The fascinating Easter Island exudes mystery and mythology – with a rather ambiguous past, the facts are unknown to many. Historians and anthropologists have spent decades trying to understand its culture which, thankfully, to this day has been preserved. With the towering moai statues iconic of the island, begin your journey around Rapa Nui and let the legends and history unfurl.
Why is it called Easter Island?
The name Easter Island was given to this Polynesian Island by Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch admiral who landed on Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday in 1722. The people of Rapa Nui who have inhabited the island since around 300 A.D. still call their island Rapa Nui. In fact, the first name given to the island was “Te Pito O Te Henua,” translating as “The World’s Navel.”
Where is it?
Ranking first place on the United Nations’ “Isolation Index,” it is the most secluded inhabited island in the world. In 1888, Chile annexed the island, which remains a territory of that nation to this day, belonging to the Chilean Valparaiso region. Although it is a distant 2,360 miles (3,800 kilometers) off the coast, Chile is the closest country to the island.
How to get there
To reach Easter Island, you will need to take a plane. The shortest journey is from Santiago airport, taking five hours. This is also a cheaper option compared to a seven-hour flight from Tahiti.
Where did the inhabitants come from?
It is believed that around 1,500 years ago, the adventurous chief that went by the name of Hotu Matu’a led his people to this isolated island. Here, they lived on the remote island, away from the rest of the world and Polynesia for many generations until the arrival of European explorers.
What happened on the island?
Although there is a gap in documentation between the arrival of Hotu Matu’a and the Europeans, it is believed that there was a population of about 10,000 people on the Rapa Nui. However, by the time the Europeans arrived, the numbers were quite minimal. Having deforested the whole island, for what’s thought to have been for agriculture, the island’s loss of trees exposed the volcanic soils to erosion. Oral tradition also claims that there had been civil warfare and cannibalism among the inhabitants.
How did the statues get there?
With no written history and only the spoken stories passed along from generation to generation, there is no real indication of how the statues arrived on the island, nor how they were transported around the island. Considering that many of the statues have bodies buried underground and the heaviest is a hefty 82 tonnes, it must have been some impressive feat. Anthropologists believe that there was contact between Rapa Nui and South America, as the moai bear resemblance to Incan and Mesoamerican artifacts.
History of the statues
The Rapa Nui people carved these huge stone sculptures to represent the faces of worshipped ancestors, who are supposedly buried underneath the ahu (platform). The reason the sculptures all face inwards is to show protection among each other. Some of the moais have pukaos, a hat-like structure on their heads; some theories consider them to have an expression of power, others that they represent hair. Originally there were thousands of moai statues, but before the island was made a World Heritage Site in 1995, many of the statutes were taken by collectors. Moais can be found in museums all over the world, the most famous being The Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. What’s more, the largest moai can be seen from Google Earth.
The Tapati Rapa Nui Festival is the annual celebration of culture, held during the first two weeks February. The island splits into two teams, both led by a queen, with the winner crowned “Queen of the Island” for the entire year. Other traditional activities that the locals participate in include dancing, wood carving and music played on unique eight-string flat ukuleles that look a little like electric guitars; all part of a celebration enjoyed by both locals and tourists. In addition, the island laws proclaim that if you are not from Rapa Nui you cannot own land on the island, nor can you marry your third cousin.
The kohau rongo rongo, as locals call it – also known as rongorongo scripture – is still an undeciphered text, consisting of glyphs carved on wood or tablets. Rongo rongo means “the great message” or “the great study.” So say the theories around Easter Island that the great leader, Hotu Matu’a, had 67 tablets that corresponded with the 67 Maori wisdoms – this included knowledge of astronomy and sailing. However, the real meaning is still unknown to us as there was no contact with these inhabitants until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1770.
Once you have enjoyed the history and culture of the island, you can bask in the beautifully clear waters of the Pacific Ocean, said to be the most transparent in the world. Due to this, it creates perfect conditions for snorkelers and scuba divers, who can enjoy great visibility up to a depth of 164–196 feet (50–60 meters) to swim among corals, and native fish of all shapes and colors.