Polynesian people most likely settled on Easter Island sometime between 700 and 1100 AD and created a thriving and industrious culture as evidenced by the island's numerous enormous stone moai and other artefacts. However, human activity, the introduction of the Polynesian rat and overpopulation led to gradual deforestation and extinction of natural resources which severely weakened the Rapa Nui civilization. By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. European diseases and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population, to a low of only 111 inhabitants in 1877.
Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 kilometres away; the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 2,606 km away; the nearest continental point lies in central Chile, 3,512 kilometres away.
Easter Island is a special territory of Chile that was annexed in 1888. Administratively, it belongs to the Valparaíso Region, and, more specifically, it is the only commune of the Province Isla de Pascua. According to the 2012 Chilean census, the island has about 5,800 residents, of whom some 60 percent are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui.
Easter Island is considered part of Insular Chile.
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 (5 April) in 1722, while searching for Davis or David's island. Roggeveen 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 ("Big Rapa"), was coined after the slave raids of the early 1860s, and refers to the island's topographic resemblance to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group. However, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl argued that Rapa was the original name of Easter Island and that Rapa Iti was named by refugees from there.
The phrase Te pito o te henua has been said to be the original name of the island since French ethnologist Alphonse Pinart gave it the romantic translation "the Navel of the World" in his Voyage à l'Île de Pâques, published in 1877. William Churchill (1912) inquired about the phrase and was told that there were three te pito o te henua, these being the three capes (land's ends) of the island. The phrase appears to have been used in the same sense as the designation of "Land's End" at the tip of Cornwall. He was unable to elicit a Polynesian name for the island itself, and concluded that there may not have been one.
According to Barthel (1974), oral tradition has it that the island was first named Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka, "The little piece of land of Hau Maka". However, there are two words pronounced pito in Rapa Nui, one meaning 'end' and one 'navel', and the phrase can thus also mean "the Navel of the World". Another name, Mata ki te rangi, means "Eyes looking to the sky".
Islanders are referred to in Spanish as pascuense; however it is common to refer to members of the indigenous community as Rapa Nui.
Oral tradition states the island was first settled by a two canoe expedition, originating from Marae Renga (or Marae Toe Hau), and led by the chief Hotu Matu'a and his captain Tu'u ko Iho. The island was first scouted after Haumaka dreamed of such a far off country, Hotu deemed it a worthwhile place to flee from a neighboring chief, one whom he had already lost three battles. At their time of arrival, the island had one lone settler, Nga Tavake 'a Te Rona. After a brief stay at Anakena, the colonists settled in different parts of the island. Hotu's heir, Tu'u ma Heke, was born on the island. Tu'u ko Iho is viewed as the leader who brought the statues and caused them to walk.
The earliest radiocarbon dates for the island, AD 690±130, occur on the southwestern portion of the island at Ahu Tahai near Hanga Roa. Archaeological and paleobotanical evidence also point to this area as the early center of habitation. Anthropometrical, skeletal, and linguistic evidence show the Easter Islanders to be close relatives of the Mangarevans. Thus, the Easter Islanders are considered to be South-East Polynesians, originating from the general area of Mangareva-Pitcairn-Henderson. Contact, at least culturally, carried onwards for at least 400 years. Similar sacred zones with statuary (marae and ahu) in East Polynesia lends support to this interaction from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The south coast was colonized starting in the 1300s. Then, Easter Island appears to have become isolated by about 1500, and mo'ai carving and transport ceased. The last forest was cut down by about 1640, and by about 1700, the flora was almost completely gone. The soil was eroded or leached, and water resources dried up. Only the three crater swamps, and isolated springs such as Vai Tapa Eru, provided fresh water. A peak population of about 12,000 seen in the 14th and 15th centuries had shrunk to perhaps 6,000.
By the 15th century, two confederations, hanau, of social groupings, mata, existed, based on lineage. The western and northern portion of the island belonged to the Tu'u, which included the royal Miru, with the royal center at Anakena, though Tahai and Te Peu served as earlier capitals. The eastern portion of the island belonged to the 'Otu 'Itu. Shortly after the Dutch visit, from 1724 until 1750, the 'Out 'Itu fought the Tu'u for control of the island. This fighting would continue until the 1860s. Famine followed the burning of huts and the destruction of fields. Social control vanished as the ordered way of life gave way to lawlessness and predatory bands as the warrior class took over. Homelessness prevailed with many living underground. After the Spanish visit, from 1770 onwards, a period of statue toppling, huri mo'ai, commenced. This was an attempt by competing groups to destroy the socio-spiritual power, or mana, represented by statues, making sure to break them in the fall to ensure they were dead and without power. None were left standing by the arrival of the French missionaries in the 1860s.
Between 1862 and 1888, about 94% of the population perished or emigrated. The island was victimized by Blackbirding from 1862 to 1863, resulting in the abduction or killing of about 1500, with 1408 working as indentured servants in Peru. Only about a dozen were to return to Easter Island, but they brought smallpox, which decimated the remaining population of 1500. Those who perished included the island's tumu ivi 'atua, bearers of the island's culture, history, and genealogy besides the rongorongo experts.
Estimated dates of initial settlement of Easter Island have ranged from 300 to 1200 AD, approximately coinciding with the arrival of the first settlers in Hawaii. Rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the previously posited early settlement dates in Polynesia. Rapa Nui is now considered to have been settled in the narrower range of 700 to 1100 AD. Ongoing archaeological studies suggest a still-later date: "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 AD. Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement."
According to oral tradition, the first settlement was at Anakena. Researchers have noted that the Caleta Anakena landing point provides the island's best shelter from prevailing swells as well as a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings so it appeals as a likely early place of settlement. However, this conclusion contradicts radiocarbon dating, according to which other sites preceded Anakena by many years, especially the Tahai, whose radiocarbon dates precede Anakena's by several centuries.
The island was most likely populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600 km (1,600 mi) away) or the Marquesas Islands, 3,200 km (2,000 mi) away. According to some theories, such as the Polynesian Diaspora Theory, there is a possibility that early Polynesian settlers arrived from South America due to their remarkable sea-navigation abilities. Theorists have supported this through the agricultural evidence of the sweet potato. The sweet potato was a favoured crop found among Polynesian society for generations. However, the origins of the sweet potato trace back to South America, proving evidence of interaction at some point in time between these two geographic areas. When James Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, a Polynesian from Bora Bora, Hitihiti, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan, with an estimated 80 percent similarity in vocabulary. In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was able to reach Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days.
According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system, with an ariki, or high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through first-born 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 some believe represented deified ancestors. According to National Geographic, "Most scholars suspect that the moai were created to honor ancestors, chiefs, or other important personages, However, no written and little oral history exists on the island, so it’s impossible to be certain."
It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead in which the dead provided everything that the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune etc.) and the living, through offerings, provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Most settlements were located on the coast and most moai were erected along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.
Jared Diamond suggested that cannibalism took place on Easter Island after the construction of the moai contributed to environmental degradation when extreme deforestation destabilized an already precarious ecosystem. Archeological record shows that at the time of the initial settlement the island was home to many species of trees, including at least three species which grew up to 15 metres (49 ft) or more: Paschalococos – possibly the largest palm trees in the world at the time, Alphitonia zizyphoides, and Elaeocarpus rarotongensis, as well as at least six species of native land birds. A major factor that contributed to the extinction of multiple plant species was the introduction of the Polynesian rat. Studies by paleobotanists have shown rats can dramatically affect the reproduction of vegetation in an ecosystem. In the case of Rapa Nui, recovered plant shell seeds showed markings of being gnawed on by rats. Barbara A. West wrote, "Sometime before the arrival of Europeans on Easter Island, the Rapanui experienced a tremendous upheaval in their social system brought about by a change in their island's ecology... By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier."
By that time, 21 species of trees and all species of land birds became extinct through some combination of overharvesting/overhunting, rat predation, and climate change. The island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees more than 3 metres (10 feet) tall. Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. One theory regarding the deforestation that caused such ecological and social damage was that the trees were used as rollers to move the statues to their place of erection from the quarry at Rano Raraku. Deforestation also affected agricultural production on Rapa Nui. At first, the native tropical forests provided ideal shade cover for soil. But with many of the native forest being destroyed, the topsoil became eroded causing a sharp decline in agricultural production. This was further exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations as a potential source of food. By the 18th century, residents of the island were largely sustained by farming, with domestic chickens as the primary source of protein.
As the island became overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult. Beverly Haun wrote, "The concept of mana (power) invested in hereditary leaders was recast into the person of the birdman, apparently beginning circa 1540, and coinciding with the final vestiges of the moai period." This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition. The god responsible for creating humans, Makemake, played an important role in this process. Katherine Routledge, who systematically collected the island's traditions in her 1919 expedition, showed that the competitions for Bird Man (Rapanui: tangata manu) 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 formally arrived in 1864. Petroglyphs representing Bird Men on Easter Island are exactly the same as some in Hawaii, indicating that this concept was probably brought by the original settlers; only the competition itself was unique to Easter Island.
According to Diamond and Heyerdahl's version of the island's history, the huri mo'ai—"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, in Hoa Hakananai'a in Orongo, and Ariki Paro in Ahu Te Pito Kura. A study headed by Douglas Owsley published in 1994 asserted that there is little archaeological evidence of pre-European societal collapse. 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 5 April (Easter Sunday), 1722, by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. His visit resulted in the death of about a dozen islanders, including the tumu ivi 'atua, and the wounding of many others.
The next foreign visitors (on 15 November 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, under the command of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez de Ahedo. The Spanish were amazed by the "standing idols", all of which were erect that you witnessed.
Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island; he reported that some statues had been toppled. Through the interpretation of Hitihiti, Cook learned the statues commemorated their former high chiefs, including their names and ranks.
The British ship HMS Blossom arrived in 1825.
A series of devastating events killed or removed most of the population in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing around 1,500 men and women, half of the island's population. Among those captured were the island's paramount chief, his heir, and those who knew how to read and write the rongorongo script, the only Polynesian script to have been found to date. (Although serious debate exists about whether this is proto-writing or true writing.)
When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped, carriers of smallpox disembarked together with a few survivors on each of the islands. This created devastating epidemics from Easter Island 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-19th century, had already killed several islanders when the first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, died from this disease in 1867. About a quarter of the island's population succumbed along 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 natives and settlers.
Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a few 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, only 111 people lived on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring. From that point on the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or gone in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.
Alexander Salmon, Jr., a son of an English Jewish merchant and a Pōmare Dynasty princess, eventually worked to repatriate workers from his inherited copra plantation. He eventually bought up all lands on the island with the exception of the mission, and was its sole employer. He worked to develop tourism on the island, and was the principal informant for the British and German archaeological expeditions for the island. He sent several pieces of genuine Rongorongo to his niece's husband, the German consul in Valparaíso, Chile. Salmon sold the Brander Easter Island holdings to the Chilean government on January 2 1888 and signed as a witness to the cession of the island. He returned to Tahiti in December of that year. He effectively ruled the island from 1878 until his cession to Chile in 1888.
Easter Island was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888 by Policarpo Toro by means of the "Treaty of Annexation of the Island" (Tratado de Anexión de la isla). Toro, then representing the government of Chile, signed with Atamu Tekena, designated "King" by the Roman Catholic missionaries after the paramount chief and his heir had died. The validity of this treaty is still contested by some Rapanui. Officially, Chile purchased the nearly all encompassing Mason-Brander sheep ranch, comprised from lands purchased from the descendants of Rapanui who died during the epidemics, and then claimed sovereignty over the island.
Until the 1960s the surviving Rapanui were confined to Hanga Roa. 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.
Following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Easter Island was placed under martial law. Tourism slowed down and private property was restored. During his time in power, Pinochet visited Easter Island on three occasions. The military built a number of new military facilities and a new city hall.
After an agreement in 1985 between Chile and United States, the runway at Mataveri International Airport was enlarged and was inaugurated in 1987. The runway was expanded 423 metres (1,388 ft) reaching 3,353 metres (11,001 ft). Pinochet is reported to have refused to attend the inauguration in protest of pressures from the United States to attend human rights cases.
Fishers of Rapa Nui have shown their concern of illegal fishing on the island. “Since the year 2000 we started to lose tuna, which is the basis of the fishing on the island, so then we began to take the fish from the shore to feed our families, but in less than two years we depleted all of it,” Pakarati said. On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and the Juan Fernández Islands (also known as Robinson Crusoe Island) the status of "special territories" of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island continued to be governed as a province of the V Region of Valparaíso.
A total solar eclipse visible from Easter Island occurred for the first time in over 1,300 years on 11 July 2010, at 18:15:15.
Species of fish were collected in Easter Island for one month in different habitats including shallow lava pools, depths of 43 meters, and deep waters. Within these habitats, two holotypes and paratypes, Antennarius randalli and Antennarius moai, were discovered. These are considered frog-fish because of their characteristics: "12 dorsal rays, last two or three branched; bony part of first dorsal spine slightly shorter than second dorsal spine; body without bold zebra-like markings; caudal peduncle short, but distinct; last pelvic ray divided; pectoral rays 11 or 12".
Starting in August 2010, members of the indigenous Hitorangi clan occupied the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa. The occupiers allege that the hotel was bought from the Pinochet government, in violation of a Chilean agreement with the indigenous Rapa Nui, in the 1990s. The occupiers say their ancestors had been cheated into giving up the land. According to a BBC report, on 3 December 2010, at least 25 people were injured when Chilean police using pellet guns attempted to evict from these buildings a group of Rapa Nui who had claimed that the land the buildings stood on had been illegally taken from their ancestors.
In January 2011, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People, James Anaya, expressed concern about the treatment of the indigenous Rapa Nui by the Chilean government, urging Chile to "make every effort to conduct a dialogue in good faith with representatives of the Rapa Nui people to solve, as soon as possible the real underlying problems that explain the current situation".
The incident ended in February 2011, when up to 50 armed police broke into the hotel to remove the final five occupiers. They were arrested by the government and no injuries were reported.
Easter Island is one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. Its closest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 km (1,289 mi) to the west, with fewer than 100 inhabitants. The nearest continental point lies in central Chile near Concepción, at 3,512 kilometres (2,182 mi). Easter Island's latitude is similar to that of Caldera, Chile, and it lies 3,510 km (2,180 mi) west of continental Chile at its nearest point (between Lota and Lebu in the Biobío Region). Isla Salas y Gómez, 415 km (258 mi) to the east, is closer but is uninhabited. Archipelago Tristan da Cunha in the southern Atlantic competes for the title of the most remote island, lying 2,430 kilometres (1,510 mi) from Saint Helena island and 2,816 kilometres (1,750 mi) from the South African coast.
The island is about 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point; its overall shape is triangular. It has an area of 163.6 square kilometres (63.2 sq mi), and a maximum altitude of 507 metres (1,663 ft). 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.
Easter Island is a volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes: Terevaka (altitude 507 metres) forms the bulk of the island, while two other volcanoes, Poike and Rano Kau, form the eastern and southern headlands and give the island its roughly triangular shape. Lesser cones and other volcanic features include the crater Rano Raraku, the cinder cone Puna Pau and many volcanic caves including lava tubes. Poike used to be a separate island until volcanic material from Terevaka united it to the larger whole. The island is dominated by hawaiite and basalt flows which are rich in iron and show affinity with igneous rocks found in the Galápagos Islands.
Easter Island and surrounding islets, such as Motu Nui and Motu Iti, form the summit of a large volcanic mountain rising over 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) from the sea bed. The mountain is part of the Sala y Gómez Ridge, a (mostly submarine) mountain range with dozens of seamounts, formed by the Easter hotspot. The range begins with Pukao and next Moai, two seamounts to the west of Easter Island, and extends 2,700 km (1,700 mi) east to the Nazca Ridge. The ridge was formed by the Nazca Plate moving over the Easter hotspot.
Located about 350 km east of the East Pacific Rise, Easter Island lies within the Nazca Plate, bordering the Easter Microplate. The Nazca-Pacific relative plate movement due to the seafloor spreading, amounts to about 150 mm per year. This movement over the Easter hotspot has resulted in the Easter Seamount Chain, which merges into the Nazca Ridge further to the east. Easter Island and Sala y Gómez are surface representations of that chain. The chain has progressively younger ages to the west. The current hotspot location is speculated to be west of Easter Island, amidst the Ahu, Umu and Tupa submarine volcanic fields and the Pukao and Moai seamounts.
Easter Island lies atop the Rano Kau Ridge, and consists of three shield volcanoes with parallel geologic histories. Poike and Rano Kau exist on the east and south slopes of Terevaka, respectively. Rano Kau developed between 0.78 and 0.46 Ma from tholeiitic to alkalic basalts. This volcano possesses a clearly defined summit caldera. Benmoreitic lavas extruded about the rim from 0.35 to 0.34 Ma. Finally, between 0.24 and 0.11 Ma, a 6.5 km fissure developed along a NE-SW trend, forming monogenetic vents and rhyolitic intrusions. These include the cryptodome islets of Motu Nui and Motu Iti, the islet of Motu Kao Kao, the sheet intrusion of Te Kari Kari, the perlitic obsidian Te Manavai dome and the Maunga Orito dome.
Poike formed from tholeiitic to alkali basalts from 0.78 to 0.41 Ma. Its summit collapsed into a caldera which was subsequently filled by the Puakatiki lava cone pahoehoe flows at 0.36 Ma. Finally, the trachytic lava domes of Maunga Vai a Heva, Maunga Tea Tea, and Maunga Parehe formed along a NE-SW trending fissure.
Terevaka formed around 0.77 Ma of tholeiitic to alkali basalts, followed by the collapse of its summit into a caldera. Then at about 0.3Ma, cinder cones formed along a NNE-SSW trend on the western rim, while porphyritic benmoreitic lava filled the caldera, and pahoehoe flowed towards the northern coast, forming lava tubes, and to the southeast. Lava domes and a vent complex formed in the Maunga Puka area, while breccias formed along the vents on the western portion of Rano Aroi crater. This volcano's southern and southeastern flanks are composed of younger flows consisting of basalt, alkali basalt, hawaiite, mugearite, and benmoreite from eruptive fissures starting at 0.24 Ma. The youngest lava flow, Roiho, is dated at 0.11 Ma. The Hanga O Teo embayment is interpreted to be a 200 m high landslide scarp.
Rano Raraku and Maunga Toa Toa are isolated tuff cones of about 0.21 Ma. The crater of Rano Raraku contains a freshwater lake. The stratified tuff is composed of sideromelane, slightly altered to palagonite, and somewhat lithified. The tuff contains lithic fragments of older lava flows. The northwest sector of Rano Raraku contains reddish ash. According to Bandy, "...all of the great images of Easter Island are carved from" the light and porous tuff from Rano Raraku. A carving was abandoned when a large, dense and hard lithic fragment was encountered. However, these lithics became the basis for stone hammers and chisels. The Puna Pau crater contains an extremely porous pumice, from which was carved the Pukao "hats". The Maunga Orito obsidian was used to make the "mataa" spearheads.
In the first half of the 20th century, steam reportedly came out of the Rano Kau crater wall. This was photographed by the island's manager, Mr. Edmunds.
Under the Köppen climate classification, the climate of Easter Island is classified as a tropical rainforest climate (Af) that borders on a humid subtropical climate. The lowest temperatures are recorded in July and August (minimum 15 °C or 59 °F) and the highest in February (maximum temperature 28 °C or 82 °F), the summer season in the southern hemisphere. Winters are relatively mild. The rainiest month is May, though the island experiences year-round rainfall. Easter Island's isolated location exposes it to winds which help to keep the temperature fairly cool. Precipitation averages 1,118 millimetres or 44 inches 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 South Pacific High and outside the range of the intertropical convergence zone, cyclones and hurricanes do not occur around Easter island. There is significant temperature moderation due to its isolated position in the middle of the ocean.
Easter Island, together with its closest neighbour, the tiny island of Isla Sala y Gómez 415 kilometres (258 mi) farther 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, tree moulds left by lava flows, and root casts found in local soils indicate that the island was formerly forested, with a range of trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. A large extinct palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees as attested by fossil evidence. Like its Chilean counterpart it probably took close to 100 years to reach adult height. The Polynesian rat, which the original settlers brought with them, played a very important role in the disappearance of the Rapanui palm. Although some may believe that rats played a major role in the degradation of the forest, less than 10% of palm nuts show teeth marks from rats. The remains of palm stumps in different places indicate that humans caused the trees to fall because in large areas, the stumps were cut efficiently.
The clearance of the palms to make the settlements led to their extinction almost 350 years ago. The toromiro tree (Sophora toromiro) was prehistorically present on Easter Island, but is now extinct in the wild. However the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Göteborg 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-1900s the island was mostly covered in grassland with nga'atu or 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. Fossil evidence indicates five species of landbirds (two rails, two parrots and a heron), all of which have become extinct. Five introduced species of landbird are known to have breeding populations (see List of birds of Easter Island).
Lacks of studies resulting in poor understandings of oceanic fauna of Easter Island and waters in vicinity, however possibilities of undiscovered breeding grounds for humpback, southern blue and pygmy blue whales including Easter Island and Isla Salas y Gómez have been considered. Potential breeding area for fin whales have been detected off northeast of the island as well.
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. It is now being studied for extending longevity in mice.
Trees are sparse, rarely forming natural groves, and it has been argued whether native Easter Islanders deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues, and in providing sustenance for an overpopulated island. Experimental archaeology 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. Rapanui traditions metaphorically refer to spiritual power (mana) as the means by which the moai were "walked" from the quarry. Recent experimental recreations have proven that it is fully possible that the moai were literally walked from their quarries to their final positions by use of ropes, casting doubt on the role that their existence plays in the environmental collapse of the island.
Given the island's southern latitude, the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (about 1650 to 1850) may have exacerbated deforestation, although this remains speculative. Many researchers point to the climatic downtrend caused by the Little Ice Age as a contributing factor to resource stress and to the palm tree's disappearance. Experts, however, do not agree on when exactly the island's palms became extinct.
Jared Diamond dismisses past climate change as a dominant cause of the island's deforestation in his book Collapse which assesses the collapse of the ancient Easter Islanders. Influenced by Heyerdahl's romantic interpretation of Easter's history (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 centuries. He notes that they stopped making statues at that time and started destroying the ahu. But the link is weakened because the Bird Man cult continued to thrive and survived the great impact caused by the arrival of explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, and slave raiders.
Midden contents show that the main source of protein was tuna and dolphin. With the loss of the trees, there was a sudden drop in the quantities of fish bones found in middens as the islanders lost the means to construct fishing vessels, coinciding with a large increase in bird bones. This was followed by a decrease in the number of bird bones as birds lost their nesting sites or became extinct. A new style of art from this period shows people with exposed ribs and distended bellies, indicative of malnutrition, and it is around this time that many islanders moved to living in fortified caves and the first signs of warfare and cannibalism appear.
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 drastically altered. Polynesians were primarily farmers, not fishermen, and their diet consisted mainly of cultivated staples such as taro root, sweet potato, yams, cassava, and bananas. With no trees to protect them, sea spray led to crop failures exacerbated by a sudden reduction in fresh water flows. There is evidence that the islanders took to planting crops in caves beneath collapsed ceilings and covered the soil with rocks to reduce evaporation. Cannibalism occurred on many Polynesian islands, sometimes in times of plenty as well as famine. Its presence on Easter Island (based on human remains associated with cooking sites, especially in caves) is supported by oral histories.
Benny Peiser noted evidence of self-sufficiency when Europeans first arrived. The island still had smaller trees, mainly toromiro, which became extinct in the wild in the 20th century probably because of slow growth and changes in the island's ecosystem. Cornelis Bouman, Jakob Roggeveen's captain, stated in his logbook, "... 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 Mètraux, the most common type of house was called "hare paenga" (and is known today as "boat house") because the roof resembled an overturned boat. The foundations 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 who said they had seen "boles of large palm trees".
Peiser claims that these reports indicate that large trees existed at that time, which is perhaps contradicted by the Bouman quote above. Plantations were often located farther inland, next to foothills, inside open-ceiling lava tubes, and in other places protected from the strong salt winds and salt spray affecting areas closer to the coast. It is possible many of the Europeans did not venture inland. The statue quarry, only one kilometre (0.62 miles) from the coast with an impressive cliff 100 m (330 ft) high, was not explored by Europeans until well into the 19th century.
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 sheep farming 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-François de La Pérouse 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 Pérouse expedition, 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 labor, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants."
According to Diamond, the oral traditions (the veracity of which has been questioned by Routledge, Lavachery, Mètraux, Peiser and others) of the current islanders seem obsessed with cannibalism, which he offers 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. Human bones have not been found in earth ovens other than those behind the religious platforms, indicating that cannibalism in Easter Island was a ritualistic practice. Contemporary ethnographic research has proven there is scarcely any tangible evidence for widespread cannibalism anywhere and at any time on the Island. The first scientific exploration of Easter Island (1914) recorded that the indigenous population strongly rejected allegations that they or their ancestors had been cannibals.
The most important myths are:
The Rapa Nui people had a Stone Age culture and made extensive use of local stone:
The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is famous, were carved in the period 1100–1680 CE (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections. Although often identified as "Easter Island heads", the statues have torsos, most of them ending at the top of the thighs, although a small number are complete figures that kneel 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 from compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash or tuff found at a single site on the side of the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. The native islanders who carved them used only stone hand chisels, mainly basalt toki, which lie in place all over the quarry. The stone chisels were sharpened by chipping off a new edge when dulled. While sculpting was going on, the volcanic stone was splashed with water to soften it. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single moai took a team of five or six men approximately a year to complete. Each statue represented the deceased head of a lineage.
Only a quarter of the statues were installed. Nearly half remained in the quarry at Rano Raraku, and the rest sat elsewhere, presumably on their way to intended locations. The largest moai raised on a platform is known as "Paro". It weighs 82 tonnes (90.4 short tons), and is 9.89 m (32.4 ft) long. Several other statues of similar weight were transported to ahu on the north and south coasts.
Possible means by which the statues were moved include employment of a miro manga erua, a Y-shaped sledge with cross pieces, pulled with ropes made from the tough bark of the hau tree and tied 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 statues were re-erected in modern times. One of the first was on Ahu Ature Huke in Anakena beach in 1956. It was raised using traditional methods during a Heyerdahl expedition.
Another method that might have been used would be to attach ropes to the statue and rock it, tugging it forward as it rocked. This would fit the legend of the Mo'ai 'walking' to their final locations. This might have been managed by as few as 15 people, supported by the following evidence:
There is debate around the moai regarding the effects of the monument creation process on the environment. Some believe that the process of creating the moai caused widespread deforestation and ultimately a civil war over scarce resources.
In 2011, a large moai statue was excavated from the ground. During the same excavation program, some larger moai were found to have complex dorsal petroglyphs, revealed by deep excavation of the torso.
Ahu are stone platforms. Varying greatly in layout, many were reworked during or after the huri mo'ai or statue-toppling era; many became ossuaries; one was dynamited open; and Ahu Tongariki was swept inland by a tsunami. Of the 313 known ahu, 125 carried moai—usually just one, probably because of the shortness of the moai period and transportation difficulties. Ahu Tongariki, one kilometre (0.62 miles) 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 moai may have been made from wood and were lost.
The classic elements of ahu design are:
On top of many ahu would have been:
Ahu evolved from the traditional Polynesian marae. In this context ahu referred to 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 ceremonies took place, though on Easter Island ahu and moai evolved to much greater size. There the marae is the unpaved plaza before the ahu. The biggest ahu is 220 metres (720 ft) and holds 15 statues, some of which are 9 metres (30 ft) high. The filling of an ahu was sourced locally (apart from broken, old moai, fragments of which have been used in the fill). Individual stones are mostly far smaller than the moai, so less work was needed to transport the raw material, but artificially levelling the terrain for the plaza and filling the ahu was laborious.
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 before the Routledge expedition.
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 7 tonnes to match each other exactly, it has a superficial similarity to some Inca stone walls in South America.
Two types of houses are known from the past: hare paenga, a house with an elliptical foundation, made with basalt slabs and covered with a thatched roof that resembled an overturned boat, and hare oka, a round stone structure. Related stone structures called Tupa look very similar to the hare oka, except that the Tupa were inhabited by astronomer-priests and located near the coast, where the movements of the stars could be easily observed. Settlements also contain hare moa ("chicken house"), oblong stone structures that housed chickens. The houses at the ceremonial village of Orongo are unique in that they are shaped like hare paenga but are made entirely of flat basalt slabs found inside Rano Kao crater. The entrances to all the houses are very low, and entry requires crawling.
In early times the people of Rapa Nui reportedly sent the dead out to sea in small funerary canoes, as did their Polynesian counterparts on other islands. They later started burying people in secret caves to save the bones from desecration by enemies. During the turmoil of the late 18th century, the islanders seem to have started to bury their dead in the space between the belly of a fallen moai and the front wall of 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 the frequency of 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.
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.
Easter Island once had an apparent script called rongorongo. Glyphs include pictographic and geometric shapes; the texts were incised in wood in reverse boustrophedon direction. It was first reported by a French missionary, Eugène Eyraud, in 1864. At that time, several islanders said they could understand the writing, but according to tradition, only ruling families and priests were ever literate, and none survived the slave raids and subsequent epidemics. Despite numerous attempts, the surviving texts have not been deciphered, and without decipherment it is not certain that they are actually writing. Part of the problem is the small amount that has survived: only two dozen texts, none of which remain on the island. There are also only a couple of similarities with the petroglyphs on the island.
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:
The Rapanui sponsor an annual festival, the Tapati, held since 1975 around the beginning of February to celebrate Rapanui culture. The islanders also maintain a national football team and three discos in the town of Hanga Roa. Other cultural activities include a musical tradition that combines South American and Polynesian influences and woodcarving.
The Chilean leg of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series takes place on the Island of Rapa Nui.
Population at the 2012 census was 5,761 (increased from 3,791 in 2002). In 2002, 60% were persons of indigenous Rapa Nui origin, 39% were mainland Chileans (or their Easter Island-born descendants) of European or mestizo (mixed European and indigenous Chilean Amerindian) origin, and the remaining 1% were indigenous mainland Chilean Amerindians (or their Easter Island-born descendants). Population density on Easter Island in 2012 is only 35 inhabitants per square kilometre (91/sq mi).
The 1982 population was 1,936. The increase in population in the last census was partly caused by the arrival of people of European or mixed European and Native American descent from the Chilean mainland. However, most married a Rapanui spouse. Around 70% of the population were natives. Estimates of the pre-European population range from 7–17,000. Easter Island's all-time low of 111 inhabitants was reported in 1877. Out of these 111 Rapanui, only 36 had descendants, but all of today's Rapanui claim descent from those 36.
Easter Island shares with Juan Fernández Islands the constitutional status of "special territory" of Chile, granted in 2007. As of 2011 a special charter for the island was under discussion in the Chilean Congress.
Administratively, the island is a province of the Valparaíso Region and contains a single commune (comuna). 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 Gómez, some 380 km (236 mi) to the east. The provincial governor is appointed by the President of the Republic. The municipal administration is located in Hanga Roa, led by a mayor and a six-member municipal council, all directly elected for a four-year mandate.
Easter Island is served by Mataveri International Airport, with jet service (currently Boeing 767s and Boeing 787s) from LAN Airlines and, seasonally, subsidiaries such as LAN Peru.