The Island

Easter Islands

Throughout history, what we now know as Easter Island or Rapa Nui has had various other names.

It seems that the first of them was “Te Pito O Te Henua”, which translates to “The World’s Navel”. Oral tradition states that this was the name Ariki (king) Hotu Matu’a gave the island, when he and his people arrived to settle in this part of the world, due to its geographical isolation. Nevertheless, some scholars argue that this name was first heard in 1873 and that it was likely that the ancient inhabitants referred to the island simply as “Te Kainga”, which means “The Land”, since there was no other land nearby which they needed to differentiate it from.


The name of Easter Island was given by Jakob Roggenveen, a Dutch navigator who officially discovered the island on the 5th of April of 1722. Given that it was Easter that day, Roggenveen called it “Passchen Eyland”, a name which was later literally translated to other languages and which has endured over the rest.

When the Spaniards arrived to the island in 1770 with the purpose of claiming it for the Spanish crown, they named it “San Carlos” in honor of the Spanish king Carlos III, but, maybe because no Spaniard ever returned to enforce that domain, the name was quickly forgotten.


Another of the most popular names the island has been given is “Rapa Nui”, however this term is not of native origin but rather Tahitian. It was given by the navigators who visited the island in the XIX century, originating from Tahiti, due to the resemblance it had to the Rapa Island, in French Polynesia. Rapa Nui means “Big Rapa”, as a way to distinguish it from the other one, which is also known as “Rapa Iti” (“Small Rapa”).

In spite of its foreign origin, the name of Rapa Nui has been completely accepted by the islanders, who refer to their land as Rapa Nui and not as Easter Island. The term has also been extended to identify their people, culture and language.