Easter Island’s dramatic history

Nov/Dec 2002

Rapa Nui, as the descendants of the Polynesian settlers call their island, is considered the most remote inhabited island in the world. The nearest island, about 1,100 miles to the west, is Pitcairn, famous as the island of the mutineers from HMS Bounty. More than 1,900 miles to the northeast one finds the Galapagos archipelago, and the coast of South America lies almost 2,000 miles to the east.

Some time between 400 A.D. and 800 A.D., the first people arrived on Easter Island from the Marquesas, 1,800 miles to the northwest. According to the island legends, 300 people traveling in two boats, led by King Hoto Matua, landed on the only sandy beach found on the island. They called that beach on the north shore Anakena, and even nowadays it is one of the best anchorages if the wind comes from the south.

Within a few hundred years, the population increased and life must have been good on Te Pito O Te Henua (the navel of the world). This was the time that the islanders started to make the great stone heads, or moai. As a mark of honor to their leaders, huge statues were dug out from the crater wall of the Rano Raraku volcano.

Even today it is not clear how the moai, which weigh thousands of pounds, were transported from their “birthplace” on Rano Raraku to the statue platforms, or ahus. These platforms can be found all over the island, mainly along the shoreline. Many moai have been decorated with “topknots” made from a reddish rock type and quarried from Puna Pau, a small crater miles away from Rano Raraku.

There is evidence that a total of about 900 moai have been made!

The population grew to maybe 10,000, and slowly the limits of the island were reached. Wood, most probably used in the transport of the moai and for cooking, became sparse.

Food supplies running short might have started the fights between the different clans. As a result of these conflicts, moai were toppled over by rivaling families.

In 1722 the first Europeans sighted the island. On Easter Sunday a Dutch expedition under Jacob Roggeveen, having passed around Cape Horn on its way to the Dutch East India colonies, sighted an island, found it inhabited and went ashore. The landing party “accidentally” killed 13 islanders. The Dutch named the island Paas-Eiland, being Dutch for Easter Island.

In those days, the population was down to about 3,000, and the moai cult was replaced by the religion of the Birdman. At the southwestern tip of the island, on the brim of the huge volcano Rano Kau, a ceremonial village of stone dwellings called Orongo was built.

The highlight of a yearly ceremonial gathering was the first egg from one of the small motu, the rocky islands down in the roaring ocean. It was not the fortunate and brave man who brought the egg across who became Birdman for one year, but his master. This status gave the master special privileges.

Then in 1862 Rapa Nui was struck by disaster: A Peruvian slave ship carried away more than 1,000 islanders to the coast of Peru, where most of them perished. When they were freed, two years later, only fifteen of them were still alive.

During a period of territorial expansion, Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888. Stories and images brought home by explorers, like the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, showed the world the magical beauty of Rapa Nui, but it was not until air service between the Chilean capitol Santiago and Tahiti was established in 1967 that tourists started to come. In 1980 Gen. Augusto Pinochet allowed the United States to expand the airport to make it ready for an emergency landing of their Space Shuttle.

By Ocean Navigator