Easter Island Travel Articles

The Mysterious Easter Island

Text compliments of the Tourism Promotion Corporation of Chile

Easter Island is a destination that seems to inhabit our subconscious. The image of those great stone moai with their backs to the vast Pacific strikes some chord within us, recalls some ancient, creative urge.

This is the world's most isolated bit of land, a tiny pinprick in the great pacific, a mound of consolidated lava and ash from three submarine volcanoes. The natives call their island Rapa Nui or Te Pito o Te Henua, "the navel of the earth."

Linguistic and cultural comparisons indicate that the first humans on Easter Island arrived from the west, most likely from the Marquesas Islands or Mangareva, as part of a greater migratory process which spread Polynesian culture throughout the South Pacific. However, the twelve centuries which elapsed between the arrival of the first intrepid 'settlers' near 500 AD and the 'discovery' of the island in 1722 by the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen are among the world's great mysteries.

European sailors visiting Easter Island found that the natives could not explain the construction and transport of the great moai megaliths, the largest of which exceeds sixty feet in height. Nor could they decipher the rongo rongo tablets whose hieroglyphic script appears to be a forgotten form of written language. Somewhere in the past - a past which seems to have seesawed from ancestor worship, monument building and population growth, to deforestation and food shortages, feuding and in some cases even cannibalism - the old knowledge had been lost. It is the mystery of these disappeared artisans, and the awesome presence of their works, which continues to draw scientists and seekers from across the globe.

Today, Rapa Nui National Park protects most of the island's archaeological sites, and the native todomiro forests that once graced the island are being replanted. Opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding abound on the island, while a rich marine ecosystem of corals and colorful tropical fish makes Easter Island a prime destination for scuba diving and snorkeling.

In the waters near the island, diving conditions and marine life are similar to other South Pacific islands.

Easter Island rests on a broad submarine platform, part of a long east-west volcanic ridge or 'hot line.' This platform provides an abundant phototropic zone that supports 144 species of algae and 111 species of tropical and pelagic fish. Six species of corals grow in shallow water around the island, though there are no coral reefs. About one-fifth of all marine flora and fauna is endemic. The lack of coral reefs around the island has resulted in pronounced coastal erosion, including submarine cliffs and extensive caves. Visibility in these cobalt seas can exceed 120 feet, and water temperatures average 70°F.

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Ancient History of Easter Island

Though historians argue about the exact date of the settling of Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), most agree that Polynesians from Mangareva or the Marquesas Islands arrived between 300 and 600 AD. According to local legends, a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a (The Great Parent) arrived on the island in a double-hulled canoe with his wife and extended family some 1,500 years ago, wanting to start a life in this distant place. Though Rapa Nui had neither rivers nor protective reefs, it had large palms, other trees, craters with drinking water, and rock such as obsidian for tool making and lapilli tuff from which to carve statues. The people came to the island prepared to stay, bringing with them plants including the banana, taro, sweet potato, sugar cane, and paper mulberry, and animals such as pigs, chickens, and rats.

The following centuries saw the rise of Rapa Nui’s civilization and its haunting demise. Until the mid-17th century, the population increased, reaching a possible high of 9,000 inhabitants. The people spread across the small island, living in almost every open area and using slash and burn methods to clear room for crops to support their growing numbers. They also carved the now-famous enormous statues (moai) from the abundant tuff at Rano Raruka, a quarry on the side of Terevaka. The statues were set upon long platforms (ahu) near the coasts, with each ahu carrying four to six moai. The moai were slender and tall, ranging from twelve to 25 feet high, and were shaped into massive heads and torsos. The moai represented the ancestral spirits, and were positioned with the faces turned toward the villages to send forth the protective power of the spirits. Over 800 moai have been found on Easter Island, with nearly 300 of them on ahu along the coasts.

Easter Island was not discovered by Europeans until 1722, but it was some time before that date that the decline of Rapa Nui’s civilization began. The number of people became too large to be supported by the island’s limited resources, and by the 17th century the land had been deforested, the soil eroded, and many native plants and animals driven to extinction. The islanders no longer had sufficiently large trees with which to build sturdy boats, giving them no way to leave the island and limiting their fishing abilities. The thousands of seabirds that had long nested on the island ceased doing so, taking away another of the people’s food sources. After this, the islanders subsisted mainly on chicken and rats while their population dwindled.

Around this time another shift took place, from a stone-sculpture culture to the birdman cult at Orongo. While we do not know exactly why this shift occurred, it may have been a result of the hard times the people were experiencing. The islanders began a yearly competition in which a representative of each clan would dive into the ocean and swim to nearby Motu Nui (a tiny uninhabited islet) to find an egg of the sooty tern. The first competitor to return successfully to Rapa Nui with an egg was named Bird Man (Tangata Manu) for the year, giving his clan control over the island’s scarce resources. The yearly competition for the sooty tern’s egg was in place when Rapa Nui was discovered by the Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen in 1722.

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Troubled History of Easter Island Environment

Easter Island’s history is one of environmental degradation and exploitation. With an area of only 63 square miles and limited natural resources, the land could not sustain the growing population of islanders. While the island boasted palm trees, subtropical broadleaf trees, shrubs, ferns, grasses, and the indigenous toromiro tree before human habitation, the slash and burn methods the islanders used to clear the land overextended Easter Island’s resources. Archaeological finds suggest that the inhabitants became desperate over time, as their food supply diminished along with the trees. Without large trees, they could not build reliable boats, which meant they had limited fishing possibilities and no way of getting supplies from other places. By the time Europeans discovered Easter Island in the 18th century, the local population had dwindled to 2,000-3,000 inhabitants, and the once-forested land was covered mostly by grass.

The soil on Easter Island eroded rapidly as the trees disappeared, and today the soil that remains is poor and largely unsuitable for agriculture. The tree cover remains sparse, though a group of scientists is working to reintroduce the native toromiro tree, of which a few seeds were salvaged in the mid-1900s. The huge numbers of seabirds that once nested on the island have ceased landing on the mainland and now remain on the small uninhabited islands nearby. The several species of land birds that once made their homes on Easter Island are now extinct.

Easter Island is often held up as a prime example of the horrifying results of over-population and disregard for the environment, a warning, as it were, of what may happen on a larger scale to the rest of the planet.

As a result of its isolation combined with over-exploitation of resources, Easter Island has very little wildlife remaining.

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Easter Island Geography

Easter Island is a small, triangular piece of land situated in a remote part of the South Pacific Ocean. Belonging to Chile, it is located 2,237 miles west of that country, making it one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Easter Island covers only 63 square miles, and most of its 3,800 people live in the capital city of Hanga Roa. The land is most famous for its hundreds of moai, the impressive stone statues that line the coasts.

Geologically speaking, Easter Island is quite young—the oldest parts are less than 2.5 million years old. The island is located on a geologic ‘hot spot,’ and for millennia molten lava poured from fissures in the earth’s crust to rise nearly 10,000 feet above the seabed. The highest point above sea level, at 1,640 feet, is Terevaka, the youngest of the island’s 70 volcanoes. Terevaka rises from the northernmost tip of the triangle, while the volcanoes of Pukatikei on the east and Rano Kau on the south form the remaining points.

Coastal bluffs around the perimeter of the island surround an interior made up of high plateaus and craters, several of which boast crater lakes. While many islands in the South Pacific boast beautiful coral reefs, Easter Island lacks this feature, as its winters are too cold for continuous coral reefs to survive, though the surrounding ocean is home to some small coral formations. With no coral buffer, the coastline has been subject to the constant crash of waves, which have created steep cliffs along certain parts of the coast. Easter Island also has a number of lava tubes and intricate volcanic caves. Half of the island is covered by low round hills and eucalyptus groves and is used for horses and cattle, while most of the other half—the area around Rano Kau and much of the shoreline—makes up a national park. This park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.

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Modern History of Easter Island

The first European to discover Rapa Nui was Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722 and gave the island its modern name. At this time, there were only an estimated 2,000-3,000 islanders making up the population, who were amazed at the size and construction of Roggeveen’s ships. Over the next several decades, other explorers made brief visits to Easter Island. The Spanish arrived in 1770, and Captain James Cook arrived in 1774. Cook, hoping to re-supply his water and fresh provisions, noted that the island held little in the way of food resources. The French visited next, in 1786, with J.F.G. de la Perouse attempting to introduce plants and animals—hogs, goats, and sheep—to provide the islanders with additional food sources. These first several European visits had little ill effect on the islanders, but in the following century Western influences would have catastrophic results.

Whalers began stopping at the island, looking for fresh food and women and leaving venereal diseases. Other ships arrived with the sole purpose of kidnapping the Rapanui and enslaving them. In the 1860s, slave ships from Peru began raiding the island, with a total of 2,000 people captured and brought to mainland South America. Few of the Rapanui survived the poor treatment, overworking, and vicious diseases. A small slave population was still alive, however, when the Bishop of Tahiti raised a public outcry and requested the return of the survivors to Easter Island. But this act of kindness had detrimental results, as smallpox broke out on board, leaving only 15 islanders alive. Those 15 survivors brought the smallpox epidemic to Easter Island, nearly wiping out the remaining population.

By 1877, the once-thriving population of Rapa Nui had dwindled to 110 inhabitants. The island was still unclaimed by any foreign country, largely due to its lack of rivers, trees, and other valuable resources. But in 1888, Chile annexed Easter Island, thinking that the land had agricultural and military potential. In 1896, a Valparaiso businessman turned the island into an enormous sheep ranch and essentially imprisoned the few remaining Rapanui in the village of Hangaroa. For the next half century, living conditions deteriorated for the oppressed islanders. In 1903, the Easter Island Exploitation Company was created, for the purpose of commercially producing wool and animal byproducts. The already abused landscape suffered further under the following decades of sheep raising, from drastic changes in the vegetation to destruction of archaeological sites, while the native people’s lives were largely controlled by the Company.

In the mid-20th century, the situation finally began to change for the Easter Islanders. The Norwegian Archaeological Expedition came to the island, bringing restoration projects and systematic surveys—and new contacts with the outside world. The Chilean government saw the opportunity to attract tourists to a once-desolate island, while the islanders took the opportunity to revolt and insist on their rights. In 1966, Easter Island became a province of Chile and the Easter Islanders became Chilean citizens, with their own civil department and local government. The 1960s also saw the building of an airfield, which made Easter Island a much easier place to visit for tourists and scholars, and in the past 40 years, tourism has become an increasingly important part of the economy.

While tourism has significantly bettered the life of the islanders, it has also served to dilute their cultural identity. Less than five percent of schoolchildren speak the Rapa Nui language today, and other traditions are dying away as well. The challenge for today’s Easter Islanders is how to preserve their culture yet survive in the modern world. Much of their success depends on the respect and care of those who visit this beautiful and remote part of the world.

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Island Weather

Easter Island has a sub-tropical climate, with average monthly temperatures ranging from 60°F in July and August to 75°F in February, the hottest summer month. While there is rain throughout the year, most precipitation falls in the rainy season between March and October, with May being the wettest month. The best time to visit the island is during the drier months between September and April, though heavy rain is possible at any time of year. Mist, drizzles, and heavy dew are common, but snow and frost are unknown in this region.

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