on the size of the moai. Some 50 of the now standing statues have been re-erected in modern times. One of the first moai to be re-erected was on Ahu Ature Huke in Anakena beach in 1958. It was raised using traditional methods during an expedition to the island by Thor Heyerdahl.


Ahu are stone platforms which vary greatly in layout. Many have been significantly reworked during or after the ''huri mo'aior statue-topplingera; many became ossuaries; one was dynamited open; and Ahu Tongariki was swept inland by a tsunami. Of the 313 known ahu, 125 carried stone moai—usually just one, probably because of the shortness of the moai period and difficulties in transporting them. Ahu Tongariki, one kilometer from Rano Raraku, had the most and tallest moai, 15 in total. Other notable ahu with moai are Ahu Akivi, restored in 1960 by William Mulloy, Nau Nau at Anakena and Tahai. Some statues may have been made from wood, now lost.

The classic elements of ahu design are:

A retaining rear wall several feet high, usually facing the sea.

A front wall made of rectangular basalt slabs called paenga,

A facia made of red scoria that went over the front wall (platforms built after 1300).

A sloping ramp in the inland part of the platform, extending outward like wings.

A pavement of even-sized, round water-worn stones called poro.

An alignment of stones before the ramp

A paved plaza before the ahu. This was called marae.

Inside the ahu was a fill of rubble.

On top of many ahu would have been:

Moai on squareish "pedestals" looking inland, the ramp with the poro before them..

Pukao or Hau Hiti Rau on the moai heads (platforms built after 1300)

When a ceremony took place, "eyes" were placed on the Statues. The whites of the eyes were made of coral, the iris was made of obsidian or red scoria.

Ahu evolved from the traditional Polynesian marae'' in which the word ahu was a small structure sometimes covered with a thatched roof where sacred objects, including statues, were stored. The ahu were usually adjacent to the marae or main central court where all the ceremonies took place, though on Easter Island ahu and moai evolved to a much greater size, and the marae is the unpaved plaza before the ahu. The biggest ahu is 220 meters long from one end of the platform to the other and holds 15 statues some of which are 9 meters high. The filling of an ahu was sourced locally . Also individual stones are mostly far smaller than the moai, so less work was needed to transport the raw material, but artificially leveling the terrain for the plaza and filling the ahu was a tremendous amount of work.

Ahu are found mostly on the coast, where they are distributed fairly evenly except on the western slopes of Mount Terevaka and the Rano Kau and Poike headlands. These are the three areas with the least low-lying coastal land, and apart from Poike the furthest areas from Rano Raraku. One ahu with several moai was recorded on the cliffs at Rano Kau in the 1880s, but had fallen to the beach by the time of the Routledge expedition in 1914.

Navel of the world

There is an unusual "Navel of the World" lithic site bordering Ahu Te Pito Kura, near Anakena, with a round water worn beach boulder similar to those found in New Zealand. Rapanui today say the central round stone was brought by Hotu Matu'a from his native land, though Geologists consider the rock to be locally sourced, which coincides with earlier oral traditions that tells the story of how it was found by the clan that occupied Vinapu and used as a boundary marker before the clan lost it to the Miru clan from the Northern alliance of clans who took it to Te Pito Kura as a war prize. The fact that the stone is large and was naturally round indicated that it was charged with "mana" and could be used as a kind of large talisman. Like many of the stones found in the coast of Vinapu it has iron and its magnetic polarity differs in certain parts.

Stone walls

One of the highest-quality examples of Easter Island stone masonry is the rear wall of the ahu at Vinapu. Made without mortar by shaping hard basalt rocks of up to seven tons to match each other exactly, it has a superficial similarity to some Inca stone walls in South America.

Stone houses

There were primarily two types of houses in the past hare paenga, a house with an elliptical foundation made with basalt stone slabs covered with a thatched roof that looked like an overturned boat, and hare oka a round stone structure. There are also stone structures called Tupa which look very similar to the round Hare Oka, with the difference that these were inhabited by astronomer priests and they were located in places by the coast where one could easily observe the movements of the stars. In the settlements you also find hare moa ("chicken house"), oblong stone structures that were used to store the chickens at night. The houses at the ceremonial village of Orongo are unique in that they are shaped like a hare paenga but are made entirely with flat basalt slabs found inside Rano Kao crater. The entrances to all the houses were very low, and getting in required crawling.

In the beginning the Rapa Nui reportedly set the dead out to sea in small burial canoes the same as their Polynesian counterparts in other islands. They later started burying people in secret caves in order to save the bones from desecration by enemies. During the turmoils of the late 18th century, the islanders seem to have started to bury their dead underneath the space that formed between the belly of a fallen moai and the front wall that held the structure. During the time of the epidemics they made mass graves that were semi-pyramidal stone structures.


Petroglyphs are pictures carved into rock, and Easter Island has one of the richest collections in all Polynesia. Around 1,000 sites with more than 4,000 petroglyphs are catalogued. Designs and images were carved out of rock for a variety of reasons: to create totems, to mark territory or to memorialize a person or event. There are distinct variations around the island in terms of the frequency of particular themes among petroglyphs, with a concentration of Birdmen at Orongo. Other subjects include sea turtles, Komari (vulvas) and Makemake, the chief god of the Tangata manu or Birdman cult. (Lee 1992)

Petroglyphs are also common in the Marquesas islands.

File:Makemake.jpeg|Makemake with two birdmen, carved from red scoria

File:Ahu-Tongariki-4-Petroglyph.JPG|Fish petroglyph found near Ahu Tongariki

File:Motu Nui.jpg|Petroglyphs on Basalt rocks at Orongo. A Makemake at the base and two birdmen higher up


The island and neighbouring Motu Nui are riddled with caves, many of which show signs of past human use for planting and as fortifications, including narrowed entrances and crawl spaces with ambush points. Many caves feature in the myths and legends of the Rapa Nui.


It is not clear whether the undeciphered Easter island script rongorongo was created without outside influence ex nihilo or after contact with Europeans. Alternatively, the islanders' brief exposure to Western writing during the Spanish visit in 1770 may have inspired the ruling class to establish rongorongo as a religious tool. Rongorongo has few similarities to the petroglyph corpus; and there is not a single line of rongorongo carved in stone despite thousands of petroglyphs and other stonework.

Rongorongo was first reported by a French missionary, Eugene Eyraud, in 1864. At that time, several islanders claimed to be able to understand the writing, but all attempts to read them were unsuccessful. According to tradition, only a small part of the population was ever literate, rongorongo being a privilege of the ruling families and priests. This contributed to the total loss of knowledge of how to read rongorongo in the 1860s, when the island's elite was annihilated by slave raids and disease.

Of the hundreds of objects reportedly having rongorongo writing carved on them, only 28 survive, scattered in museums around the world with very few remaining on Easter Island. Numerous attempts to decipher them have proved fruitless, and the academic community does not agree on anyone having deciphered it. What they do agree upon is that it seems to be pictographic and that its meant to read in reverse boustrophedon style.

Wood carving

Wood was scarce on Easter Island during the 18th and 19th centuries, but a number of highly detailed and distinctive carvings have found their way to the world's museums. Particular forms include:

Reimiro, a gorget or breast ornament of crescent shape with a head at one or both tips. The same design appears on the flag of Rapa Nui. Two Rei Miru at the British Museum are inscribed with Rongorongo.

Moko Miro, a man with a lizard head.

Moai kavakava, grotesque and highly detailed human figures carved from Toromiro pine and represent deceased ancestors. The earlier figures are rare and generally depict a male figure with an emaciated body and a goatee. The figures' ribs and vertebrae are exposed and many examples show carved glyphs on various parts of the body but more generally, on the top of the head. The female figures, which are far rarer then the males are, depict the body as flat and often the female's hand lying across the body. The figures, although some quite large, were worn as ornamental pieces around a tribesman's neck, the more figures worn, the more important the man. The figures have a shiny surface, this patina developed from constant handling and contact with human skin.

Ao, a large dancing paddle.

Contemporary culture

The Rapanui have:

An annual cultural festival, the Tapati, held since 1975 around the beginning of February to celebrate Rapanui culture.

A national football team.

Three discos in the town of Hanga Roa.

A musical tradition that combines South American and Polynesian influences (see music of Easter Island).

A vibrant carving tradition.


2002 census

Population at the 2002 census was 3,791. 60% were Rapanui, Chileans of European or castizo descent were 39% of the population, and the remaining 1% were Native Americans from mainland Chile. Castizos may include people of European and Rapanui or European, Native American, and Rapanui descent. Rapanui have also migrated out of the island. Population density on Easter Island is only 23 inhabitants per km .The Rapanui today are trying to restrict immigration of mainland Chileans to the island which requires a change in the Chilean constitution.

Demographic history

The population was 1,936 inhabitants in 1982 Census. This increase in population in the last census is partly caused by the arrival of people of European or castizo descent from the mainland of Chile. However most of these immigrants are married to a Rapanui partner. In the 1982 Census around 70% of the population were Rapanui (the native Polynesian inhabitants). It is almost impossible to calculate the height of Easter Island's population in ancient times. Some sources say as few as 7,000, others as much as 17,000. As mentioned earlier, Easter Island's all-time low of 111 inhabitants were reported in 1877. Out of these 111 Rapanui, only 36 had descendants, but all of today's Rapanui claim descent from those 36.

Administration and legal status

Easter Island shares with Juan Fernandez Islands the sui generis constitutional status of special territory of Chile, granted in 2007. A special charter for the island is currently being discussed: therefore it continues to be considered a province of the Valparaiso Region, containing a single commune. Both the province and the commune are called Isla de Pascua and encompass the whole island and its surrounding islets and rocks, plus Isla Salas y Gomez, some 380 km to the east.


Provincial governor: Melania Carolina Hotu Hey. Appointed by the President of the Republic.

Mayor: Luz Zasso Paoa (PDC), directly elected for four years (20082012). Municipality located in Hanga Roa.

Municipal council, directly elected for four years (20082012):

* Marta Raquel Hotus Tuki (PDC)

* Ximena Trengove Vallejos (PDC)

* Julio Araki Tepano (UDI)

* Eliana Amelia Olivares San Juan (UDI)

* Alberto Hotus Chavez (PPD)

* Marcelo Pont Hill (PPD)

Notable figures

Hotu Matua - Island founder

King Nga'ara - last great ariki

Fr Sebastian Englert, OFM Cap. - Missionary and ethnologist

William Mulloy - Archaeologist

Sergio Rapu Haoa - Former Governor

Pedro Pablo Edmunds Paoa - Mayor

Melania Carolina Hotu Hey - Governor

Juan Edmunds Rapahango - Former island mayor

See also

Rapa Nui language

Rapa Nui mythology


Mataveri International Airport

List of megalithic sites

Podesta (island)



Selected bibliography

Heyerdal, Thor Aku-Aku; The 1958 Expedition to Easter Island.

in Google Books

External links

Rapa Nui Digital Media Archive , focused in the area around Rano Raraku and Ahu Te Pito Kura with data from a Autodesk/CyArk research partnership

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Easter Island

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