Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, a 15-moai ahu excavated and restored in the 1990s
Estimated dates of initial settlement of Easter Island have ranged from 300 to 1200 CE, approximately coinciding with the arrival of the first settlers in Hawaii. Rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the previously posited early settlement dates in Polynesia. Rapa Nui has more recently been considered to have been settled in the narrower range of 700 to 1100 CE. An ongoing study by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo suggests a still-later date: “Radiocarbon dates for the earliest stratigraphic layers at Anakena, Easter Island, and analysis of previous radiocarbon dates imply that the island was colonized late, about 1200 CE. Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement.”
According to oral tradition, the first settlement was at Anakena. Jared Diamond notes that the Caleta Anakena landing point provides the best shelter from prevailing swells, as well as a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings, so it seems likely to have been an early place of settlement. However, this hypothesis contradicts radiocarbon dating, according to which other sites preceded Anakena by many years, especially the Tahai, whose radiocarbon dates precede Anakena’s by several centuries.
The island was most likely populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600km (1,600mi) away) or the Marquesas Islands, 3,200km (2,000mi) away. When James Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan with an 80% similarity in vocabulary. In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was able to reach Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days.
According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system, with an ariki, high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through first-born lines of the island’s legendary founder, Hotu Matu’a. The most visible element in the culture was the production of massive statues called moai that represented deified ancestors. It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead where the dead provided everything that the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune etc.) and the living through offerings provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Most settlements were located on the coast and moai were erected along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.
Diamond suggested that cannibalism took place on Easter Island after the construction of the Moai contributed to environmental degradation when extreme deforestation destabilized an already precarious ecosystem. Archeological record shows that, by the time of the initial settlement, the island was home to many species of trees, including at least three species which grew up to 50 feet or more: Paschalococos – possibly the largest palm trees in the world at the time, Alphitonia zizyphoides, and Elaeocarpus rarotongensis, as well as at least six species of native land birds. Barbara A. West wrote, “Sometime before the arrival of Europeans on Easter Island, the Rapanui experienced a tremendous upheaval in their social system brought about by a change in their island’s ecology… By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000‚ 3,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.” By that time, 21 species of trees and all species of land birds went extinct through some combination of overharvesting/overhunting, rat predation, and climate change, the island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees more than 10 feet tall. Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. This was further exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations. By the 18th century, residents of the island were largely sustained by farming, with domestic chickens as the primary source of protein.
As the island became overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult. Beverly Haun wrote, “The concept of mana (power) invested in hereditary leaders was recast into the person of the birdman, apparently beginning circa 1540, and coinciding with the final vestiges of the moai period.” This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition. The god responsible for creating humans, Makemake, played an important role in this process. Katherine Routledge, who systematically collected the island’s traditions in her 1919 expedition, showed that the competitions for Bird Man (Rapanui: tangata manu) started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878, with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who formally arrived in 1864. Petroglyphs representing Bird Men on Easter Island are exactly the same as some in Hawaii, indicating that this concept was probably brought by the original settlers; only the competition itself was unique to Easter Island.
European accounts from 1722 and 1770 mention standing statues, but Cook’s 1774 expedition noted that several moai were lying face down, having been toppled in war.
According to Diamond and Heyerdahl’s version of the island’s history, the huri mo’ai‚ statue-toppling”‚ continued into the 1830s as a part of fierce internal wars. By 1838 the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku, in Hoa Hakananai’a in Orongo, and Ariki Paro in Ahu Te Pito Kura. A study headed by Douglas Owsley published in 1994 asserted that there is little archaeological evidence of pre-European societal collapse. Bone pathology and osteometric data from islanders of that period clearly suggest few fatalities can be attributed directly to violence.
The first-recorded European contact with the island was on April 5 (Easter Sunday), 1722, when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited the island for a week and estimated a population of 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. The number may have been greater, since some may have been frightened into hiding by a misunderstanding that led Roggeveen’s men to fire on the natives, killing more than a dozen and wounding several more. The next foreign visitors (on November 15, 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia. The Spanish reported the island as largely uncultivated, whose seashore was lined with stone statues. Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island; he reported that some statues had fallen over. The British ship HMS Blossom arrived in 1825 and reported seeing no standing statues. Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by then the islanders had become openly hostile to any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.
A series of devastating events killed or removed most of the population in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing around 1,500 men and women, half of the island’s population. Among those captured were the island’s paramount chief, his heir, and those who knew how to read and write the rongorongo script, the only Polynesian script to have been found to date. When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped, they disembarked carriers of smallpox together with a few survivors on each of the islands. This created devastating epidemics from Easter Island to the Marquesas islands. Easter Island’s population was reduced to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Tuberculosis, introduced by whalers in the mid-19th century, had already killed several islanders when the first Christian missionary, Eugene Eyraud, died from this disease in 1867. About a quarter of the island’s population succumbed along with him. In the following years, the managers of the sheep ranch and the missionaries started buying the newly available lands of the deceased, and this led to great confrontations between natives and settlers.
Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries’ area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple of 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. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, only 111 people lived on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring. From that point on the island’s population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or gone in less than a decade, much of the island’s cultural knowledge had been lost.
Alexander Salmon, Jr., a son of an English Jewish merchant and Pamare Dynasty princess, eventually worked to repatriate workers from his inherited copra plantation. He eventually bought up all lands on the island with the exception of the mission, and was its sole employer. He worked to develop tourism on the island, and was the principal informant for the British and German archaeological expeditions for the island. He sent several pieces of genuine Rongorongo to his niece’s husband, the German consul in Valparaso, Chile. Salmon sold the Brander Easter Island holdings to the Chilean government in 1888 January 2 and signed as a witness to the cession of the island. He returned to Tahiti in December of that year. He effectively ruled the island from 1878 until his cession to Chile in 1888.
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 Anexian de la isla). Toro, then representing the government of Chile signed with Atamu Tekena, designated “King” by the Chilean government after the paramount chief and his heir had died. The validity of this treaty is still contested by some Rapanui. Officially, Chile purchased the nearly all encompassing Mason-Brander sheep ranch, comprised from lands purchased from the descendants of Rapanui who died during the epidemics, and then claimed sovereignty over the island.
Until the 1960s the surviving Rapanui were confined to Hanga Roa. 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, at which point the island was reopened in its entirety. In 1966 the Rapanui were given Chilean citizenship.
Following the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat that brought Augusto Pinochet to power Easter Island was placed under martial law. Tourism was stopped and private property “restored”. During his time in power Pinochet visited Easter Island on three occasions. The military built a number of new military facilities and a new city hall during the dictatorship era.
After an agreement in 1985 between Chile and United States the runway at Mataveri Airport was enlarged and was inaugurated in 1987. The runway was expanded 423 meters reaching 3353 m. Pinochet is reported to have refused to attend the inauguration in protest to pressures from the United States to attend human rights cases.
On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and the Juan Fernandez Islands (also known as Robinson Crusoe Island) the status of “special territories” of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island continued to be governed as a province of the V Region of Valparaso.
Adventure To Easter Island • Locations & Activities