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
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.