The History of Easter Island


There is no complete, written history about Easter Island, its inhabitants, and why and how the vast Moai statues were constructed. Therefore, nearly everything that has been published is based upon legend, hearsay, and theory prior to the arrival of the Europeans. It is only since the first European adventurers began making notes about what they had seen on the Island back in the 1700’s, do we have a clearer picture of who inhabited the island at that time, and, to a degree, what subsequently happened, although even that is not all that clear. However the 1700’s is like “yesterday” in terms of the ancient history of Easter Island, so we are still missing any real depth of knowing about its cultural beginnings.

Anyway, from all the information that we have manged to acquire through research we will do our best to give an outline to what we do know. However, apologies in advance if some of what follows has since to have been discovered to be not totally accurate.

Origins of the People (Rapa Nui)

According to anecdotal history, original settlers arrived to the Island around 300 - 400 AD (around the same time Hawaii received its first settlers), however, carbon dating of soil containing evidence of human activity suggests a date of between 700 – 100 AD.

The Theory

Theory has it that the island was likely populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from other Pacific (Polynesian) Islands. Supporting this suggestion is a story from when Captain Cook visited the Island and a Polynesian crew member from the Polynesian Island of Bora Bora was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui people. The language most similar to the Rapa Nui language is Mangarevan (one of the Islands where the settlers likely came from), with an 80% similarity in vocabulary to the language of the Rapa Nui people. In 1999, a sea voyage using replica Polynesian boats sailed from the island of Mangareva reaching Easter Island in just nineteen days proving that such a journey could have been possible.


According to visiting missionaries who came to Easter Island in the 1860’s the Island operated a social hierarchy system (or Ancestral Cult), with an appointed “Ariki”, or high chief, wielding great power over other clans and their own respective chiefs (a little like a king having power over local dukes and princes). The high chief was the eldest descendent through first-born lines of the island's legendary first chief, “Hotu Matua”.


The huge Moai statues are the most visible remnant of the “Rapa Nui” culture. According to legend, it is said that each Moai represented a deified ancestor. It was believed that the living, through respect and homage paid to the dead via the Moai (similar to Christians praying to a religious icon like the Virgin Mary for the wellbeing of the living), would enable a symbiotic relationship with the deceased whereby the dead would provide protection, health, food, and good karma in general to the living. Most settlements were located on the coast and Moai were erected all along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs facing toward the spirit world beyond the sea.

Bird Man Cult Easter Island

As the island became increasingly overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as “Mataoa” gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult (“Tangata Manu”), so the theory goes. This Bird Man cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer through statues, but human beings chosen through a rigorous physical competition (similar to the “iron man” sporting challenges in the modern world). It was believed that the God responsible for creating humans (“Make Make”) played an important role in this process. In 1919 an expedition led by Katherine Routhledge, investigated the origins of Bird Man and discovered that the competition started around 1760, after the arrival of the first recorded Europeans and ended in 1878 at the time of the construction of the first Roman Catholic church on the Island. The Bird Man petroglyphs found on rocks on Easter Island are exactly the same as some petroglyphs in Hawaii, suggesting that the same competition was held on other Pacific Islands.

Destruction of the Moai

There is much debate as to why the Moai’s and “Ahu’s” were destroyed, and what caused the drastic demise of the native population. Since the arrival of European visitors to the Island there has been a sporadic record of the state of the Moai’s and the health of the local people. For example, in 1722, when Dutchman Jacob Roggeven arrived, and later in 1770, when two Spanish ships arrived, each of the visits noted that the Island was largely uncultivated and with a shore lined with statues. However, when Captain Cook arrived in 1774, he reported that many statues were lying face down. Later, in 1825 the HMS Blossom arrived and recorded that there were no standing statues in the places where the crew visited.

One theory has it that due to overpopulation and famine that “war” broke out between the different local cults and that this resulted in the Moai’s being toppled and “Ahu’s” destroyed, and that this, according to historians, continued through until the 1830’s. In 1838, the only seen Moai’s that were in a standing position were at these locations: Rano Raraku, Hoa Hakananai’s, Orongo and Ariki Paro.

Summary of Statue Observation
1722 – Jacob Roggeven arrives and records that many statues line the shore.
1770 – Spanish ships arrive and noted statues lining the coast.
1774 – Captain Cook reported that many statues were facing head down.
1825 – No standing statues at locations where the crew of HMS Blossom visited.
1838 – The only statues observed as remaining upright were at Rano Raraku, Hoa Hakananai’s, Orongo and Ariki Paro.


However, in contradiction to the above record and theory it was reported in 1722, by Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen that Easter Island was exceptionally fertile writing that "fowls are the only animals they keep. They cultivate bananas, sugar cane, and above all, sweet potatoes". Then in 1786 Jean-Francois de la Pérouse visited Easter Island and his gardener declared that "three days' work a year" would be enough to support the population. Rollin, a major in the Pérouse expedition also wrote that "Instead of meeting with men exhausted by famine... I found, on the contrary, a considerable population, with more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island; and a soil, which, with very little labour, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants."
Indeed, the above view is supported by pathologic and archaeological studies that have been carried out at various locations on the Island where there is no found evidence of a pre-European societal collapse.

Summary of all Key Observation Dates

(Bold indicates contradictory observations)
1722 – Jacob Roggeven arrives and records that many statues line the shore.
Also, very fertile land.
1770 – Spanish ships arrive and note statues lining the coast.
1774 – Captain Cook reported that many statues were facing head down.
1786 – Jean-Francois indicated that little work was required to feed the population due to plentiful food and friendly people.
1825 – No standing statues at locations where the crew of HMS Blossom visited.

1838 – The only statues observed as remaining upright were at Rano Raraku, Hoa Hakananai’s, Orongo and Ariki Paro.

European Contamination & Slaves

It looks far more likely that it was the arrival of the Europeans that led to the rapid decline in local population as a result of introducing previously unknown (to the locals) disease and illness that they (the visitors) inadvertently introduced to the local population. In addition, during the 1860’s a combination of events resulted in the death and eradication of most of the native population. It is reported that in December 1862, slave hunters came from Peru and captured 1,500 men and women – (half of the island's population at the time), including the island's chief, his heir and those who were literate in “Rongorongo” (Polynesian script).

When the slave raiders eventually repatriated the people, they had kidnapped previously, they knowingly disembarked carriers of smallpox among the survivors onto various other Polynesian islands as well as Easter Island, resulting in devastating epidemics from Easter Island all the way to the Marquesas Islands. In the case of Easter Island, the population was reduced to such a low level that some of the dead were not even buried. If this wasn’t enough, later, around the mid 1800’s, it was visiting whalers who unwittingly introduced tuberculosis to the Island resulting in the death of over a quarter of the remaining population.

Land Acquisition

Europeans who had since settled on the Island set up sheep farms or missionaries and began to buy up land vacated by the deceased, Rapa Nui people. This land acquisition led to a confrontation between the sheep farmers and the missionaries. With financial support from backers in Tahiti, sheep farmer Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier secured most of the land outside of Hanga Roa, but in return he was forced to send to his financers (based in Tahiti) a couple of hundred Rapa Nui people. In the meantime, the missionaries settled for the land in and around Hanga Roa and in 1871, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, sent all but 171 Rapa Nui to the Gamber Islands.
Needless to say, after the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rapa Nui people by the Dutrou-Bornier and the missionaries not many Rapa Nui were left on the Island. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 Rapa Nui people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring. From that point on, and into the present day, the island's population has slowly recovered. But, back in the late 1800’s, with over 97% of the population dead or having left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.

Political Control Easter Island

In 1888, Chile assumed responsibility for Easter Island, granting the Williamson-Balfour company administrative control over the Island in 1903, through a lease agreement that permitted the company to use most of the land for sheep grazing for 25 years. It is reported that over 70,000 sheep were able to graze freely throughout the island. Then, in 1935, most of the island was declared a National Park by the Chilean authorities.

The initial contract with Williamson-Balfour was also extended due to a wool shortage in the world. However, Williamson Balfour further manged to continue with their wool trade until 1953 when the business came under the control of the Chilean Navy, who also introduced a decree prohibiting the use of the Rapa Nui native language, and restricting movement of the population to Hanga Roa village only, as a measure to prevent sheep being stolen. The village was “enclosed” by a wall with controlled by access gates.

This injustice continued through to 1964 until an uprising, led by Alfonso Rapu demanded an improvement in conditions for the Rapa Nui people, which resulted in a new law, in 1966, giving the Rapnui people Chilean citizenship and normal, human rights. Also, they gained the ability to appoint a mayor chosen by them, receive tax breaks as well as a new law stating that only Rapa Nui people could legally buy and own land on Easter Island – a measure that is still in effect today.

Today Rapa Nui residents also receive subsidized air travel to the Chilean mainland. Then, on July 30, 2007, a Chilean constitutional reform gave Easter Island, along with the Juan Fernandez Archipelago (located closer to the Chilean coast), the status of “special territories of Chile”. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the Island will continue to be governed as a province of Valparaiso in the Chilean V Region. And in December 1995, Easter Island was certified a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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