UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Rapanui (Easter Island) (Isla de Pascua)

About 5,000 people live on Easter Island today, and thousands of tourists come to see the anthropomorphic “moai” statues each year. Amid strain from a rising population, the island faces challenges ahead. It has no sewer system and continues to draw on a limited freshwater supply.

Te Pito te Henua, as the natives, or Rapanui, as the other Polynesians call the most remote islet of the vast island world, is, with its area of forty-five square miles, one of the smallest high islands of the Pacific Ocean. Rapanui is not an ancient name. We know it to have been acquired by the people as a gift from a foreigner, a visitor from the distant island of Rapa, the Oparo of the charts, who discovered what seemed a resemblance to his own and lesser island and therefore applied the name Rapanui, Rapa the Great. No long time has elapsed, yet the name has obtained Polynesian currency and a myth has begun to arise to the effect that Rapanui was settled by a colony sailing out of Rapaiti, Rapa the Less.

Nevertheless it draws attention on account of one of weighty problems of ethnology. If any connection at all exists between Polynesians and Americans, Rapanui was the most easterly pier in the bridge. There is nothing in the ethnography of Easter Island, as known to the Europeans, which supports such a theory. Salmon, the Tahitian who accompanied the German "Hyena" expedition of 1882 under Lieutenant-Captain Geiseler, and the American "Mohican" expedition of 1886, reported indeed a story of the natives of Rapanui, according to which they are supposed to have come in a large boat from one of the Galapagos islands with the trade-wind and to have landed at Anakena in the north of the island; but he did not disguise the fact that this tradition was contrary to the ideas of other natives, who maintained that there had been an immigration from the west.

Easter Island is over 2,000 miles from the nearest population centers (Tahiti and Chile), making it one of the most isolated places on Earth. Easter Island, which is within the zone of variable winds for half of the year, and is 1500 miles from the nearest known land whence it could receive inhabitants. This island is a mere speck in the ocean, 10 miles in diameter; and supposing that it could be seen by an Indian in his canoe from a distance of 25 miles on each side, a space of 60 miles in the circumference of a circle of 1500 miles radius would thus represent the probability of a canoe carried away by a storm coming within sight of it.

Supposng the wind to blow from any westerly point between north and south, the probability of a drifted canoe reaching the island is only as 1 to 75. Adding the chances of the isle being passed in the night-time, when it could not be seen, the probability will be only as l to 150. But, further, to plant a breeding population on the isle, the canoe must have carried women in it; and as the savages have not women with them in their canoes perhaps more than once in three or four of their voyages, the probability is thus diminished to 1 in 500. In other words, the peopling of an island in such a situation as Easter Island may be considered as representing the result of 500 accidents, in which canoes were drifted to sea and wrecked.

The architecture of Rapanui is supposed to show resemblances to buildings in Central and South America; but the simple huts of the Easter Islanders are not to be compared with those colossal erections. The construction of the famous stone images, some fifteen feet high, made of lava (lianga) extends to comparatively recent periods, when there can be no possible idea of America's influence; besides this, productions of similar size, although not of quite the same character, were nothing extraordinary among the other Oceanians, at least in earlier times. the enduring memorials of workers in cyclopean stone are preserved in the South Sea. Without pretending to offer a list of such structures we note a few of the principal buildings of that nature: the Fale o le Fe'e in the mountains of 'Upolu behind Apia, the great trilithonof Tonga, the scarped mountain erections on Rapaiti, the massive walls of Metalianim Harbor in the Carolines, the rows of pillars on Tinian in the Mariannes.

Least comprehensible of all such works are the stone statues of Easter Island, rude masses of tufa-crowned human shapes mounted as termini upon platforms along the edges of the cliffs. They are found in all stages of execution from the partly hewn block in the quarries to the monument finished and erected in its place. They are claimed by the traditions of the islanders as the work of their forefathers down to quite recent generations.

Many know them as the Easter Island heads. This is a misconception from having seen photos of statues in the volcano Rano Raraku partitially covered up with soil. Truth is that all of these "heads" have full bodies. There are around 1000 statues, up to 86 tons tons in weight and 10 m in height, though average is around half of that. 95% of the moais were carved from the volcano Rano Raraku. This location was chosen since it consists to a great extent of tuff, which is what the moais from this volcano consist of. Tuff is compressed volcanic ash and is easy to carve, which was necessary since the natives had no metal to carve with, but used only stone tools; the so called toki.

When the first European ship arrived to Easter Island in 1722, all statues that were reported on were still standing. Later visitors report on more statues that have fallen as the years pass, and in the end of the 19th century, not a single statue is standing. The most common theory to this is that the statues were overthrown in tribal warfare to humiliate the enemy. An argument for this is the fact that most statues have fallen forward with the face into the earth.

Famed for its monolithic statues, Easter Island is shrouded in mystery. Its population — once sizable — collapsed. The human population grew to levels that could not be sustained by the island. The population of Easter Island reached its peak at perhaps more than 10,000, far exceeding the capabilities of the small island's ecosystem. Resources became scarce, and the once lush palm forests were destroyed - cleared for agriculture and moving the massive stone Moai. In this regard, Easter Island has become, for many, a metaphor for ecological disaster. Thereafter, a thriving and advanced social order began to decline into bloody civil war and, evidently, cannibalism.

After the civil war resulted, and the island’s deforestation and ecosystem collapse was nearly complete. “The clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources,” is how University of California Los Angeles geographer Jared Diamond once described it. But the island’s history may not be as clear-cut as Diamond suggests. While scientists agree that broad-scale deforestation occurred here at some point, the verdict is still out on what exactly caused the downfall of the Rapanui people.

The modern relations between Rapanui and America were all the more frequent. Intercourse with the whites generally has indeed only brought the islanders misery and destruction hitherto. The beginning of the "mission of civilization" is marked by the landing of the Dutchman Jacob Eoggeween, on Easter Day April 6, 1722. He found the island then most prosperous and densely populated, an appearance which it has long since lost.

But before him in these seas was Davis the buccaneer. Something he found in 1686 in those seas so empty between the Paumotu and the coast of Peru. The Spaniards (proud, and with reason, of the great admiral of the viceroyalty) have assigned the credit to Alvaro Mendafta in 1566. It may well be so, for Spanish discovery was in those stirring times an art and mystery by no means to be revealed by publication on charts which any shipman might secure, lest the English sea-rover should discover more than it was wholesome for him to know.

The natives were possibly too friendly and yielding to the whites. Cook sailed from Plymouth on the 13th of July, 1772, on his second voyage of discovery. He eventually directed his course in search of Davis's Land or Easter Island, which had been sought in vain by Byron, Carteret, and Bougainville: Cook, however, succeeded better, and made the island on the 11th of March, 1774.

In 1805 the ship "Nancy" from New London, which had been engaged in seal fishery at Mas a fuera (southwest of Juau Fernandez) came to Rapanui and carried away twelve men and ten women after a desperate fight. The men, when, three days after, they were released from their chains on the open sea, sprang overboard immediately, in order to reach their home by swimming; but the women were carried to Mas a fuera. The "Nancy" is said to have made several subsequent attempts at robbery. The American ship "Pindos" later carried away as many girls as there were men on board, and on the next morning as a pastime fired at the natives collected on the beach.

The most calamitous period began in 1863. Peruvian slave dealers then established a depot on Rapanui in order to impress laborers for the guano works in Peru from the surrounding archipelagoes; for this purpose the}' carried away the majority of the inhabitants of Eapanui. Most of them were, however, brought back at the representations of the French government; but unfortunately smallpox was introduced by them and caused great ravages. In 1866 Catholic missionaries began their work, but they left the island after a few years, accompanied by some faithful followers, and went to Mangarewa, The last reduction in the number of the population was effected by the deportation of four hundred Easter Islanders by a Tahitian firm to Tahiti and Eimeo, where they were employed as plantation laborers.

The population has not been able to bear such frequent and heavy drains on its vitality. Estimated by Cook at 700, by later travellers at 1,500 souls, and numbering before 1860 some 3,000, it dwindled by 1900 to 150, whose absorption in the mass of the immigrant Tahitians, Chilians, and others seemed only a question of time. Since 1888 Rapanui was used by Chili as a penal colony.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 12-07-2017 18:57:52 ZULU