Easter Island Essay

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Easter Island, located in the South Pacific some 2,237 miles west of the Chilean mainland, is a part of the Republic of Chile, and is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Now officially known as Rapa Nui, it is roughly triangular in shape, covers 63 square miles, and has a population of 3,700 (according to the 2002 census).

The first European contact with the island was when the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen landed on Easter Sunday, 1722-hence the name of the island. There was a population of between 2,000 and 3,000, but from oral tradition it was believed that there might have been as many as 15,000 only a century earlier. The massive decline in the population came about as a result of deforestation and overexploitation of the natural resources on the island.

From what the Europeans discovered on that and later visits, the first Polynesian settlers arrived on about 300-400 C.E., possibly with a very small population until the 12th century, when large-scale deforestation started. This appears to have accelerated rapidly by the 17th century, with evidence from archaeological digs showing a significant decline in fish and bird bones as the islanders started to have shortages of hunting tools, and also possibly the birds having no places to nest. This was made worse by the Polynesian rat, which seems to have lived by eating seeds from palm trees on the island.

The most well-known aspects of Easter Island heritage are the Moai, large stone statues that were carved probably between 1100 and 1600, although some were still being carved when the Europeans first came to the island. They caught the attention of much of the world, and Captain Cook described them in his visit in 1774. The carving of the statues, and their movement from the quarry to their final destination further depleted the supply of wood on the island, and hence the massive decline in trees. This all led to soil erosion, and the introduction of the Birdman Cult.

The Birdman Cult of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the introduction of an annual competition whereby a representative of each clan would try to swim to the nearby island of Motu Nui, to find and bring back an egg. The first to return would become the Birdman for that year, having rights over the distribution of resources. The last such swim, across shark-infested waters, took place in 1867 and it is believed that the event was a way in which the community was trying to supplement their food supplies. By the mid-19th century the population on Easter Island had risen to about 4,000 but by 1877 had fallen to only 110. This came about from introduced diseases as well as slave-traders operating from Peru. In 1888 the island was annexed by Chile with a treaty drawn up by Policarpo Toro. Many of the locals were forced to live in a shanty town on the outskirts of the capital, Hanga Roa, until the 1960s. Now their heritage is cherished, and the island is visited by many tourists with stopovers by Lan Chile and other trans-Pacific flights stopping at Mataveri International Airport.

There are many tablets found on the island featuring a mysterious script that has not yet been deciphered, and there are some theories advanced by linguists seeking to link the culture on Easter Island with other parts of the world.


  1. Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (George Allen & Unwin, 1958);
  2. Francis Maziere, Mysteries of Easter Island (Wm Collins & Sons, 1968);
  3. Alfred Metraux, Easter Island: A Stoneage Civilization of the Pacific (Andre Deutsch, 1957).

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