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Easter Island History

Easter Island was so named by Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer who on April 5, 1722, Easter Sunday, was the first European to visit the island.

First Inhabitants

Radio carbon studies estimate that the first inhabitants of Easter Island settled between 700 CE and 1200 CE. There is much debate about the origin of the Rapa Nui. Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl suggested that Polynesia was settled by the Incas coming from South America, one of the reasons is in the similarity of their stone work . His theory never gained acceptance among anthropologist. Other minds have wondered and suggested an extraterrestrial influence.

A 1773 map of Easter island currently at the National Archive UK

The most accepted theory is that the Rapa Nui came from the west Polynesian islands and according to legend they were led by King Hoto Matua. They landed at Anakena, one of the two sandy beaches on the island, since the rest of the coastline is surrounded by high cliffs and lava rocks where boats cannot be anchored.

The explorers settled in this territory and built villages and houses. Their houses or hare vaka were built from wood available in the island and had a peculiar elliptical shape. Archeologists believe that houses were initially built by turning their boats upside down for quick shelter therefore the elliptical shape of their houses. Settlers found vast amount of trees, mostly giant palms now extinct, which they used to build their houses, boats and levers to transport the giant moai.

A replica of a Rapa Nui house at the Easter Island Exhibition at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hawaii.


Society and Religion

The Rapa Nui culture reached its pinnacle at around AD1500 when population reached 7000 to 9000.  The society of the Rupa Nui was divided into classes, there were nine clans and each one had a chief. The higher chiefs were the first born male descendents of the founder Hotu Matua. These groups for the most part lived in peace working together building giant statues around the island. The statues represented their dead ancestors and were built facing the settlements with their backs to the sea. The Rapa Nui believed that their ancestors would provide everything they needed as long as they continued their offerings providing them a better life in their dead world. Because the Rapa Nui used more and more trees to build more moai in their attempt to worship their ancestors, it ultimately brought the destruction of its culture by depleting the natural resources available in the island.

The majority of the moai faced settlements with their backs to the sea.

Ecological disaster and the end of the Rapa Nui

By slowly cutting unlimited amounts of trees the Rupa Nui caused the deforestation of their land and the end of a peaceful period that existed among tribes. Deforestation caused the land to erode and soil used for agriculture was washed away by rain and sea, it was an ecological disaster. Without wood they could not build boats or canoes to fish and with failing crops food was so scarce that they turned into each other. The struggle for scarce resources led to an internal civil war, human bones found by archeologists show evidence that the Rapa Nui turned into cannibalism. During this struggle all moai along the coast were toppled down, there was only a few that remained erected.

At this time a new cult emerged within the Rapa Nui, the Birdman Cult, it became the main religion of the islanders and was practiced until its culture and population were wiped out by European colonizers. Orongo was the village where the ceremonies took place, it is located on the highest part of the rim of the crater Rano Kau. Here is where hundreds of petroglyphs or rock carvings were found with images of Birdman and Makemake, the god creator of humans. The Birdman was selected among a group of strong males who competed to become the leader of the island. Competition was very physical and challenging as it required climbing vertical cliffs and swimming in shark infested waters.

Petroglyphs of Birdman

First European Visit

On April 5, 1722, Easter Sunday, Jocob Roggeveen a Dutch explorer was the first European to visit the island. In 1774 James Cook visited the island and after that there were many attempts to land but islanders had become more hostile to foreign visitors. In the 1860s Easter Island saw a dramatic decrease in its population, most of them were taken by slave traders and the ones who remained on the island died of new deceases such as tuberculosis and small pox brought in by Europeans.  Missionaries settled on the island to try convert the population into Christianity meanwhile wiping out their culture. In a decade only 3% of the population survived.

How Easter Island became Chilean Territory

European entrepreneurs and missionaries started buying land of natives who had died and in 1871 Jean Baptiste Dutron-Bornier bought up the entire island. He took with him most of the remaining young population to work as slaves in Tahiti and in 1877 only 111 natives remained. In 1878 Alexander Salmon bought the island from Dutron-Bornier and on September 9, 1888 he sold it to the government of Chile. Chile claimed sovereignty over the island and signed the Treaty of Annexation of the Island. It was only in 1966 that the Rapa Nui were given Chilean citizenship.

Related Information

Easter Island Travel

Easter Island Statues or moai

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