Easter Island

views updated Jun 08 2018

Easter Island

ETHNONYMS: Isla de Pascua, Pito-O-Te Henua, Rapa Nui


Identification. Easter Island, the easternmost island in Polynesia, was so named by Jacob Roggeveen who came upon it on Easter Sunday in 1722. Easter Islanders evidently never had a name of their own for the island. "Rapa Nui" (also Rapa-nui, Rapanui) came into use in the 1800s and eventually became the preferred name for Easter Island throughout Polynesia. The origin of Rapa Nui is unclear but the name was evidently given by people from another island, perhaps Rapa. In 1862 and 1863 Easter Island experienced a severe depopulation that led to the destruction of much of its traditional culture. Subsequent contact with Chile, which took possession of Easter Island in 1888, has produced a culture containing many elements borrowed from South America. Easter Island is currently a dependency of Chile.

Location. Easter Island is located at 27°8 S and 190°25 W, about 4,200 kilometers off the coast of Chile and 1,760 kilometers east of Pitcairn Island, the nearest inhabited island. It is a triangular-shape volcanic high island with a total area of 180 square kilometers. The most prominent physical features are the three volcanic peaks, each located at one corner of the island. The land is either barren rock or covered by grass or shrubs, although parts were heavily forested in the past. Only flocks of sea birds and the Polynesian rat were indigenous to the island, with chickens, dogs, pigs, sheep, and cattle introduced by people from other islands or Europeans. The climate is tropical. Water was obtained from springs and by collecting rainwater.

Demography. Population estimates by European explorers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ranged from 600 to 3,000, although none can be considered reliable. There are indications that the precontact population could have been as much as 10,000 people. From 1862 to 1871 severe depopulation resulted from the kidnapping of about 1,000 men by Peruvian slavers, a smallpox epidemic, and relocation to Mangareva and Tahiti. In 1872 reliable missionary reports indicated only 175 people on Easter Island. The population continued to decline until the late 1880s and then slowly increased to 456 in 1934. In 1981, there were about 1,900 Easter Islanders on Easter Island and others living in Chile, Tahiti, and the United States. Easter Islanders make up about two-thirds of the island population, with the others being mainly Chilean military personnel or government employees.

Linguistic Affiliation. Easter Islanders speak Rapa Nui (Pascuense), a Polynesian language that has been described as closely related to the languages spoken on Tahiti, Mangareva, and by the Maori in New Zealand. Since contact, words from French, English, and Spanish have been added to the lexicon. Because of the Chilean presence, many Easter Islanders also speak Spanish. There is debate over whether symbols found carved in wood boards called rongorongo are a precontact written language, pictographs, symbolic ornamentation, or copies of Spanish documents left by early explorers.

History and Cultural Relations

The settlement of Easter Island has been a topic of considerable conjecture and debate. Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition showed that the island could have been settled from South America, although linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests settlement from other Polynesian islands Perhaps as early as a.d. 400. Wherever the first Easter Islanders migrated from, it is likely that, given the remote location of the island, they were relatively isolated from other Polynesians. First contact with Europeans was with the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. There is some evidence that because of deforestation and wars between subtribes, the population was already declining and the culture disintegrating at this time. The island was subsequently visited, usually infrequently and briefly, by a succession of Spanish, English, French, American, and Russian explorers, traders, and whalers. The first major and the most significant contact occurred in 1862 when Peruvian slavers raided the island and kidnapped about 1,000 men to the guano islands off the Peruvian coast. There the Easter Islanders were forced to mine guano for one year during which time 900 died. Facing an international scandal, the Peruvian government sent the remaining 100 men home, although only 15 survived the trip. Infected with smallpox, they spread the disease to those on the island, further reducing the population to perhaps 25 percent of what it had been in 1862. The depopulation, disease, fear of outsiders, and death of many leaders led to cultural disintegration and a loss of much of the traditional culture within a decade. Catholic missionaries arrived in 1863, beginning a small though continuous European presence to this day. Within ten years, all surviving Easter Islanders were converted to Roman Catholicism, with many of the economic and social practices taught by the priests replacing traditional culture practices. In 1888 Chile annexed the island and subsequently leased 160 square kilometers to the Williamson and Balfour Company, which established sheep ranching for wool. The remaining 20 square kilometers were set aside for use by the Easter Islanders. In 1954 governance of the island and the sheep-ranching business was turned over to the Chilean navy, and in 1965, in response to islander complaints, the island was put under civilian control. Easter Island is Currently a dependency of Chile and Easter Islanders are Chilean citizens.


Since 1862 the Easter Islanders have lived in or around the village of Hangoroa in the southwest corner of the island. European-style stone and wood houses have completely replaced the traditional forms. Before 1862, villages were located along the coast, leaving the interior mostly uninhabited. Dwellings included thatched huts, semisubterranean houses, and caves. Wealthier Easter Islanders evidently lived in larger houses, often with stone foundations. In addition to dwellings, villages often contained cooking shelters, underground ovens, stone chicken coops, turtle watchtowers, and stone-walled gardens.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Prior to 1862, Easter Islanders subsisted mainly on cultivated crops, with sweet potatoes being the most important. Taro, yams, sugarcane, bananas, gourds, turmeric, and arrowroot were also grown while berries and seabird eggs were gathered. Fish provided some protein, although fishing was never a major Subsistence activity. Easter Islanders continue to farm small plots today, although maize is now the major crop and Chilean cuisine has replaced the native diet. Since the introduction of sheep ranching, sheep and cattle on the island have been the primary sources of meat. Most material goods are now obtained from the store on the island and from the Chilean government. In addition to farming and fishing, Easter Islanders now work for the government, in a few small businesses, and in the tourist industry.

Industrial Arts. Easter Islanders were highly skilled stone-cutters and stone-carvers, masons, woodcutters, and canoe makers. Today, some carve wood images for the tourist trade. The stone-carving tradition had already been abandoned at the time of contact, though the large stone statues survived and drew the attention of visitors to the island. Easter Islanders also made various utensils, implements, and tools from stone and wood, baskets, nets, mats, cordage, tapa (a cloth made from bark), and body ornaments.

Trade. Because of their isolation, Easter Islanders evidently did not trade with other groups in Polynesia. There has been conjecture that some culture elements developed through contact with South America, most notably the facial images on the stone monuments. These ideas remain unproven.

Division of Labor. Men were responsible for planting the gardens, fishing, and building the stone structures. Women harvested crops and handled most domestic chores. There was also a well-defined occupational hierarchy, with expert reciters of genealogies and folklore, stone-carvers, wood-carvers, and fishermen paid for their services with produce. Stone-carvers were a privileged group with the role and status passed from father to son.

Land Tenure. In traditional times, land was owned by lineages with dwelling and farm plots alloted to families. Since 1888 Chile has maintained ownership of all of Easter Island and has restricted the Easter Islanders to land in and around Hangoroa. Newlyweds are given a few acres of land for their use by the Chilean government.


Kin Groups and Descent. The population of Easter Island was divided into ten subtribes or clans (mata ), each of which evidently occupied a distinct territory in precontact times. By historic times, subtribe members were more widely dispersed as a result of exogamous marriage, adoption, and capture during war. The ten clans formed two larger divisions, with one controlling the western half and the other the eastern half of the island.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kin term usage followed the Hawaiian system, which has been modified over time to reflect changes in family organization.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In traditional times, most marriages were monogamous, though some wealthy men had more than one wife. Marriages were generally arranged, with infant betrothal not uncommon. Today, marriage is by free choice, although the fathers of both the groom and bride are involved in approving and making arrangements for the marriage. Marriages are marked by three ceremoniesa civil ceremony, church ceremony, and a large feast hosted by the groom's fatherreflecting the survival of a traditional practice. Upon marriage, the couple generally live with one family or the other until materials can be obtained to build their own home. In the past, many marriages ended in divorce, which could be initiated by either party for virtually any reason. The Roman Catholic church has made divorce more difficult and less frequent.

Domestic Unit. In the past, the basic family and residential unit was the laterally extended family composed of brothers, their wives, and their children. Today, the nuclear family is the norm, although other relatives such as grandparents and brothers might also be present. In the past and today, the father was the authority figure, although today the wife's father has more power than the husband's father and a son-in-law will often seek his father-in-law's approval for educational and career decisions. Under Chilean influence, the role of godparent (compadre ) has developed, and godparents often play a role in child rearing.

Inheritance. In the past and today, both men and women could inherit and both men and women could leave property.

Socialization. Puberty in traditional times was marked for boys and girls by secluding them on an island for some months and then holding large separate feasts at the end of the seclusion period. These rites disappeared long ago, and puberty is no longer marked by ritual. The Chilean government provides a school for elementary education and some Easter Islanders attend high school in Chile.

Social and Political Organization

Social Organization. In addition to social distinctions based on kinship, Easter Island traditionally had four distinct social classes: noblemen (ariki); priests (ivi-atua); warriors (matatoa); and servants and farmers (kio). The ruler was the main high chief (ariki-mau ) who traced his status to descent from Hotu-matua, the founder of the island. In reality, ariki were invested with considerable mana and were subject to numerous taboos, although they had little actual power. Little is known about the activities of priests, as the role had disappeared by the time missionaries arrived. Kio were war captives who worked for others or paid tribute in the form of percentage of their crops.

Political Organization. As noted above, the nominal rulers came from the ariki class, with succession to the position of high chief going to the oldest son at the time of his marriage. However, since this marriage was often delayed many years beyond that of most Easter Islanders, chiefs often held their position for some years. At the time of sustained Contact, warriors were the actual political leaders, reflecting a long history of fighting among the subtribes and the almost continuous fighting that followed the kidnapping of men in 1862. Today, the Easter Islanders are governed by Chile, with a Chilean governor, civil service, and police force providing services. Easter Islander representation is through the mayor of Hangoroa.

Social Control. Most early observers described theft as a common occurrence, with items stolen both from Europeans and from other Easter Islanders. Revenge was the major form of social control (actually it often led to warfare rather than peace) in early historic times. Taboos on the king, nobles, various foods, places, crops, death, and so on were a major aspect of everyday life and were rigorously enforced. Taboo violators were subject to beatings and even death. Although traditional taboos have now disappeared, they were still a strong infuence in the 1860s. Today, the laws of Chile are enforced by the Chilean police and government officials on the island.

Conflict. Wars were evidently common between the subtribes and especially between the eastern and western factions. Wars were often for revenge and involved ambushes, burning and looting villages, and the taking of captives, some of whom were tortured. War with Europeans was short-lived, and after the kidnapping in 1862 many Easter Islanders fled to inland caves upon the arrival of European ships.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional pantheon included at least ninety different named gods and spirits divided into the two categories of high gods and lesser gods. High gods included the creator, the rain god, and the superior god (Make-make). Lesser gods included gods with more restricted powers, nature spirits, demons, and ancestor spirits. Religious ritual included offerings of food and tapa, communication through priests, and chanting. Traditional beliefs have now been completely replaced by Roman Catholicism. Religious Practitioners. Priests, who could be men or women, were evidently drawn from the noble class. Little is known of the role and status of priests other than the fact that they acted as healers and communicated with the supernatural world through possession trance. Priests could also place curses that were considered especially harmful. There were also sorcerers whose skills were used to influence or cause harm to others.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies were held to bring rain, sanctify new houses, and to ensure a rich harvest as well as to mark all major life-cycle events. The annual feast of the bird cult (tangata-manu ) and the feast of the Bird-Man were the most important ceremonies.

Arts. The best-known of the traditional arts centered on stoneworking and stone carving. The most dramatic expressions of this tradition are the 600 large (from 20 to 60 feet high) carved stone statues mounted on stone platforms called ahu. The statues are most likely portraits of ancestors and chiefs. Statue carving had ceased by the time of European contact, with some 150 statues sitting unfinished in the quarry and many toppled over. Petroglyphs have been found on the island, and some interior stone walls of houses are decorated with paintings. Traditionally, various body ornaments were carved and both men and women wore body tattoos. The carving of wooden images, which was a common activity in early times, has evolved into a tourist-based economic activity with human images much in demand.

Medicine. Healing was done by the priests who used steaming, massage, binding, a limited pharmacopoeia, and contact with spirits. Today, Easter Islanders use Western medical care provided by Chile.

Death and Afterlife. In the past, the body of the deceased was placed on the ahu platform and left to decompose. The bones were then buried in the ahu vault. Much behavior that would normally occur in the vicinity of the ahu was taboo during the time the body was displayed. The funeral ceremony involved a large feast with singing and dancing. Today, Roman Catholic practices have replaced the traditional ones, although the latter survived into the twentieth century, far longer than many other cultural traits. The body is now displayed in the home, followed by the church rite and burial in a coffin in the church cemetery. Interment is marked by hysterical grief. In the evening there is a feast with food taboos for the family of the deceased.


Barthel, Thomas (1978). The Eighth Land: The Polynesian Discovery and Settlement of Easter Island. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Cooke, Melinda W. (1984). "Easter Island." In Oceania: A Regional Study, edited by Frederica M. Burge and Melinda W. Cooke, 371-375. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Ferndon, Edwin N., Jr. (1957). "Notes on the Present-Day Easter Islanders." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13:223-238.

Metraux, Alfred (1940). Ethnology of Easter Island. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 160. Honolulu.

Easter Island

views updated May 18 2018

Easter Island

In one of the most remote spots on Earth, separated by more than two thousand miles of ocean from the nearest centers of civilization, is a lone, triangular-shaped island that occupies about 64 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, which spans 70 million square miles. On the island's southeast coast stand nearly a hundred huge, megalithic monuments carved in a stylized manner to resemble male human heads with elongated facial features. Some 800 additional statues remain in a quarry or scattered about the island.

The statues average about 13 feet in height, 5 feet in width, and weigh an average of 14 tons; they stand on stone platforms averaging 4 feet in height. Islanders call the statues "moai," and the platforms are called "ahus," but the megaliths abound in mystery: who carved them and what is their significance?

Inhabitants call the island Rapa Nui. Europeans have known it as Easter Island since the first recorded contact in 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen (1659 1729). The island is also known as Isla de Pascua in Spanish, the language of Chile, the South American country that annexed the island in 1888. But Chile, on the closest continent to Easter Island, lies 2,300 miles to the east. Tahiti, the nearest large island to the west, is 2,500 miles away from Easter Island. It is 1,500 miles to the nearest area of human habitation, Pitcairn Island. Another mystery, then, is how the island came to be populated, and how the isolated island people managed to make and move the immense moai.

The island inhabitants could tell little about the moai to European visitors. Evidence of a once-thriving culture existed on the island, but when Roggeveen named the island on Easter Sunday, 1722 the several thousand Polynesian inhabitants were struggling for survival. At the time of this first contact with Europeans, islanders called their home Te Pito O Te Henua, which has been variously translated as "naval of the world," "end of the world," and "lands' end." The population and land were even more impoverished 50 years later when British explorer James Cook (17281779) arrived there. Islanders were readily willing to trade old, elaborate wood carvings for food and cloth. Noting that the statues were not part of the inhabitants' sacred rituals, Cook called them "monuments of antiquity" in his notes.

The engineering feat of moving moai from the quarry to their sites remains unexplained, particularly since there is no evidence of wheels or a pully system through which such massive blocks could be transported. No evidence of advanced engineering skills exists on the island. Islanders told Captain Cook and more modern visitors that the moai walked from the quarry to their sites on the ahus.

Some theorists have speculated that the monuments are remnants of the lost continent of Mu. According to that account, Lemurians, an intellectually advanced race of people, were responsible for crafting, moving, and erecting the monuments. The stones were moved from quarry to ahu using ancient secrets known to the Lemurians, perhaps involving levitation or the secret for liquifying stone.

The two most prominent theories with some scientific evidence have the island becoming inhabited by seafarers, moving east to west from South America or west to east from Polynesia, who settled on the island, established a thriving community, and erected the monuments. The east to west theory was popularized in the late 1940s by anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (19112002) who made a daring journey across the Pacific in a primitive balsa wood craft called the Kon Tiki. By doing so, Heyerdahl successfully overturned the notion that prehistoric South Americans could not have made the ocean journey to Polynesian islands in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean. Heyerdahl's voyage with a crew of five took 101 days and covered 4,300 miles and proved that such a journey could be made. Favorable winds blow east to west across the south Pacific Ocean. Those winds cross Easter Island and keep it warm year round.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, anthropologist Jo Ann Von Tilburg made important contributions to the study of the Easter Island megaliths. Her research has been featured in documentaries on Easter Island broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System's Nova series, as well as The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, The History Channel (appearing with Thor Heyerdahl), and the syndicated Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. In 1998 she completed an experimental archaeology project using a computer to simulate the crafting and transporting of an average-sized moai. Her project showed that an average moia could be moved about six miles in under five days by a team of 70 people. In the simulation, the statues were laid on two long poles that form a track and were rolled forward over smaller logs within the track. Polynesians had long been adept with hinges and levers to help lift and prop large objects through their construction of large canoes. Such devices could be used to place the moai on the ahus.

The megaliths on Easter Island stand with their backs to the sea. Many archaeologists believe that signifies the edge of the Polynesian's world. The statues are believed to be the spirits of ancestors and high-ranking chiefs. That the faces are standardized perhaps indicates an archetype of a powerful individual. Van Tilburg suggests that the moai are positioned on platforms to indicate they are links between heavenly gods and the material earth. Polynesians erect such statues as "sky props" that help hold up the heavens, and their leaders are considered the props that hold up the community.

The monuments on Easter Island were believed to have been erected between 1400 and 1550, until radiocarbon dating in the 1990s pushed that date back some 700 years. A history can be sketched beginning around 400, with the arrival of Polynesians. The community on Easter Island fell into decline after 1550, and resources were nearly exhausted at the time of first contact with Europeans in the eighteenth century.

Geology professor Charlie Love, of Western Wyoming Community College, with a crew of 17 students, archaeologists, and islanders, spent much of the summer of 2000 attempting to solve the mystery of how the great stone heads, some weighing as much as 90 tons, had been moved from the quarry to the ceremonial centers on the coast of Easter Island. Although the roadways have not been firmly dated, Love agreed with previous estimates that the statue-moving activity ended about 1500. After several months of on-site investigation, Love readily conceded that the mysteries of Easter Island had not been solved.

Delving Deeper

Deuel, Leo. Conquistadors without Swords: Archaeologists in the Americas. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.

"The Easter Island Mystery." [Online] http://www. discoveringarchaeology.com/articles/122900-easter.shtml.

Heyerdhal, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. 35th anniversary ed. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1984.

Ingpen, Robert, and Philip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1999.

Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. Easter Island Archaeology, Ecology, Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Easter Island

views updated Jun 11 2018

Easter Island

Easter Island, a Chilean possession in the South Pacific approximately 2,000 miles west of South America. This territory became part of Chile in 1888. This small isle, known for its monumental statues, was originally inhabited by a Polynesian people who were decimated by European diseases and forced work on Peru's Chincha Islands, remained largely isolated. It attracted the attention of Chile, which coveted a Pacific enclave and saw Easter Island as both economically valuable and strategically important. After Chilean occupation, the land's economy remained primitive, from a lack of resources to support agriculture and an unwillingness by the Chilean government to provide assistance. Easter Island's economy remained essentially pastoral until the development of jet aviation made the island a tourist attraction, thus diversifying its economic base.

See alsoChile, Geography; Tourism.


John Dos Passos, Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1971).

J. Douglas Porteous, The Modernization of Easter Island (1981).

Additional Bibliography

Flenley, John, and Paul G. Bahn. The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

                                            William F. Sater

Easter Island

views updated May 21 2018

Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) Volcanic island in the se Pacific; the chief town is Hanga Roa. The most isolated island in Polynesia, a Dutch navigator discovered it on Easter Day, 1722. Chile has administered the island since 1888. It is famous for the curious hieroglyphs (rongorongo) and formidable statues carved in stone, standing up to 12m (40ft) high. It is mainly hilly grassland. The subtropical climate allows a variety of crops, such as sugarcane and bananas. Industries: farming, tourism. Area: 163sq km (63sq mi). Pop. (2000) 3618.

http://www.netaxs.com/~trance/rapanui.html; http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/Easter_Isld_Pge.html; http://www.pacificislandtravel.com

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