Easter Island or Rapa Nui

easter island map

We went to Easter Island in March 2011 and the diary and photos of out trip is on this page .

Easter Island is one of the remotest inhabited islands in the world. It's in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 4000 km away from the coast of Chile and a little further from Tahiti. Easter Island or Rapa Nui in the native language, is triangular, 23km long by 11km wide, and was created by the eruption of three volcanoes. The total area of is 171 sq kms. There are just two sandy beaches, on the north coast. Climate: subtropical with an annual average temperature of 20C.

The island received its current name from the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen, who, on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, became the first European to visit. He was followed by a number of people ranging from Capt Cook in 1774, to a German Cruiser squadron in WW1 , to the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (famous for his Kon-Tiki and Ra raft voyages across the oceans), to the tourists of today.

The history of the Easter Island inhabitants is a bit unclear, mainly because nothing remains, in literature or in archeology, on the island that gives exact answers as to the inhabitants' origin. They were Polynesians who arrived probably between 700 AD and 1100 AD. DNA extracts from skeletons have confirmed that they most probably came from the Marquesas or Society islands. When they arrived the island was entirely covered with thick forests, was teeming with land birds, and was the richest breeding site for seabirds in the Polynesia region. Within a matter of centuries this was destroyed by the islanders' way of life.

One or two hundred years after their arrival they started to build the first ahus (the platforms on which the statues stand). Then they slowly began to take down these ahus and build new ones. The latest one were built in the 1600s. By the late 1700s most of the statues had been toppled in tribal wars, and any remaining statues were soon toppled. The statues that are upright today have been restored by various archeologists in the last 100 years.

The population mushroomed to perhaps 15000 by the mid 1600s but had fallen to around 3000 by the time the first Europeans arrives in the early 1700s. The islands resources had been overstretched by the population growth, and they had to rely on their own resources as they believed that they were the only people on earth. Eventually all the trees were cut down and soil eroded. Peruvian slavers removed half the natives (1500 people) in 1862. Then returning natives brought back diseases, wiping out more of the population, and missionaries evacuated a number to the Gambier Islands in 1871. By 1888 only 111 natives were left on the island when it was annexed by Chile. Only 36 of them had descendents, and all true natives on the island today descend from these 36 people.

The island was then leased to an Anglo Chilean sheep farming company until 1953. During the company's rule and for several years after, the Rapa Nui people were confined to the town of Hanga Roa, the rest of the island being fenced off with barbed wire to stop the natives stealing the sheep. Also the natives could not leave the island without permission. . The island was then managed by the Chilean Navy until 1966, at which point the island was reopened in its entirety. In 1966, the Rapanui were given Chilean citizenship. In 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and the Juan Fernández Islands the status of special territories of Chile. However the legacy of these problems and Chile's governance of the island has led to a dislike of Chile being apparent in the island today

Initially the population only recovered slowly with about 300 on the island in 1914 when Routledge had mounted her archeological expedition. However today it is mushrooming again with about 5000, of whom half are mainland Chilean and half native. Once again island resources are being stretched.

The Statues

The enormous stone statues called moai are Easter Island's most famous trademark, about 288 once stood upon massive stone platforms called ahu. There are some 250 of these ahu platforms along the coast of the island. Another 600 moai statues, in various stages of completion, are scattered around the island, either in quarries or along ancient roads between the quarries and the coastal areas where the statues were most often erected.

Van Tilburg's survey in 1989 reported, "A total of 887 monolithic statues has been located by the survey to date on Easter Island...397 are still in situ in quarries at the Rano Raraku central production center.....Fully 288 statues (32% of 887) were successfully transported to a variety of image ahu locations....Another 92 are recorded as "in transport," 47 of these lying in various positions on prepared roads or tracks outside the Rano Raraku zone."

The moai were carved from the stone of the Rano Raraku volcano. It was very soft in situ, but when carved and exposed to the air, hardened to a firm rock. The average statue was about 15 feet high and weighs 14 tons. Some moai were as large as 33 feet and weighed more than 80 tons. And one uncompleted statue found in the quarry was 65 feet long and would have weighed 270 tons.

A small number of the moai were topped with ‘hats’ of red volcanic stone from a different quarry. The meaning and purpose of these capstones is not known.

Academics are unable to definitively explain the function and use of the moai statues. The ahu platforms of Easter Island were the sanctuaries of the people of Rapa Nui, and the moai statues were the ritually charged sacred objects of those sanctuaries.


There are 28 Rongorongo tablets that survive, scattered in museums around the world . Surviving wooden tablets containing "Rongorongo" writing. Nobody has yet been able to translate these tablets. There is not a single line of rongorongo carved in stone despite thousands of petroglyphs on the island.

Our trip to Easter Island