The names of Easter Island

Cloud with The names of Easter Island Rapa Nui

In this section we will explain the origin of the name of Easter Island and the other denominations by which this tiny, remote and fascinating island has been known throughout history.

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Easter Island and their names

Engraving of Rano Raraku volcano by the French painter of Bar Easter Island name

Engraving of Rano Raraku volcano by the French painter of Bar

It is difficult to find a place on the map that has received as many different names as Easter Island: Te Pito or Te Henua, Mata ki Te Rangi, Paasch Eyland, San Carlos, L´île de Pâques, Easter Island, Rapa Nui.

Knowing the names of the island, involves taking a tour of the history of Easter Island. And is that each of the successive human groups that left its mark on this place, assigned a different name to this small triangle of volcanic earth.

So we have to go back in time to explain the different names that the island received in chronological order.

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Te Pito o Te Henua, the navel of the world

Some scholars relate the stone of Te Pito Kura with the name of Te Pito or Te Henua Easter Island name

Some scholars relate the stone of Te Pito Kura with the name of Te Pito or Te Henua

Possibly the oldest name with which the island is known is that of “Te Pito or Te Henua” which translates as “the navel of the world” or the “end of the earth“. The oral tradition states that this was the name given to the island by Ariki Hotu Matu’a, the first king of the island, when he landed on Anakena beach accompanied by his people to settle in this isolated corner of the planet.

According to legends, the first settlers came from a South Pacific island called Hiva, which had succumbed to a cataclysm. It was then that Hotu Matu’a led his people through the sea to find a new land where they could settle.

However, some scholars argue that it is most likely that the ancient inhabitants did not give the island a specific name. It seems that they referred to it simply as “Te Kainga,” that means, “the earth,” because, due to its extreme isolation, they did not know any other place nearby that needed to differentiate it.

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Mata Ki Te Rangi, the eyes that look to the sky

Ahu Akivi under a starry sky Easter Island name

Ahu Akivi under a starry sky

Another name that appears in the oral tradition to refer to Easter Island is that of “Mata Ki Te Rangi” which is usually translated as “Eyes that look to the sky”. In our opinion it is the most sonorous, beautiful and poetic name the island has received.

The origin of this name is not known for sure. Some theories relate it to the inland lakes of the Rano Kau and Rano Raraku volcanoes where the night sky is reflected, others with the eyes, today lost, of the Moai statues, several of which are oriented towards the stars, and the most extravagant with a possible connection of the island with the beings of outer space.

What is clear is that the name Mata Ki Te Rangi is absolutely appropriate for an island where the sky and the movement of the stars were vital to the life of its former inhabitants, since they determined the times of agricultural and fishing activity.

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In search of Davis Land

Detail of the cover map of the book Easter Island and its mysteries by Stephen Chauvet

Detail of the cover map of the book “Easter Island and its mysteries” by Stephen Chauvet

In 1513 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time from the coast of Panama, baptizing it as Mar del Sur (the South Sea). In 1520, seven years later, navigators Fernando de Magallanes and Juan Sebastián Elcano crossed the Strait of Magellan to go around the world. It was then that this immense and unexplored sea was named Pacific Ocean.

Since that date, numerous maritime expeditions were arranged in order to discover new lands, map and expand the trade routes and political interests of the European powers.

Several of the first European expeditions that arrived at Easter Island by chance, were actually looking for the elusive Davis Land, an island supposedly discovered by the English pirate Edward Davis, and which was considered the main reference to find the Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical and still unknown southern continent.

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Why is it called Easter Island?

Engraving showing the expedition of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722

Engraving showing the expedition of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722

One of those expeditions was made up of three ships of the Dutch West Indies Company led by Captain Jacob Roggeveen.

After a long trip started on July 16, 1721 on the Dutch island of Texel, the Dutch expedition arrived on the Chilean coast in March 1722. After skirting Cape Horn, they made a stop on the island of Juan Fernández, in order to get water and food.

Since they did not find Davies Island at the point they had calculated, they decided to continue their journey west.

On April 5, 1722, they spotted an island on the horizon that did not appear on their maps. That day was Easter Sunday, so Jacob Roggeveen decided to baptize it in his language as “Paasch Eyland” or Easter Island.

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This original name, which was subsequently translated literally into other languages, has lasted to this day and has been the most used to refer to the enigmatic island of the Moai.

The Dutch delegation barely spent five days on the island, since after an unfortunate incident where several natives died, they quickly left Paasch Eyland to continue their journey. This is how the official Easter Island discovery for the western world began.

San Carlos Island

First cartographic map of Easter Island or San Carlos Island

First cartographic map of Easter Island or San Carlos Island

Almost 50 years after the arrival of Roggeveen, two Spanish ships left the port of Callao with the mission of exploring the southern coast of Chile, then belonging to the Viceroyalty of Peru, as well as several islands, among which was the supposed island of Davis.

The Spanish expedition led by Felipe González de Haedo arrived on the island on November 15, 1770 in order to reclaim the territory for the Spanish Crown.

Fortunately, on this occasion, there was no serious incident with the islanders who welcomed the Spaniards. An act of formal possession of the island was written on behalf of Carlos III, the King of Spain, and was named it “Isla de San Carlos“(San Carlos island), in honor of his majesty. The act, which was signed by several officers and three native chiefs, is the first known written document that contains signs similar to those of the Rongo Rongo writing.

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To celebrate the event, a crowded procession was organized from the coast to the Poike volcano, where three wooden crosses were planted on the tops of the three hills or maungas, a litany was prayed and 21 gunshots were fired.

After a brief but productive six-day stay in which several expeditions were made, the Moai were first drawn and the first cartographic map of the island was drawn, the expedition left. The Spaniards never returned to make their possession of the island effective and the details of their discoveries were jealously guarded, so that the name of San Carlos fell into oblivion and had hardly any significance throughout history.

Easter Island

Easter Island Monuments by William Hodges. James Cook Expedition

Easter Island Monuments by William Hodges. James Cook Expedition

In March 1774, the famous English sailor James Cook arrived on Easter Island aboard the Resolution during one of his many trips through the South Pacific, in which he tried to find out whether or not the mythical southern continent really existed.

Convinced, after exploring it, that it was not the Land of Davies, he concluded that it was the island discovered by Roggeveen. Easter Island, which is the translation of Paasch Eyland in English, disappointed him a lot since he noted: “No nation should seek the honor of having discovered this island, since few places are so badly provided for the supply of ships“.

After spending a few days, in which the naturalists and artists of the English expedition took samples and made studies and sketches, Cook undertook his return to the west when he did not find enough water and food to stock up. Of their stay, only the name of Cook Bay remains, with which they baptized the cove in front of Hanga Roa.

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L’île de Pâques

Engraving of Duchy de Vancy showing the expedition of La Pérouse on Easter Island

Engraving of Duchy de Vancy showing the expedition of La Pérouse on Easter Island

Even shorter, just a few hours, the visit of the French expedition commanded by the sailor Jean-François Galaup, count of La Pérouse, which arrived on the island on April 9, 1786, lasted.

However, his delegation, composed of well-trained and equipped scientists, made numerous observations and measurements of archaeological platforms and statues.

La Pérouse also confirmed that it was the île de Pâques or Easter Island in French language, which the Dutch had discovered. His ephemeral visit did not prevent him from giving him time to baptize a bay with his name, La Pérouse Bay, located on the northeast coast and giving seeds and pets to the surprised natives.

Rapa Nui Island, a “new” name?

Slave ship off the coast of Rapa Nui

Slave ship off the coast of Rapa Nui

The knowledge drawn from these first European expeditions began to forge the myth of Easter Island, and aroused the curiosity of researchers and travelers from all over the world for this remote and enigmatic land.

Unfortunately, that interest in the island had its dark side during the 19th century. In 1805 the American whaling ship Nancy captured several islanders to use as labor in their seal fishing operations. Since then, a series of whalers and slavers of different nationalities perpetrated continuous abuses of the native population until it almost disappeared.

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In order to hide the origin of their “goods”, slave traders invented new names to refer to Easter Island. Among them were pseudonyms such as Baijee, Oroa, Estea, Paipay, Hyaram, Independencia, Necua and Typic.

Between this tide of denominations, in the middle of the 19th century the name of Rapa Nui, which is actually a Polynesian name, arises to refer to the island. This new name was quickly adopted by the natives and became the term to also refer to the people, language and culture of the island, although in these cases, it is usually written “rapanui” all together.

Origin and meaning of Rapa Nui

Overview of Rapa island also known as Rapa Iti

Overview of Rapa island also known as Rapa Iti

Although many people think that Rapa Nui is the native and original name of Easter Island, it seems that it has not always been so. As in so many other issues related to this mysterious island, there is no certainty when this denomination arose to refer to the island. There are several hypotheses that try to answer this question and that coincide in the origin of the name.

Rapa Nui means “Big Rapa”, in Tahitian language, and refers to the small island of Rapa, also known as Oparo, located in the archipelago of the Southern Islands belonging to French Polynesia.

Currently, Rapa Island is also known as “Rapa Iti” or “Little Rapa” to differentiate it from its bigger sister. And Rapa Iti only covers an area of about 40 km2 compared to 173 km2 Easter Island. However, both have a volcanic origin and steep cliffs.

As a curiosity, the island of Rapa or Rapa Iti presents the appearance of a spiral, which looks closely, reminiscent of the shape of a mangai, the hook used by the different Polynesian people to fish. Another interesting point in common.

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According to the most popular theory, it seems that it was the Tahitian sailors, who were sailing in whaling ships in the mid-19th century, who, seeing the resemblance of Easter Island with their homeland Rapa, decided to call it Rapa Nui.

Another theory suggests that it was the French missionary Eugene Eyraud, who gave the name of Rapa Nui to the island, to differentiate it from the island of Rapa, where the order of the Sacred Hearts also had another mission.

Finally, according to studies and traditions collected by German father Sebastian Englert in the mid-twentieth century, it is believed that the island of Rapa or Rapa Iti would actually be the mythical island of Hiva, the place of origin of King Hotu Matu ‘ a and the founder of the lineage that reached Te Pito or Te Henua (the navel of the world) and from which the current inhabitants descend. Therefore, according to legends, it is possible that this relationship existed between the names of the two islands.

Easter Island name in other languages

Old engraving showing the moai statues on a French expedition

Old engraving showing the moai statues on a French expedition

As we have seen, Easter Island was repeatedly baptized by successive visitors who came to its shores throughout history. Now we will see the terms used in the most widespread languages to refer to Rapa Nui. All come from the literal translation of the name of Easter Island.

Easter Island in Dutch: Paasch Eyland (original name)

Easter Island in Spanish: Isla de Pascua

Easter Island in French: L’île de Pâques

Easter Island in Italian: Isola de Pasqua

Easter Island in Portuguese: Ilha de Pascoa

Easter Island in German: Osterinsel

Readers of this website who wish to access information in other languages can do so in the Spanish and French versions that are already available.

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