Easter Island – Rapa Nui

When Easter Island was populated is disputed, that it was populated is a sensation. “Finding” the island of 160km² in size and a maximum height of 300m, situated in the middle of the South East Pacific, without modern navigation technology, can be considered a nautical miracle.

According to current state of knowledge, based on radiocarbon dating, Rapa Nui was settled from Polynesia between 700 and 1100. The first settlers probably came from Pitcairn, the Gambier Islands or the Marquesas. The thesis once developed by Thor Heyerdahl that the first settlers of Easter Island came from South America proved to be untenable considering genetic, archaeological and linguistic investigations, even though a cultural contact to South America demonstrably existed already in the 14th century.

The myth of Rapa Nui’s origin reports of the mythical chief Hotu Matua in the oral tradition, who – following the dream journey of a shaman – set out with several double hull canoes and several hundred people and reached the ‘eighth country’ after weeks of his journey. He went ashore on the beach of Anakena and built his residence here. Before Hotu Matua died, he divided the island among his children. Their descendants founded the different lineages of Rapa Nui. In fact, some elements of the myth can also be found in reality, e.g. a strongly hierarchical society divided into ten clans called máta. The ariki named chief of the clan, who could refer to the mythical ancestor Hotu Matua in the direct line of the firstborn, ruled over the other nine clans. From around 1100 A.D., shortly after the settlement, the construction of large buildings such as the ahu (ceremonial platforms), the moai (stone statues), cisterns and tupa (observation towers of the priest-astronomers) began. Most of the settlements were built along the coast, and most of the moai were built along the coastline, where they guarded the inhabitants of the respective settlements at their feet, with their backs to the sea, the realm of spirits. It is believed that the moai represented revered ancestors to whom the Rapa Nui had a symbiotic relationship: the dead ‘provided’ the living with everything they needed, such as health, fertility (of fields and animals) and prosperity, while the sacrifices of the living gave the ancestors a better place or status in the world of the ghosts.

The heyday of the Rapanui culture, when, among other things, the now admired Moai and other ceremonial buildings were built, turned out to be an ecological catastrophe, initially creeping and later escalating. Systematic deforestation deprived the islanders of their most important source of building materials, so that settlement construction and deep-sea fishing had come to a standstill by the 15th century. The most important of the endemic tree species, the Rapa Nui palm (Paschalococos disperta), took 100 years to reach maturity. From 1650 it is considered extinct. Probably not only humans, but also the Pacific rat, brought along by the settlers as a source of food, contributed to this disappearance by eating the fruits of the palm. The rat also proved fatal for the island’s ground-breeding bird species, while other bird species lost their nesting sites due to the deforestation. The lack of forestation led to soil erosion, a decline in rainfall and poor harvests of crops such as taro, yams, manioc and sweet potatoes, whose crops were no longer protected by trees and were exposed to the salt water spray. Also the Toromiro, a small endemic tree species thriving in the shade of palm trees, was considered extinct for a long time, and was only successfully reintroduced (for the time being) in recent years.

However, the metaphor of Easter Island as a symbol of man-made ecological and cultural decline is not undisputed. Also the reports of the first European visitors contradict each other in parts: While the Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen, who was regarded as the rediscoverer of the island, reported fertile soils and only standing Moai in 1722, many of the statues had already tumbled by the time James Cook arrived on Easter Island in 1774 as part of his second voyage. What is certain is that both the process of cultural decline and the decimation of the population accelerated with the contact to Europeans and South Americans, especially in the 19th century. The lowest point of this development were the slave raids by Peruvian human traffickers, who kidnapped 1500 mostly male Rapa Nui in 1862 and 63. Among them were the ruler and the wise men, who were the only ones to read the rongo rongo scriptures, so that the mysterious signs on wooden panels cannot be interpreted until today. When the surviving 15(!) of the 1500 displaced were brought back to Easter Island at the urging of the church, 13 died during the passage, and the only two survivors infected the local population with chickenpox, a disease that the immune system of the islanders had nothing to withstand. A few years later, there were only 111 natives left.

When Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888, it took only a few years for 60,000 sheep to strip the island bare. Chile had previously leased it to the speculator Enrique Merlet, who later transferred his ownership to the British trading company Williamson-Balfour. When cattle thefts occurred, the locals were quickly detained and were no longer allowed to enter a large part of the island. This state of extensive lawlessness of the Rapa Nui despite Chilean citizenship lasted until the 1960s. Ironically, with Pinochet’s dictatorship, Easter Island’s independence gradually began, followed by investments in infrastructure, and in the mid-1980s Sergio Rapu, archaeologist and Rapa Nui, was appointed the island’s first governor.

Those who travel the still long way to Easter Island today should plan at least 4-5 days to also explore the more remote parts of Rapa Nui, e.g. on guided hikes or on their own.

The journey starts with a four-hour flight from Santiago de Chile.