Easter Island - History and Mystique

Easter Island - History and Mystique
This close to Easter, I thought it only appropriate to write about an island named after the holiday – Easter Island. Well, at least the western name is. The native name for the island is Rapa Nui. But did you know why the western name is “Easter Island”? Because the first recorded visit by a European was on Easter Sunday in 1722, almost 300 years ago. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to name the island and called it Paasch-Eyland, which is old Dutch for “Easter Island”. Over time the island’s official Spanish name became Isla de Pascua (Isle of Easter).

Easter Island is famous for primarily two things. The first is the fact that it’s probably the most remote inhabited island in the world. Located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, it is over 1000 miles from the nearest inhabited land. It was originally populated by Polynesian people, but it’s not exactly clear when. Estimated dates of the original settlement range from the year 300 CE to 1200 CE. It’s almost a miracle that these Polynesians happened upon this tiny island (only a little over 60 square miles) – they had to travel in canoes or catamarans over open ocean for nearly 1600 miles from the Gambier Islands or someplace even further away, and be lucky enough to find this island.

But find it they did and built a thriving civilization of an estimated 15,000 people or so at the height of their era, in the tenth to sixteenth centuries. But by the time Europeans arrived in the 1700’s, the island’s vegetation had drastically changed and the population had already declined to an estimated 3,000. Subsequent issues with slave raiding and European-introduced epidemics of smallpox and tuberculosis almost decimated the native population, with the all-time low recorded in 1877 of only 111 native inhabitants. The Rapa Nui native population has recovered somewhat since that time, and there are around 2000 or so currently living on the island, together with another 1500 or so Chileans of European or mixed descent.

And the island is much easier to reach today than it was when the Polynesians found it, since there are regular flights from either Santiago, Chile to the east or from Tahiti to the west. Though you should be prepared – the flights are long and expensive. The primary industry on the island is now tourism, and there are hotels, restaurants and discos, so it’s not completely the desolate island you often see on TV documentaries, though it’s also definitely not a “luxury” resort type place.

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Moai on side of volcano, Easter Island, Chile
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The second reason that Easter Island is famous (and seen on TV documentaries) is due to the “moai” – the gigantic stone statues of human heads and torsos standing guard over the island. It is estimated that the Rapa Nui people carved nearly 900 of these huge statues, ranging in size from 6 feet to up to almost 70 feet tall, in a volcanic crater in the interior of the island. They then somehow moved these monoliths, some weighing over 200 tons, out to the shorelines of the island and erected them with their backs to the sea facing inward. Since almost all written and oral history of the island culture was lost when the population was decimated, there are only theories as to how and why these gigantic statues were built and moved. It is believed that each statue represented the deceased head of a family line, and they were set facing the villages to help protect them.

By the 1860’s almost all of the moai had been toppled, presumably in battles among clans. Some 50 or so have been re-erected around the coastline in modern times, and provide the primary tourist attraction on the island, and some of the best photo opportunities. But even more fascinating is a visit to Rano Raraku, the stone quarry where almost all of these moai were originally carved. Here you can see hundreds of moai, some that had been completely carved but not yet moved out of the quarry to be erected elsewhere, and others in varying stages of completion surrounded by the stone hand chisels that were used to carve them.

When the moai carving era ended on Easter Island (though it is not known why), it was succeeded by what is referred to as the Birdman culture. The touristic benefit of this change is that the caves on Easter Island are filled with petroglyphs of the Birdman. Any visit to Easter Island should include a visit to the stone village of Orongo where you can see many of these petroglyphs.

And what to do on Easter Island when you are not admiring the petroglyphs or trying to guess how the ancient Rapa Nui people moved and erected the giant moai? There are two beautiful white sand beaches where you can relax and take a swim. And in the evenings you can sample traditional foods and enjoy some exhibitions of traditional dancing. So, no, this is not an island with a million things to do. But it is an island rich in history and mystique, so it’s well worth a visit.

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