Located in the middle of the south Pacific Ocean and being one of the most distant and remote places in the world, Easter Island history has always been surrounded by a halo of mystery.
Much has been speculated about the origins of the civilization that was once able to sculpt and raise those spectacular stone monuments known as Moai. Truth be told, not much is known about the origins of the Rapa Nui people, when the island was first inhabited and where its first inhabitants came from.
The first settlers
There are two theories about who were the first fearless settlers to find Easter Island and decide to settle it, founding a new civilization.
Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian scientist who dedicated a big part of his life to the study of Polynesian migration patterns and their possible links to South America, maintained the idea that native South Americans were the ones to sail through the Pacific Ocean and populate Easter Island. To test his theory, in 1947 he left the coast of Peru on a rudimentary wooden boat- the Kon Tiki- and following the currents managed to arrive at French Polynesia. Although his arrival was much further North than Easter Island, he held that one could reach Easter Island setting sail from America from a point farther south. This theory, quite rebutted since its conception, has been disproved most recently by DNA testing which proves that the Rapanui have Polynesian and not South American genes.
The most accepted and supported population theory, as well as oral tradition, states that King Hotu Matua’a arrived on Easter Island coming from the mythical island of Hiva, possibly in the Marquesas Islands, at some point between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. It’s believed that when Hotu Matua’a and his men (around 100) arrived on Anakena beach, carrying with them all the necessary goods to start a civilization, they found an island covered in palm trees and edible plants, where seabirds and fish were also abundant.
Tradition states that the Ariki (king) Hotu Matua’a established what the social and religious organization of the new community would be, dictating rules for the construction of houses and monuments. Those first few years would have been dedicated to exploring the totality of the island and everything it offered, growing species that they had brought with them and increasing the population of animals and human beings.
The moai statues and religious beliefs
As in all of Polynesia, in Easter Island, worshiping ancestors was a big part of the inhabitants’ spiritual lives. The Rapanui believed that important people’s “mana” (spiritual energy) continued existing after their death, and that it had the ability to influence events much after their death, a belief that became tangible in the construction of the moai statues.
This is known as the classic stage, when the Rapa Nui culture reached its maximum splendor raising enormous ceremonial altars or Ahu in which great sculptures where made craved from volcanic rock, which are the most characteristic symbols of Easter Island. The moai period extended between approximately 800 A.D. and 1860, when the conflict between the different bloodlines changed the island’s history.
When a tribe’s leader or one of its important members dies, a sculpture was ordered to be created in the quarry of Rano Raraku, which would later be transported to to the respective village, so that it could project its “mana” or supernatural powers over its descendants. The moai statues were always placed looking towards their village and their descendants, not towards the sea, since their objective was not to protect them from outside threats but to extend over them a protective blanket.
As the Rapanui became skilled in sculpting and transporting the moai statues, these became bigger and more stylized, in contrast with the first which were short and crude; hence, the size and finesse of the sculpture’s details can be used to determine their antiquity. In fact, the biggest moai that were sculpted in this period, are still found in the quarry of Rano Raraku. It’s estimated that the biggest sculptures demanded the work and attention of men between 10-20 years old all year long.
It’s believed that between the 15th and 18th centuries, Easter Island suffered an overpopulation crisis that caused shortages and conflicts between the 12 island tribes. The obsession of building bigger and bigger moai statues was one of the main causes of deforestation and food scarcity. These problems led to a fall in the belief of the moai’s power and their construction was not only abandoned, but some were even torn down from their ahus.
At this time, the Tangata Manu or Birdman cult starts gaining strength. This cult resulted in what is now known as the Birdman Competition, as a way to determine who would be the Ariki who would rule the tribes for a period of one year. He who collected the first manutara (Easter Island seagull) egg from Motu Nui would have the right to rule. The Birdman Competition was held every year until the arrival of the Catholic missionaries in 1864.
The arrival of the first Europeans
Almost everything we now know about the Rapanui culture comes from the narratives the first Europeans to come to Easter Island made of their travels.
The first to arrive was Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived on Easter Island from the Juan Fernández Archipelago, while searching for Terra Australis, the legendary southern hemisphere continent, that according to popular belief, balanced out the lands in the northern hemisphere.
Roggeveen sighted the island, which didn’t appear in his navigation maps, on Sunday, April 5th of 1722, and as that day was Easter Sunday, he named the island Ester Island, a name that has persisted until present day. The Dutchman only managed to stay on land one day due to strong winds and the fact that he found few provisions, he left towards Tahiti, continuing on his mythical search.
Almost 50 years passed before the arrival of new European ships. This time the Spanish expedition led by Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo arrived from Peru on 1770 with the goal of claiming the territory for Spain. The islanders didn’t put up resistance and some chiefs even “signed a contract” to formalize the Spanish rule. The island was given the new name of San Carlos in honor of King Carlos III and after six days, the expedition left. From that moment on, no one ever showed up to enforce the Spanish domain over the island.
Four years later, in 1774, the famous British explorer, James Cook, arrived on Anakena beach in the “Resolution”, with the hope of finding food and water, but this was impossible because they found a virtually deserted island. Cook was familiar with the people from the Tonga, New Zealand, and Society Islands, for which he concluded that the Rapanui were from the same ethnic group. In the telling of his journey, James Cook stated that some moai were still upright, many of them had fallen over and had broken ahus, making it clear that both the moai and the islanders were in worse conditions than the ones reported by the Spaniards. The last year in which a visitor reported having seen an upright moai was 1838.
Today we know that all the moai statues were knocked down by the Rapanui and not from a natural disaster and there are two theories for why the islanders did so. The first holds that the lack of food caused wars between the clans and from those confrontations the moai were knocked down to deprive the enemies from the “mana” or the protection these offered. The second holds that the reason for knocking them down was no other than the lost faith in them. Even despite all of the years and effort put into their construction, the gods didn’t compensate them with the resources they needed so badly.
Slavers and Missionaries in Rapa-Nui
Easter Island’s isolation and the fact that it wasn’t under any other country’s rule made it an easy target for exploiters and slavers.
One of the worst times in the history of Rapa Nui, in which its culture almost became extinguished, was in 1862 when the Peruvian smugglers raided the island, taking more than a thousand Rapanui as slaves. They took them to go work in the guano deposits in Chincha. Among the taken were the king and many of the wise men that still knew how to write and read the Rongo Rongo tablets.
International protests were not far behind but the damage was done. Almost all of the Rapanui died in Peru or in the journey back. Only 15 islanders managed to return, but they did so carrying the smallpox virus, which only helped in decimating the population.
The arrival of the missionaries to Easter Island in mid-1860 also caused irreparable damages to the Rapanui culture. In their eagerness to convert the islanders to Christianity they finished off ancient beliefs and rituals, such as the Birdman competition. Nonetheless, also thanks to those first missionaries, there are tales the daily life in Easter Island and many of their most representative objects were saved.
Easter Island’s fragility was noted again in 1870 when the French Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier tried to claim full sovereignty of the island and turn it into his own sheep farm for wool production. The Frenchman attacked the natives forcing them to evacuate the island, much of them Tahiti bound. By 1877, the year in which Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier was murdered, there were only 111 natives left on Easter Island, which is a miniscule amount in comparison to the 14,000 they were at their peak.
Easter Island and its annexation to Chile
For many years, Easter Island was considered distant and worthless by all of the colonizing countries, but when Great Britain started to show interest in claiming it (in response to France), Chile took the final step towards the annexation.
On September 9th of 1888, the captain Policarpo Toro presented a “Deed of Assignment” to the then king of the island, Atamu Tekena. The document was written in Spanish and in Rapanui, but the content was very different in each one. According to the Spanish text, the deed granted Chile “Total and complete sovereignty” over the island for an indefinite period of time. However, the translation to Rapanui only spoke of “protection” for the island by Chile and “friendship” between the two territories.
Oral tradition tells that when Policarpo Toro hoisted the Chilean flag, the king Atamu Tekena said “By raising your flag you are not the owner of this island because we have not sold you anything; we know that the bishop has placed the island under Chile’s protection but nothing has been sold here.”
However, this was the beginning of a new chapter of abuses the Rapanui endured. During the first years of Chile’s sovereignty, the island was forgotten and the islanders were left confined in it since Chile did not recognize their full citizenship until 1966.
But the worst came in 1903 when the Rapanui were stripped of their land, which was “rented out” for 25 years to a Scottish-Chilean company, Williamson, Balfour & Co., a merchant of nitrates and raising sheep. The company created the “The Easter Island Exploitation Company”, having up to 70,000 sheep that roamed freely on the island, while the islanders were confined to Hanga Roa to keep them from stealing the animals. The cattle company’s control over the island extended to 1936 when the wool trade was affected by the Second World War, although it wasn’t until1953 that the wool trade completely ended on the island and the Chilean Navy took control over it.
The Navy prohibited the use of the Rapa Nui language and didn’t improve the living conditions of the island at all, which generated a growing sense of identity and emerging independence initiatives. After many battles, the people of Rapa Nui managed to be governed by a mayor of their own choosing, and were granted tax exemptions as well as the recognition that only Rapa Nui people could own land.
Despite Easter Island’s turbulent history, on January 16th of 1935 the Rapa Nui National Park was created, which occupies more than 40% of the island and in December of 1995 it was declared World Heritage by the UNESCO, which gave the island access to bigger resources for its funding and conservation.