History of Easter Island

History of Easter Island

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Easter Island is located in the South Pacific Ocean about 2 300 miles from Chile’s West Coast, country to which the island belongs. It is one of the three borders of the Polynesian triangle with Hawaii and New Zealand. The island is mostly known for its moai which amount up to around 1000, huge monolithic human figures. They were built approximatively between 1400 and 1650 AD when resources were abundant enough to be able to put energy into carving them. Numerous people thought they were only heads since a lot of them have the rest of their bodies buried underground. Across its history, the island received numerous names going from Te Pito o Te Henua which means “The Navel of the World” and is the oldest name to Rapa Nui, meaning “Great Rapa” in Polynesian coming from its resemblance to another Island in Polynesia called Rapa Iti or “Little Rapa”. The first well-documented European contact was in 1722 with the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen who was searching for Terra Australis. He sighted the island on April 5th which was that year Easter Sunday and thus gave the name Easter Island.

Numerous theories exist in regards to when the island was first colonized, some say it was in 300-400 AD while others think it was in 800 AD or even in 1200 AD with the help of radiocarbon dating. Based on archeological, linguistic, cultural and botanical data, the first settlers most likely came from Marquesas Islands which are islands located West of Easter Island in Polynesia. They are some of the closest neighbours to Easter Island. Numerous theories exist as to why they went there, some say they were fleeing enemy tribes, some say it was due to lack of resources. The main Rapa Nui legend says that Hotu Matu’a, the first king, dreamed that his land would sink and thus had to find a new land for his people. They were originally called Hanau Momoko. According to oral traditions, they came from an island called Havu; the same word can be found in several islands of the Marquesas. A second wave of migrants supposedly came from Latin America, most probably the Inca Empire and was called Hanau ‘E’epe. Sweet potatoes from South America were found while some of the statues and even masonry in general resemble those found in Peru. On top of that, higher rank Incas elongated their earlobes. The physical appearances of both groups closely resemble the ones in Polynesia and the Inca Empire. Mistranslations gave those two groups the names of Short Ears and Long Ears respectively. The Long Ears were extremely domineering and the Short Ears resented them a lot, so much that they rebelled and killed all but one. Some say that the Long Ears forced the Short Ears to carve the moai and as a result of the rebellion, they stopped the production and toppled them.

For the longest time, experts thought that the island’s civilization collapsed due to the overconsumption of its resources like cutting trees to grow crops which would have led to war for resources. Recent researches actually put the blame on the rats that the settlers brought with them for the deforestation which would have eaten most of the seeds. The deforestation shouldn’t however have been responsible for their collapse since they were quite good fishers and farmers and there are no real evidence about big civil wars especially since the moais came from the same quarry which means there was some sort of cooperation.

moais isla de pascua

To some people, their population wasn’t reduced; it was actually always lower than thought initially. The different clans competed with each other’s not through wars but my having bigger moais. This is due to the fact that they thought their ancestors’ powers were distributed through them. These moais were built to represent chieftains or other important figures. Almost all of them were facing inwards as a way of watching over the people especially since legends say that they initially thought they were the only ones in the world and thus danger could only from inside. Most of them were also on the coast although a couple of them were deeper in the lands. Seven moais actually face the sea and it is thought that it was to guide strangers to the island. The moais were built on platforms called ahu which was the burial grounds of the deceased person. The moai quarry was actually under the control of one group of carver who would sell its statues to the different tribes. Until recently, experts didn’t truly understand the reasoning behind the location of the moais. What has been discovered is that it is closely related to source of fresh water. Another mystery is how they were moved; some think they were walked by rocking while other think they were standing on a platform which was rolled on logs. The deforestation would thus be one of the reason they stopped carving them. Another is that they had to put their energy into subsistence.

isla de pascua

Amongst the civil wars which happened over time, one warrior class took power and started a new cult based on a god Makemake. This cult slowly slighted the moai and ahu one. Some say it happened due to the loss of faith in the moais during darker periods of resource scarcity. Another explanation is that birds are what they could see the most and thus started revering them as the new medium. This led to the birdman competition where each tribe would send a representative who would swim through shark-infested waters to a small islet called Moto Nui and bring back the first egg of a sooty tern during nesting season. The first one to come back and climb back the cliffs up of the volcano Rano Kau to the ceremonial village of Orongo would win the title of birdman of the year for his chieftain. This would bring control of the island’s resources to his clan for the year. This tradition would last until European missionaries arrived to the island and abolished it in the mid-1860s. The conversion to Christianity brought along a decline in the culture. A French mariner already tried to turn the island into a sheep farm by buying most of the land, killing or threatening the natives as well as sending some to Tahiti. Between 1878 and 1888, the island was under the rule of an English-Tahitian who not only exported wool, but also developed a tourist industry as well as encouraged the sale of local artworks. The island would later on be annexed by Chile in 1888 leasing the land to a British-Chilean sheep farming company. The British-Chilean company also abused and imprisoned the inhabitants. It was only in 1954 that the Chilean government took over through its navy administration and in 1965 that a civilian governor was appointed and islanders became full Chilean citizens.

If you are thinking of traveling to Easter Island visit our website and book the incredible experience to the city of the Moais.

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