Main gallery: Easter Island.

Easter Island is one of the youngest inhabited territories on Earth, and for most of its history it was the most isolated inhabited territory on Earth. Its inhabitants the Rapanui have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids and colonialism; have seen their population crash on more than one occasion, and created a cultural legacy that has brought them fame out of all proportion to their numbers.

First settlersEditar

Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions of the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a chief Hotu Matu'a[1] arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family.[2] They are believed to have been Polynesian. There is considerable uncertainty about the accuracy of this legend as well as the date of settlement. Published literature suggests the island was settled around 300-400 CE, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. Some scientists say that Easter Island was not inhabited until 700-800 CE. This date range is based on glottochronological calculations and on three radiocarbon dates from charcoal that appears to have been produced during forest clearance activities.[3] Moreover a recent study which included radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material suggests that the island was settled as recently as 1200 CE.[4] This seems to be supported by a 2006 study of the island's deforestation, which could have started around the same time. [5] Any earlier human activity seems to be insignificant if there was any at all.

The Austronesian Polynesians, who first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sweet potato, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian Rats. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization.

South American linksEditar

Main gallery: Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact#Polynesians.

The Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl believed that cultural similarities exist between Easter Island and South American Indian cultures which he suggested might have resulted from some settlers arriving from the continent.[6] According to local legends, a group of long-eared[7] unknown men called as hanau epe[8] had arrived on the island sometime after Polynesians, introducing the stone carving technology and attempting to enslave the local Polynesians.[9] Some early accounts of the legend place hanau epe as the original residents and Polynesians as later immigrants coming from Oparo.[10] After mutual suspicions erupted in a violent clash, the hanau epe were overthrown and exterminated, leaving only one survivor.[11] Jacob Roggeveen's expedition of 1722 gives us our first description of the islanders. They were "of all shades of colour, yellow, white and brown" and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could "hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear". [12] Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were "generally large in stature". Islanders' tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm.[13]

The fact that sweet potatoes, a staple of the Polynesian diet, and several other domestic plants - up to 12 in Easter Island[citation needed] - are of South American origin indicates that there may have been some contact between the two cultures. Either Polynesians have traveled to South America and back, or Indian balsa rafts have drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats, or both. Polynesian connections in South America have been claimed to exist among the Mapuche Indians in central and southern Chile.[14] The Polynesian name for the small islet of Sala y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva, "Bird's islet on the way to a far away land") east of Easter Island has also been seen as a hint that South America was known before European contacts. Further complicating the situation is that the word Hiva ("far away land") was also the name of the islanders' legendary home country. Inexplicable insistence on an eastern origin for the first inhabitants was unanimous among the islanders in all early accounts.[15]

Mainstream archeology is skeptical about any non-Polynesian influence on the island's prehistory but the discussion has become political. DNA sequence analysis of Easter Island's current inhabitants indicates the 1% of Rapanui who survived the devastating intercine wars, slave raids and epidemics of the 19th century were Polynesian. Examination of skeletons offers evidence of overwhelmingly Polynesian origins for Rapanui living on the island after 1680.[16]

Pre-European societyEditar


According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island's habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners. The last king, along with his family, died as slaves in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines.[citation needed] Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having nominal authority.


For unknown reasons, a coup by military leaders called matatoa had brought a new cult based around a previously unexceptional god Make-make. In the cult of the birdman (Rapanui: tangata manu), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season's first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern). The first swimmer to return with an egg and successfully climb back up the cliff to Orongo would be named "Birdman of the year" and secure control over distribution of the island's resources for his clan for the year. The tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans. It ended in 1867. The militant birdman cult was largely to blame for the island's misery of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Each year's winner and his supporters short-sightedly pillaged the island after the victory. With the island's ecosystem fading, destruction of crops quickly resulted in famine, sickness and death.

The "statue-toppling"Editar

European accounts from 1722 and 1770 still saw only standing statues, but by Cook's visit in 1774 many were reported toppled. The huri mo'ai - the "statue-toppling" - continued into the 1830s as a part of fierce internecine wars. By 1838 the only standing Moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku and Hoa Hakananai'a at Orongo. In about 60 years, islanders had deliberately destroyed the main part of their ancestors' heritage.[17] In modern times Moai have been restored at Orongo, Ahu Tongariki, Ahu Akivi and Hanga Roa.

European contactsEditar

Archivo:EasterIsland 1772.JPG
Archivo:Plan de l'Isle de Paque (1797).jpg

The first recorded European contact with the island was on 5 April (Easter Sunday) 1722 when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island (this was an estimate, not a census, and archaeologists estimate the population may have been as high as 10,000 to 15,000 a few decades earlier). His party reported "remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height", the island had rich soil and a good climate and "all the country was under cultivation". Fossil Pollen analysis shows that the main trees on the island had gone 72 years earlier in 1650. The civilization of Easter Island was long believed to have degenerated drastically during the century before the arrival of the Dutch, as a result of overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of an extremely isolated island with limited natural resources. The Dutch reported that a fight broke out in which they killed ten or twelve islanders.

The next foreign visitors (on 15 November 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, sent by the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel Amat, and commanded by Felipe González de Ahedo. They spent five days in the island, performing a very thorough survey of its coast, and named it Isla de San Carlos, taking possession on behalf of King Charles III of Spain, and ceremoniously erected three wooden crosses on top of three small hills on Poike.[18] 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; no sign of the three crosses and his botanist described it as "a poor land". He had a Tahitian interpreter who could partially understand the language as it was Polynesian.

In 1786, the French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse visited and made a detailed map of Easter Island. He described the island as one tenth cultivated and estimated the population as a couple of thousand.

In 1804, the Russian ship, Neva, visited under the command of Yuri Lisyansky.

In 1816, the Russian ship, Rurik, visited under the command of Otto von Kotzebue.

In 1825, the British ship, HMS Blossom, visited and reported no standing statues.

Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by now the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.

Destruction of society and populationEditar

A series of devastating events killed 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, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted, escalated by Bishop Florentin-Etienne Jaussen of Tahiti. The slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which decimated the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.

Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.

The first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in January 1864 and spent most of that year on the island; but mass conversion of the Rapanui only came after his return in 1866 with Father Hippolyte Roussel and shortly after two others arrived with Captain Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier. Eyraud was suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis) when he returned and in 1867, tuberculosis raged over the island, taking a quarter of the island's remaining population of 1,200 including the last member of the island's royal family, the 13-year-old Manu Rangi. Eyraud died of tuberculosis in August 1868, by which time the entire Rapanui population had become Roman Catholic.


Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier—arms dealer, gambler, bigamist, murderer, slave dealer, encourager of apostasy and and alleged ship wrecker—was to have a long lasting impact on the island. He set up residence at Mataveri, aiming to cleanse the island of most of the Rapanui and turn the island into a sheep ranch. He married Koreto, a Rapanui, and appointed her Queen, tried to persuade France to make the island a protectorate, and recruited a faction of Rapanui whom he allowed to abandon their Christianity and revert to their previous faith. With rifles, a cannon, and hut burning, supporters ran the island for several years.[19]

Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple 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[20] . 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.[21]


In 1876 Dutrou-Bornier was murdered in an argument over a dress, though his kidnapping of pubescent girls may also have motivated his killers.[22]

From that point on and into the present day, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.

Neither his first wife back in France, who was heir under French law, nor his second wife on the island, who briefly installed their daughter Caroline as Queen, were to keep much from his estate. But to this day much of the island is a ranch controlled from off-island and for more than a century real power on the island was usually exercised by resident non-Rapanui living at Mataveri. An unusual number of shipwrecks had left the island better supplied with wood than for many generations, whilst legal wrangles over his land deals were to complicate the island's history for decades to come.[23]


Alexander Salmon, Jr was the brother of the Queen of Tahiti, and the son of an English merchant adventurer, and a member of the mercantile dynasty that had bankrolled Dutrou-Bornier. He arrived on the island in 1878 with some fellow Tahitians and returning Rapa Nui and ran the island for a decade. As well as producing wool he encouraged the manufacture of Rapanui artworks, a trade that thrives to this day. It was this era of peace and recovery that saw the linguistic change from old Rapanui to the Tahitian influenced modern Rapanui language, and some changes to the islands myths and culture to accommodate other Polynesian and Christian influences (notably Ure the old Rapanui word for penis was dropped from many peoples names).[24]

This era saw the first "Archaeological" excavations on the island, in 1882 by the Germans on the SMS Hyäne and in 1886 the USS Mohican whose crew blew open Ahu Vinapu with dynamite.

Father Roussel made a number of pastoral visits in the decade but the only permanent representatives of the church were Rapanui catechists, including from 1884 Angata one of the Rapanui who had left with the missionaries in 1871. Despite the lack of a resident priest to regularly perform mass, the Rapanui had returned to Roman Catholicism. But there remained some tension between temporal and spiritual power as Father Roussel disapproved of Salmon because of his Jewish paternity.[25]

Annexation to ChileEditar

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 Anexión de la isla), that the government of Chile signed with the Rapanui people.

Until the 1960s, the surviving Rapanui were confined to the settlement of Hanga Roa and 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 and at that point the rest of the island was reopened.


1914 was an eventful year for the 250 residents of Easter Island. In March the Routledge Expedition landed and began a 17 month archaeological and ethnographic survey of the island.

In June after Mr Scoresby Routledge fired a Rapanui worker for stealing biscuits the Rapanui revolted. Led from the Roman Catholic church by their Catechist Angata, and acting on the instructions from God that she was receiving in her dreams, the Rapanui declared independence, crossed the wall and took hundreds of sheep and cattle. The revolt was quelled in August by the annual supply ship from Chile which then deported Angata's son.

In October the German East Asia Squadron including the Scharnhorst, Dresden, Leipzig, Emden and Gneisenau rendezvoused off Hanga Roa before sailing on to Coronel and the Falklands.

In December another German warship the commerce raider SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich visited and released 48 British and French merchant seamen on the island, supplying much needed labour for the archaeologists.


Since being given Chilean citizenship in 1966, the Rapanui have re-embraced their ancient culture, or what could be reconstructed of it.[26]

Mataveri International Airport is the island's only airport. In the 1980s, its runway was lengthened by the U.S. space program to 3,318 m (10,885 ft) so that it could serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. This enabled regular wide body jet services and a consequent increase of tourism on the island, coupled with migration of people from mainland Chile which threatens to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. Land disputes have created political tensions since the 1980s, with part of the native Rapanui opposed to private property and in favor of traditional communal property.

On July 30 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and Juan Fernández Islands 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 Valparaíso Region.[27]


  1. Resemblance of the name to an early Mangarevan founder god Atu Motua ("Father Lord") has made some historians suspect that Hotu Matua was added to Easter Island mythology only in the 1860s, along with adopting the Mangarevan language. The "real" founder would have been Tu'u ko Iho, who became just a supporting character in Hotu Matu'a centric legends. See Steven Fischer (1994). Rapanui's Tu'u ko Iho Versus Mangareva's 'Atu Motua. Evidence for Multiple Reanalysis and Replacement in Rapanui Settlement Traditions, Easter Island. The Journal of Pacific History, 29(1), 3-18. See also Rapa Nui / Geography, History and Religion. Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific, University of Chicago Press, 1938. pp. 228-236. Online version.
  2. Summary of Thomas S. Barthel's version of Hotu Matu'a's arrival to Easter Island.
  3. Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books: 2005. ISBN 0-14-303655-6. Chapter 2: Twilight at Easter pp.79-119. See page 89.
  4. Hunt, T. L., Lipo, C. P., 2006. Science, 1121879. See also "Late Colonization of Easter Island" in Science Magazine. Entire article is also hosted by the Department of Anthropology of the University of Hawaii.
  5. Hunt, Terry L. (2006), "Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island", American Scientist 94 (5): pp. 412-419, 
  6. Heyderdahl, Thor. Easter Island - The Mystery Solved. Random House New York 1989.
  7. There is no doubt that the Polynesian elite practiced ear-lengthening on Easter Island until the late 19th century, but its possible origin from South America has been noted. The Inca chiefs were called Orejones, "big ears," by the Spaniards because the lobes of their ears had been enlarged artificially to receive the great gold earrings which they were fond of wearing. See Inca Land - Explorations in the Highlands of Peru by Hiram Bingham, 1912. Online version.
  8. There is a dispute whether this should be spelled as hanau eepe or hanau epe. "Eepe" is a Polynesian word for "stocky" while the word "epe", specific to Easter Island only, means the earlobe. See Sebastian Englert's Rapa Nui dictionary with original Spanish translated to English. All early accounts of the legend spell the word "hanau epe". See Heyerdahl.
  9. Compare this with South American traditions recorded in the 16th century, in which the Inca Emperor Tupac Inca Yupanqui is credited to have undertaken an almost year-long Pacific exploration around 1480, encountering "black people" and finding islands Nina and Hahua chumpi. The same legend claims that occasional travels oversees were done already earlier. See History of the Incas by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1572. Online version of the book, page 91; in English.
  10. This version was recorded by Doctor J.L. Palmer in 1868. See Heyerdahl. It must be noted, however, that the legends may be influenced by the situation of the 1860s: fierce fighting ensued on the island when the remaining population and returning immigrants fought for the land and resources.
  11. The "Hanau Eepe", their Immigration and Extermination.
  12. ROUTLEDGE, Katherine. 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island.The story of an expedition. London. page 201
  13. See Heyerdahl.
  14. Mapuche Indians and Polynesian connections.
  15. This was recorded e.g. by the British B. F. Clark in 1877. See Heyerdahl.
  16. VAN TILBURG, Jo Anne. 1994. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology and Culture. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. page 104464 skeletons - definitely Polynesian
  17. Fischer, Steven Riger. Island at the end of the World - The Turbulent History of Easter Island. Reaktion Books Ltd. 2005. ISBN-1-86189-282-9. See page 64.
  18. Jo Anne Van Tilburg. "Easter Island, Archaeology, Ecology and Culture". British Museum Press, London, 1994. ISBN 0-7141-2504-0
  19. Steven R Fischer The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN1 86189 282 9 pages 106-122
  20. Katherine Routledge The mystery of Easter island page 208
  21. Collapse of island's demographics in the 1860s and 1870s
  22. Steven R Fischer The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN 1-86189-282-9 page 120
  23. Steven R Fischer The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN1 86189 282 9 pages 106-122
  24. Steven R Fischer The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN1 86189 282 9 pages 123 131
  25. Steven R Fischer The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN1 86189 282 9 page 124
  26. Diamond, Jared (2005), Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive, page 112.
  27. Chilean Law 20,193, National Congress of Chile
es:Historia de Isla de Pascua

ru:История острова Пасхи

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