Easter Island, the most isolated inhabited island in the world—2,985 km (1850 miles) from its nearest populated neighbor and 3,700 km (2,295 miles) off the Chilean coast—is a tiny speck in the Pacific ocean. All over the island are hundreds of giant stone statues called moai, which overlook the ruins of the settlements that constructed them. The mystery of the moai, why the Rapa Nui (as the locals call themselves) constructed and later toppled them, and the natural beauty of the island continue to attract explorers, archaeologists, and tourists to this far-flung island.
The practice of carving, carrying, and erecting the large-headed, small-bodied stone moai, sometimes reaching 37 feet high, seems to have been central to the historical culture of Easter Island. Said to represent deceased leaders, the statues stand on an ahu, or burial platform, to watch over the communities they had once ruled. Several reconstructions and archaeological digs have confirmed the Rapa Nui had strong engineering skills, because the moai weigh many tons, and putting them in place using traditional materials and techniques must have been a tremendous strain on human and natural resources.
The reconstructions of various ahus with their moai, are quite photogenic, and invite visitors to marvel at the effort required, while posing for photos to share with friends and relatives. Many travelers come here with various questions in mind. First, how did the Rapa Nui get here? Then, why did they build and how did they move the moai? Why were the moai later toppled?
Theories abound, and a combination of local oral history and European observations and guesswork tell the following story. King Hotu Matu’a and his family sailed here, and landed on a beach at the north shore, which began the population of the land. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl believed that the original settlers came from South America, and sailed from Peru in a balsa-wood boat called the Kon-Tiki in 1947, to prove that it was possible. Despite this, it is now commonly believed that the Rapa Nui are of Polynesian descent, and if you look for it, this influence can be seen in traditional dance, food names and preparation, and the greeting used all over the island, "iorana."
Easter Island reached a peak historical population of 10,000–15,000 people. Between 1722, when the first European, Dutch Jacob Roggeveen set foot on the island, and the 1774 arrival of British Captain James Cook there was extreme population loss and the toppling of many moai. Less than a hundred years later, 1,000 islanders were captured and enslaved by Peruvian slave traders to work in guano mines. When they were eventually returned to the island, they brought smallpox with them, which further decimated the population, which dwindled down to just 110 people.
Chile claimed the island for its own in 1888, with little regard for the inhabitants, and leased it to a British sheep company, which corralled the Rapa Nui people into the town of Hanga Roa. The company departed in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1967, when the airport was constructed, that the quality of life began to improve again for the people of Easter Island.
The geographical isolation and the archaeological history are two main draws for many visitors to Easter Island. A visit to the quarry at Rano Raraku, where most moai were sourced and sculpted, especially impresses, considering the engineering effort and knowhow required. The Rapa Nui also had the only written language in all of Polynesia called rongo rongo, which no one has yet deciphered, and petroglyphs can be seen at certain sites, such as the ceremonial village of Orongo where the "birdman" culture thrived.
The culture of the Rapa Nui is indeed another attraction to Easter Island, which despite the tumult in its history, continues to thrive, in language, cuisine, carving, dance, song, and the summer festival of Tapati, which takes place every February. These, together with the history, geology, and archaeology, clear water, white sand, and fiery sunsets bring tourists from all over the world. There is also a special energy or mana (as it is locally called) here at Te Pito o Te Henua (the navel of the world) that adds an intangible element, making a journey to Easter Island a once-in-a-lifetime trip that few get to share.