Easter Island is a place that most people have heard of, but very few know much about. Technically a territory of Chile, it’s one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It lies 1,289 miles west of the Pitcairn Islands and 2,182 miles east from the coast of Chile. Although it’s only 63 square miles, the island has sustained a human population since approximately 700-1100 AD. The island’s inhabitants refer to it as Rapa Nui, but most places apart from the island call it Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish). This name comes from the first European man who came across the island, Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen—he sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722, and since then it has mainly been known by that name.
Not much is known about the origins of the original settlers of Easter Island; the most popular theory is that they were Polynesian. Many people also say that South American origin is likely, but a 2014 DNA test of both pre- and post-European Rapa Nui remains showed no correlation between native American and Rapa Nui genes. Another less common theory proposes Mongolian origin, based on strong physical resemblance between the two groups. At it’s height, the population of the island may have been as high as 15,000 people, but eventually two rival factions developed, and war and disease reduced the population significantly. By the time Jacob Roggeveen visited the island, he reported that there were between 2,000 and 3,000 people. Just over 150 years later, in 1877, there were only 111 people left on the island—slavery and European diseases had reduced the population even further.
Analysis of fossilized lava flows, rock strata, and lake sediment has shown that the island used to have a phenomenal variety of native species of birds, trees, bushes, and various other types of flora. Ecologists actually recognize the island as having its own ecoregion, Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forest. One of the tallest known species of palm tree, now extinct, used to spread over the entire island; these trees took 50 years to reach reproductive age, reaching up to 80 feet tall at maturity. It is known that these trees disappeared over a relatively short period of time, leading to soil erosion and depletion, but nobody knows exactly how that happened. It’s likely that rat overpopulation was a large part of this, as the rats on the island are known to eat the seeds and sprouts. It has also been proposed that the inhabitants completely deforested their own island by using the trees as rollers to move the gigantic stone statues. While the trees may have been used as a method of moving the statues, it doesn’t quite make sense that, after all that time of managing the resources of a relatively small island, they would recklessly use up an important component of the local ecology. As with the origin of the inhabitants, the disappearance of the palm trees on Rapa Nui has no definite explanation.
Of course, the most famous feature of Rapa Nui is the stone statues, or moai. Only a quarter of the 887 statues in existence were actually put into place; about half of them are still at the main quarry, Rano Raraku, and many others are in museums around the world. Most of the statues average around 13 feet, but they range from 8 feet to 70 feet. According to oral tradition, the moai represent the spirits of ancestors. The first Europeans to see the statues saw them in their original positions on the ahu, or stone platforms, all facing toward the center of the island except for one inland location, Ahu Akivi; however, by the mid-1800’s, all of the moai had been toppled. As with many other aspects of the island’s history, it isn’t known why they were knocked down; theories include civil war, neglect, or despair over perceived European encroachment.
Rapa Nui was annexed by Chile in 1888, and is now formally a part of the Valparaíso region. In 1996 the Rapa Nui National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s currently managed by CONAF, Chile’s national park service. The rights of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui have been an issue since there was any question of outside influence, given the value of it’s culture and history; occasionally there are still protests and strikes by the native inhabitants against Chilean and foreign companies who are exploiting the island’s potential for profit in the tourism industry. Big-name tour companies often turn the experience of visiting Rapa Nui into one more opportunity to cross something off of the travel bucket list; but given how rare and beautiful the island’s culture and landscapes are, it deserves better than that from the people who visit. If you’re concerned about respecting the island and the people who live there, I would recommend making sure that you use local resources during your stay. From tour guides, bike or car rentals, or locally owned hotels, any tourism-related commodity is generally available from a local source, usually costs about the same, and will probably be of better value for the person who wants to see the authentic side of the island.