Easter Island is the world’s most isolated inhabited island. It is also one of the most mysterious. Easter Island is roughly midway between Chile and Tahiti. The triangular shaped island is made mostly of volcanic rock. Small coral formations exist along the shoreline, but the lack of a coral reef has allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island. The coastline has many lava tubes and volcanic caves. The only sandy beaches are on the northeast coast.
The inhabitants of this charming and mysterious place called their land: Te Pito o TeHenua, ‘the navel of the world.’
It sits in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away – tiny Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.
Archaeological evidence indicates discovery of the island by Polynesians at about 400 AD. In 1722, a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, sighted and visited the island. This happened to be on a Sunday, Easter Sunday to be precise, and the name stuck: Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish). What he discovered on Easter Island were three distinct groups of people, Dark skinned, Red skinned, and very Pale skinned People with red hair”.
The Polynesian name of the island is Rapanui, which is a name given by a Tahitian visitor in the 19th century who says that the island looked like the Tahitian island of ‘Rapa,’ but bigger, ‘Nui.’ Inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, but for decades anthropologists have argued the true origins of these people, some claiming that ancient South-American mariners settled the island first.
What many early explorers who visited the island found, was a scattered population with almost no culture they could remember and without any links to the outside world. The Easter islanders were easy prey for 19th century slave traders which depreciated even more their precarious culture, knowledge of the past, and skills of the ancestors.
History of Easter Island
Easter Island is one of the youngest inhabited territories on Earth, and for most of its history it was the most isolated inhabited territory on Earth. Its inhabitants, the Rapanui, have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids and colonialism, have seen their population crash on more than one occasion, and created a cultural legacy that has brought them fame out of proportion to their numbers.
Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions of the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a chief Hotu Matu’a arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family. They are believed to have been Polynesian.
There is considerable uncertainty about the accuracy of this legend as well as the date of settlement. Published literature suggests the island was settled around 300-400 CE, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. Some scientists say that Easter Island was not inhabited until 700-800 CE. This date range is based on glottochronological calculations and on three radiocarbon dates from charcoal that appears to have been produced during forest clearance activities.
Moreover a recent study which included radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material suggests that the island was settled as recently as 1200 CE. This seems to be supported by a 2006 study of the island’s deforestation, which could have started around the same time. Any earlier human activity seems to be insignificant if there was any at all.
The Austronesian Polynesians, who first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian Rats. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization.
The fact that the sweet potato, a staple of the pre-contact Polynesian diet, is of South American origin, and that there is no evidence that its seed could spread by floating across the ocean, indicates that there must have been some contact between the two cultures.
Diet of Easter Islanders Revealed Live Science – September 26, 2013
The inhabitants of Easter Island consumed a diet that was lacking in seafood and was, literally, quite ratty. The island, also called Rapa Nui, first settled around A.D. 1200, is famous for its more than 1,000 “walking” Moai statues, most of which originally faced inland. To determine the diet of its past inhabitants, researchers analyzed the nitrogen and carbon isotopes, or atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons, from the teeth (specifically the dentin) of 41 individuals whose skeletons had been previously excavated on the island.
To get an idea of what the islanders ate before dying, the researchers then compared the isotope values with those of animal bones excavated from the island. The researchers found that throughout time, the people on the island consumed a diet that was mainly terrestrial. In fact, in the first few centuries of the island’s history (up to about A.D. 1650) some individuals used Polynesian rats (also known as kiore) as their main source of protein. The rat is somewhat smaller than European rats and, according to ethnographic accounts, tasty to eat.
South American Links
The Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl believed that cultural similarities exist between Easter Island and South American Indian cultures which he suggested might have resulted from some settlers arriving from the continent. According to local legends, a group of long-eared people called hanau epe arrived on the island sometime after the original inhabitants, introducing the stone carving technology and attempting to enslave the population.
Some early accounts of the legend place hanau epe as the original residents and the contemporary Easter Islanders as later immigrants coming from Oparo. After mutual suspicions erupted in a violent clash, the hanau epe were overthrown and exterminated, leaving only one survivor.
Either Polynesians traveled to South America and back, or Indian balsa rafts drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats, or both. Polynesian connections in South America have been claimed to exist among the Mapuche Indians in central and southern Chile.
The Polynesian name for the small islet of Sala y Gomez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva, “Bird’s islet on the way to a far away land”) east of Easter Island has also been seen as a hint that South America was known before European contacts. Further complicating the situation is that the word Hiva (“far away land”) was also the name of the islanders’ legendary home country. Inexplicable insistence on an eastern origin for the first inhabitants was unanimous among the islanders in all early accounts.
Jacob Roggeveen’s expedition of 1722 gives us our first description of the islanders. They were “of all shades of color, yellow, white and brown” and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could “hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear”.
Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were “generally large in stature”. Islanders’ tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm.
DNA sequence analysis of Easter Island’s current inhabitants indicates that the 36 people living on Rapanui who survived the devastating intercine wars, slave raids and epidemics of the 19th century and had any offspring, were Polynesian. Furthermore, examination of skeletons offers evidence of only Polynesian origins for Rapanui living on the island after 1680.
Mainstream archeology is skeptical about any non-Polynesian influence on the island’s prehistory, but the discussion has become political.
According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship.
With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island’s habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners.
The last king, along with his family, died as a slave in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines. Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having nominal authority.
Kings of Easter Island
For unknown reasons, a coup by military leaders called matatoa had brought a new cult based around a previously unexceptional god Make-make. In the cult of the birdman (Rapanui: tangata manu), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season’s first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern).
The first swimmer to return with an egg and successfully climb back up the cliff to Orongo would be named “Birdman of the year” and secure control over distribution of the island’s resources for his clan for the year. The tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans. It ended in 1867. The militant birdman cult was largely to blame for the island’s misery of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Each year’s winner and his supporters short-sightedly pillaged the island after the victory. With the island’s ecosystem fading, destruction of crops quickly resulted in famine, sickness and death.
European accounts in 1722 (Dutch) and 1770 (Spanish) reported seeing only standing statues, but by James Cook’s visit in 1774 many were reported toppled. The huri mo’ai – the “statue-toppling” – continued into the 1830s as a part of fierce internecine wars. By 1838, the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku and Hoa Hakananai’a at Orongo. In about 60 years, islanders had deliberately destroyed the main part of their ancestors’ heritage. In modern times, moai have been restored at Orongo, Ahu Tongariki, Ahu Akivi and Hanga Roa.
The first recorded European contact with the island was on 5 April (Easter Sunday) 1722 when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island (this was an estimate, not a census, and archaeologists estimate the population may have been as high as 10,000 to 15,000 a few decades earlier). His party reported “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height”, the island had rich soil and a good climate and “all the country was under cultivation”. Fossil pollen analysis shows that the main trees on the island had gone 72 years earlier in 1650.
The civilization of Easter Island was long believed to have degenerated drastically during the century before the arrival of the Dutch, as a result of overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of an extremely isolated island with limited natural resources. The Dutch reported that a fight broke out in which they killed ten or twelve islanders.
The next foreign visitors (November 15, 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, sent by the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel Amat, and commanded by Felipe Gonzalez de Ahedo. They spent five days in the island, performing a very thorough survey of its coast, and named it Isla de San Carlos, taking possession on behalf of King Charles III of Spain, and ceremoniously erected three wooden crosses on top of three small hills on Poike. They reported the island as largely uncultivated, with a seashore lined with stone statues.
Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island, he reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down; no sign of the three crosses and his botanist described it as “a poor land”. He had a Tahitian interpreter who could partially understand the language as it was Polynesian.
In 1786, the French explorer Jean Francois de Galaup La Perouse visited and made a detailed map of Easter Island. He described the island as one tenth cultivated and estimated the population as a couple of thousand.
In 1804, the Russian ship, Neva, visited under the command of Yuri Lisyansky.
In 1816, the Russian ship, Rurik, visited under the command of Otto von Kotzebue.
In 1825, the British ship, HMS Blossom, visited and reported no standing statues.
Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by now the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.
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