Easter Island or Rapa Nui, as the islanders call it, is an island in the South Pacific. It is 3700km off the coast of the South American continent and is one of the most geographically isolated, inhabited places on earth. The island was formed 3 million years ago when a huge volcanic cone began to rise up from beneath the sea. Numerous eruptions created the island as we know it today, the last ones being 300,000 years ago. Rapa Nui is on a tectonic plate, but without it there wouldn’t be an island. The Rapanui are believed to have settled there between 300 and 1200 CE and they were of Polynesian origin. The Rapanui speak Spanish but originally they spoke the old form of Rapanui, which is an eastern Polynesian language.
The Rapanui erected stone statues or moai in various places around the island, most facing inland. The statues were erected on stone ceremonial platforms called ahu around the coastline. The moai face inland towards the villages as if watching over the people. Over 800 statues were made on the island. Many of them being carved out of a type of rock called volcanic tuff, and they tend to have large heads and elongated features. The eyes were only put in for ceremonies, when the statues were ‘activated’.
The Rapanui performed rituals from the moment of birth including when the umbilical cord was cut, the first haircut, first tattoo and coming of age. The most important rituals were associated with death. By invoking the help of the ancestors through the statues the Rapanui believed that their forefather’s spirits would come to their aid when needed.
Rapa Nui’s population may have grown to around 15,000 before the Europeans discovered the island in the 1700’s. During the early 19th century Easter Island became a stopping-off point for whaling ships and other vessels. The Rapanui had little resistance to the diseases that the ships’ crews brought with them. Rats were also introduced by Polynesians, however, there was no known disease associated with them in particular. In 1862 Peruvian ships involved in what were known as ‘blackbirding’ raids, forced captured islanders to work in South America. The few Rapanui who returned brought with them infectious diseases, which killed a large number of the people that stayed on the island. About a thousand islanders had been taken away for slavery, and the remaining population was devastated by smallpox, which all contributed to the decline of the Rapanui. By the 1870s there were only 111 Rapanui still remaining on the island. The island became part of Chile in 1888 and in 2002 it was reported that the population was around 3,304 inhabitants, almost all living in the village of Hanga Roa on the western coast.
Post by Shaun Bennett