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Located in the South Pacific Ocean is one of the most isolated islands in the world. It is over a thousand miles from the nearest human settlement.
Here a civilization unlike any other in the world arose and ultimately fell. While the story of the island didn’t end with the fall of that civilization, the physical remains of that society have endured and have fascinated people for centuries.
Learn more about Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, and the civilization and people who lived there on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There are several remarkable things about the island known as Rapa Nui.
The first remarkable thing about it is its geography.
Rapa Nui is remote. Very remote. Depending on how you want to define it, it is the most or one of the most remote islands in the world. The closest human settlement is Pitcairn Island which is 2,075 kilometers or 1,289 miles away.
If you remember, back to my episode on Pitcairn Island, it is about as small as a human settlement can be. Beyond that, the next proper settlement is the island of Mangareva in French Polynesia, 531 kilometers or 330 miles away.
Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, a fact that is actually an important part of the history of the island, which I’ll explain in a bit.
The remoteness of Rapa Nui makes its settlement by humans the second most impressive thing about the island.
I’ve previously done an episode on the incredible exploits of Polynesian navigators. Without question, their ability to sail across the open ocean is impressive, but sailing to Rapa Nui might have been the most impressive thing that the Polynesians ever did.
Rapa Nui is the only thing within a thousand miles. The odds of finding it was very slim, to say the least.
You would think that the first people to reach Rapa Nui would probably have come from French Polynesia, the closest inhabited islands, and they may have. However, the oral tradition of the Rapa Nui people claims that the first settlers were two boats from the Cook Islands, 5,000 kilometers away.
Rapa Nui makes up one of the vertices of what is known as the Polynesian Triangle. The Polynesian Triangle is an area defined by Rapa Nui, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Within that area are most of the Polynesian islands.
The first humans probably arrived at Rapa Nui around 800 years ago. We can only guess how many Polynesians set out into the open ocean, never to find dry land.
One interesting thing about the early settlers of Rapa Nui, and of most Polynesians, was the consumption of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes came from South America, meaning there must have been some sort of contact between Polynesians and South Americans, and Rapa Nui is the closest Polynesian island to South America.
The first European to discover Rapa Nui was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who first saw the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. He dubbed it Paasch-Eyland, which was Dutch for Easter Island. Today in Spanish, it is called Isla de Pascua.
Captain Cook visited the island in 1774, and his Polynesian translator from Bora Bora was able to speak without too much difficulty to the natives on the island.
Other than a location to get fresh water and food, the island was of little interest to Europeans.
This all changed dramatically, and for the worse, in the 19th century. In particular, in the 1860s.
Outsiders eventually figured out something that Rapa Nui had that they wanted: people.
Peruvian slave raiders began to hit the island to take people back to work in mines in Peru.
This devastated the population of the island. Over 1,500 people from the rather small population were taken, never to return.
Those who didn’t die in the mines in Peru were eventually returned to the island. However, there was a small problem. They brought smallpox with them, which almost completely wiped out the entire population.
With other diseases such as tuberculous brought by whalers, there were only 111 people on the island as of 1877 and very few children.
As horrible as the human toll on the island was, the entire upper class of the Rapa Nui was taken, including the chief, his heir, and every single person who could read rongorongo.
Rongorongo was the only system of writing ever developed by any Polynesian society, yet another remarkable thing about the island.
In addition, everyone who were the keepers of the Rapa Nui civilization’s traditions were gone.
This is where I have to bring up the thing which is the single defining charismatic of Easter Island: the moai.
With the island’s population shattered, Europeans moved in to take over the land.
They found these large stone statues of human figures, which absolutely mystified them. This led to the “mystery” of the Easter Island moai.
I’m sure all of you have seen photos of the moai. As far as archeologists could tell, they were constructed about 700 to 300 years ago, meaning that statue creation probably started soon after the island was settled.
Each of the moai are carved out of volcanic rock, and they are all carved from a single location, an extinct volcanic crater called Rano Raraku.
The statues are believed to represent the heads of major families on the island.
The statues are not heads but are actually full torsos. Many of them also had hats that were put on them called Pukao. These were carved from a totally different type of red pumice stone found in another part of the island.
The statues also originally had eyes made of coral, with pupils made of obsidian. There is only one reconstructed moai today with both the pukao and the eyes.
The moai were designed to be placed on a platform called an ahu, which was positioned on the shore.
By the time Europeans arrived to the island, most of the moai had fallen over. This was a combination of civil wars on the island where opposing sides would knock over their enemies’ moai and natural events such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
There really isn’t a lot of surviving moai on the island anymore. There is one group located in the quarry which was never moved or was abandoned in the middle of moving.
There are then a few others on the shore that were reconstructed. If you ever see a whole bunch of moai all in a row, that is probably a single location known as Ahu Tongariki. All of the moai had been toppled but were reconstructed by the efforts of the Chilean government and a Japanese company in the 1990s.
One of the striking things I noticed when I visited Easter island was how few moai there really are. It seems like much more from the photos you see. If you’ve ever been to Easter Island, and I do recommend it, you can pretty much tell where any moai is on the island from a photo because there are so few of them.
Because the island’s leaders were all killed in the 19th century, the secrets to how the statues were moved were lost. This was the great mystery that people had been trying to solve for decades.
This led to a host of theories about how the moai were moved.
One of the unique things about Rapa Nui is that there are no trees on the island. One of the popular theories was trying to connect this fact to the moai. The theory was that the island was deforested to use the wood as rollers to move the moai.
Extensive archeology on the island proved this theory wrong. The deforestation on the island was due to Polynesian rats, which settlers had brought. The rats ate the seeds and prevented the trees from propagating.
There were dozens of experiments trying to move moai to prove how it was done.
The legend on the island said that the statues were commanded to walk to the location.
The most recent research, and what is now the consensus view, is that the moai did, in fact, walk….sort of. They were basically moved upright like you would move a refrigerator. Ropes were tied, and men on either side would alternate pulling right, left, right, left.
The moai, which never were moved, were carved such that their center of gravity was lower so they could be walked. They were then carved at the final site to make them look proper.
The era of moai building ended in the late 17th century due to the civil wars which ravaged the island.
However, a new era began on the islands known as Tangata Manu, or the Birdman cult.
The birdman cult surrounded an annual competition on the island. Just off the coast of Rapa Nui is a tiny island called Motu Nui. This is primarily a bird nesting site.
Every year there was a contest whereby a representative from each tribe on the island would swim to Motu Nui and wait for the sooty terns to nest.
The contest was to be the first to get a sooty tern egg, swim back to Rapa Nui, climb the sea cliff up a volcano, and return the egg, intact, to the village at the top of the volcano.
This was actually very dangerous as the waters between the island were shark-infested, and the sea cliff was extremely hazardous.
The winner would be given a place of honor, and all of the tribes had to gift him food. He was then given a place to live for the year where he didn’t have to do anything.
Christian missionaries stopped the practice in the 19th century.
One other thing I should mention about Rapa Nui was a particular resource they had that was not commonly found in the rest of the Pacific: obsidian. Obsidian can make for extremely sharp knives and spear points and Rapa Nui was one of the best sources for it.
Obsidian was incredibly valuable in a world that didn’t have metals.
Chile annexed the island in 1888. In the 20th century, the island was mostly used as a sheep ranch. The native Rapa Nui people were all kept in the only town on the island, Hanga Roa.
The island went under the administration of the Chilean Navy in 1966, which was the same year the people on the island were given Chilean citizenship.
There was a small military base on the island in the 1970s, but there wasn’t a lot of tourism.
One of the big breaks for the island occurred in 1987 when the airport runway was expanded thanks to funding from the United States. The Rapa Nui airport runway is abnormally long because NASA paid for it to be an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.
Consequently, it was now plenty big enough for jumbo jets to land.
The economy of Rapa Nui has radically changed since the 1980s, primarily due to tourism.
The population is now approximately 7,500 people, up from around 3,000 about 40 years ago.
The number of visitors to the island has exploded. There were approximately 156,000 visitors to Rapa Nui before the pandemic in 2019, up from 70,000 visitors in 2012.
The pandemic radically transformed the island as tourism, which made up the vast majority of the island’s economy, went to zero almost overnight. Locals started growing their own food and fishing, both of which had been all but abandoned.
There is talk of regulating tourism going forward to try and limit its impact on the island.
If you want to visit Easter Island, and I recommend it if you can swing it, there are really only two places you can fly there from, Santiago, Chile, and Tahiti, French Polynesia.
Rapa Nui was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and, despite its small size, is one of the most iconic places on Earth.
This small remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was the scene of some of the worse of humanity, with slavery and disease, and yet also some of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements.