They called it the Navel of the World, and for its inhabitants, Easter Island was the only inhabited scrap of land on an ocean planet. Even their enigmatic statues encircle the island with their backs to the sea. This island is now a territory of the South American nation of Chile.
Archaeologists believe the island was discovered and colonized by Polynesians at about 400 AD. Subsequently, a unique culture developed. The human population grew to levels that could not be sustained by the island. A civil war resulted, and the islands deforestation and ecosystem collapse was nearly complete.
It is doubtful whether Easter Island was discovered by Davis in 1686 though it is sometimes marked Davis Island on maps. Admiral Roggeveen reached it on Easter Day 1722. In1774, Captain Cook discovered it anew and called it Teapi or Waihu. It was subsequently visited by La Perouse in 1776 and Kotzebue in1816.
At the time of Roggeveens discovery the island probably contained from 2000 to 3000 inhabitants of Polynesian race but it appears that there were as many as 10,000 to15,000 of them in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The civilization of Easter Island had degenerated drastically during the 100 years before the arrival of the Dutch, owing to the overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of the extremely isolated island with its limited natural resources. However, by the mid-19th Century the population had recovered to about 4,000 inhabitants. Then in a mere 20 years, deportation to Peru and Chile and diseases brought by Westerners almost exterminated the whole population, with only 111 inhabitants left on the island in 1877. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 (by Policarpo Toro). The native Rapanui have gradually recovered from their low of 111 inhabitants.
Over 880 statues called moai (pronounced 'mo eye') can be found on this isolated island, located 2,300 miles from the coast of Chile. The statues range in size from a few feet to over 30 feet, and weigh up to 150 tons. They were built sometime after the island was colonized in 300 C.E.. Each statue was hewn out of hard volcanic material from quarries near the Rano Raraku volcano. The statues are thought to honor their deity Make Make, or represent chieftans of the two or three tribes that inhabited this island. Originally the island was heavily forested for the construction of statues and campfires, but the rapid growth of the human population quickly denuded the island. About 250 years ago, warfare between the two tribes of 'Easter Islanders' led to the toppling of most of the statues. Very little is known about the earlier inhabitants whose very existence was not realized until 1774 when Captain Cook visited it and gave it its modern name.
(Photograph by Carlos Capurro, U.S. Embassy, Santiago, Chile.)
Although the vast majority of the Moai are located on the beaches and face inland, the seven moai at Ahu Akivi were built around 1460 C.E. and face the point at which the sun sets during the equinox. Each measures 14 feet tall and weighs 12 tons. It was restored in 1960 by archaeologists William Mulloy and Gonzalo Figueroa. It is commonly said that the remarkable aspect of Ahu Akivi is that the moai also are the only ones that face out to sea, however from their central location on the island, all sight-lines are towards the ocean. Easter Island oral history from the fewer than 700 remaining natives do not indicate a deep interest in astronomical knowledge. Hieroglyphic writings have survived that might fill-in this information, but have yet to be translated.
Recent events have shown a tremendous increase of tourism on the island, coupled with a large inflow of people from mainland Chile, threatening to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. The possession of the land has created political tensions in the past 20 years, with part of the native Rapanui opposed to private property and in favor of the traditional communal property of the land.
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