Easter Island

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Related to Easter Island: Galapagos, Easter Island Heads

Easter Island,

Span. Isla de Pascua, Polynesian Rapa Nui, remote island (1992 pop. 2,770), 66 sq mi (171 sq km), in the South Pacific, c.2,200 mi (3,540 km) W of Chile, to which it belongs. Of volcanic origin, Easter Island is mostly covered with grasslands and is swept by strong trade winds. About half of the inhabitants are of Polynesian stock; the rest are mainly more recent settlers from the Chilean mainland. The increasing non-Polynesian population led in 2010–11 to Polynesian protests in favor of autonomy and immigration restrictions and clashes with security forces. Farming and sheep raising are the principal occupations; wool is the only export.

Chile regards the island as an integral part of the mainland, not as a colony, and the island forms a province and (since 2007) a special territory in the Valparaiso region. The inhabitants are citizens of Chile but do not pay taxes and are not subject to military conscription. A Chilean naval officer is governor, and a mayor and council of elders have a voice in local matters but no power to raise revenues. There have been sporadic campaigns for the island's independence, and an independence movement exists.

It is unclear when the isolated island was settled by Polynesian voyagers, but recent estimates date their arrival to as early c.A.D. 800 or as late as c.A.D. 1200. DNA testing has suggested that Easter Islanders may have sailed to the South American mainland and returned at least once between 1280 and 1495. Easter Island was named on Easter Day, 1722, by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeven. At that time the population was about 4,000. The spread of European diseases, especially smallpox, and the raids of Spanish slavers reduced the population to slightly more than 100 by 1887. Chilean annexation in 1888 led to stabilization.

Easter Island has long been famous for its hieroglyphs and for hundreds of remarkable monolithic stone heads (moais) whose origin and meaning have been widely debated. Carved from soft volcanic tufa, the statues are from 10 to 40 ft (3–12 m) high, some weighing over 50 tons. Regarding the origin and culture of the builders of these monuments, one formerly popular theory is that of Thor HeyerdahlHeyerdahl, Thor
, 1914–2002, Norwegian explorer and anthropologist, b. Larvik. He carried out research in the Marquesas Islands in 1937–38 and studied the indigenous peoples of British Columbia in 1939–40.
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, that fair-skinned invaders from the East carved the monoliths, and that later (c.1680) the present Polynesians conquered the island, unleashing violent strife leading to near extinction of the population. Now generally accepted, however, is the conclusion of French ethnologist Alfred Métreaux that the statues are no more than 500–600 years old and that they were built by the Polynesian ancestors of the present inhabitants. DNA samples taken from the oldest bones found on the island reveal Polynesian characteristics. Among other ideas now debunked are those connecting Easter Island with Egyptian or Hindu cultures or making it the remnant of a "lost continent." The entire island is now a national park, and the surrounding ocean in the island's exclusive economic zone was declared a marine protected area in 2017.


See studies by J. Dos Passos (1971) and J. A. Van Tilburg (1994).

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How and why the famous Easter Island statues were constructed remains the subject of speculation by archeologists today because the native inhabitants and their society was nearly wiped out by European invaders. Roger Violett/Getty Images.

Easter Island

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Easter Island is a single isolated volcanic island located some 2,000 miles off the coast of South America and an equal distance from the main clusters of inhabited islands of the South Pacific. It was given its Western name by Admiral Jacob Roggeveen, whose three ships visited the island on Easter Day in 1722. Locally it is known as Rapa Nui. Roggeveen informed the world of the giant statues that seemed to peer out to sea from the island, and they entered the catalog of the world’s curiosities. In spite of the many interactions of the Easter Islanders with the outside world over the next two centuries, it was not until the eye-catching work of anthropologist/adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002) in the 1940s that widespread public knowledge of the island arose, along with public involvement in the questions concerning its unique statuary.

Following initial contact by Westerners in 1772, additional ships occasionally visited through the end of the century. Early in the next century, venereal disease left by whalers took its toll. In the 1860s Peruvians raided the islands for slave labor. It is estimated that 90 percent of those taken into slavery died within a few years. The loss of the island’s religious leadership to the slavers accounts for much of the loss of knowledge of the island’s culture and the difficulty anthropologists and other scientists had in reconstructing it in twentieth century.

Ill treatment of the island’s inhabitants reduced the native population to a mere 111 by the mid 1870s. The annexation of the island by Chile did little to improve the residents’ lot, as the island was turned over to commercial interests who ran it much like a slave labor camp. The harsh conditions did not improve when the island was turned over to Chile’s navy in 1953.

It was this harsh social context into which Thor Heyerdahl stepped with his idea of proving the Polynesians came from the Americas by boat, rather than from Asia. To prove his theory possible, he constructed a Polynesian raft, the Kon Tiki, and sailed it to Raratoa. The trip made him a celebrity and raised the issue of the origin of the culture that produced the large stone heads. In 1955 Heyerdahl, now an international celebrity, turned his attention to Easter Island. The team he assembled soon put together an initial story, which included the assertion that the island had been inhabited since the fourth century BCE. He also found in the oldest statuary on the island a resemblance to contemporaneous statuary from South America.

Heyerdahl’s work had a dramatic effect on the island. The Chilean government saw the possibility of attracting tourists. In 1966, the island’s residents revolted and were able to completely reorder their life relative to Chile, including a constitution to structure their new freedoms. Modern transportation opened the island to both tourists and scholars, and life steadily improved. By the end of the twentieth century, the population had risen to approximately two thousand.

Archeologists saw Heyerdahl’s study as merely a first step in understanding Easter Island. Interest, of course, centered on the statues, locally called moais. These male figures stand some twenty-five feet high and weigh about fourteen tons. They had been carved out of the volcanic rock. Their mystery was accentuated by the lack of written records concerning them and the loss of much of the oral tradition. It was also the case that by the twentieth century, all of the statues, the existence of which had featured prominently in the early Western accounts of the island, had been toppled. It became the task of Heyerdahl and those who followed him to replace the figures in their earlier resting place. In the last generation, archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg of the University of California at Los Angeles has emerged as the major scholar of Easter Island lore. She has concluded they represent stylized images of various chiefs. They seem to have been constructed in the years 1400 to 1600, and to have played a key role in the religious life of the Rapa Nui. They appear to have served as contact points for communication with divine entities. The lack of definitive records, however, will mean that variant opinions on the statues will probably arise as new studies are made.


Heyerdahl, Thor. Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. London: George Allen Unwin, 1958.
___. Easter Island: The Mystery Solved. New York: Random House, 1989.
Orliac, Catherine, and Michel Orliac. Easter Island: Mystery of the Stone Giants. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1995.
Van Tiburg, Jo Anne, and John Mack. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Easter Island


(Polynesian, Rapa Nui; Spanish, Isla de Pascua), an island of volcanic origin in the eastern Pacific Ocean. A dependency of Chile. Area, 165,500 sq km. Population, approximately 2,000 (1972, estimate). About 40 percent of the population—the indigenous inhabitants—are Polynesians, most of whom are racially mixed. The rest of the population is predominantly Chilean. The native Easter Islanders speak the Rapa Nui language. Catholicism is the predominant religious belief. The administrative center is the settlement of Hanga-roa.

Easter Island is shaped like a triangle, with a volcano near each corner. Rano Aroi (539 m, the highest point on the island), Katiki (377 m), and Rano Kao (324 m). Between the volcanoes is a hilly plain composed of volcanic tuff and basalt. The island’s coast is rocky and high, and not easily accessible. The climate is subtropical, with average monthly temperatures from 18° to 23°C and an annual precipitation of about 1,300 mm. Vegetation consists mainly of grasses, with a few eucalyptus and banana trees. Easter Island is linked by air with Santiago, Chile, and the island of Tahiti.

At the time the island was discovered by the Dutch navigator J. Roggeveen (Apr. 5, 1722, on Easter; hence the name of the island), the population numbered 3,000–4,000 people, who were at the stage of the decomposition of the primitive commune. In 1862, Peruvian slave traders destroyed most of the native population, along with their original culture. In 1888, Easter Island was annexed by Chile.

The native inhabitants of the island make their living by farming (sweet potatoes, sugarcane, bananas) and fishing; they also work on cattle-raising farms and make souvenirs for tourists.

The remains of the destroyed Easter Island culture have been investigated by an English expedition (1914–15), a Franco-Belgian expedition (1934–35), and a Norwegian-American expedition (1955–56) led by T. Heyerdahl. Easter Island is famous for its ancient carved stone statues and wooden tablets inscribed with hieroglyphic characters. The island was settled no later than the fourth century A.D. T. Heyerdahl theorizes that people came to Easter Island from Peru and that their descendants lived there for more than a millennium. He proposes further that in the 15th century Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands arrived, and that in the 17th century they killed off almost all the descendants of the original inhabitants. Many researchers who emphasize the profound similarity of the ancient Easter Island culture with the general Polynesian culture recognize the existence of American elements in the Easter Island culture, but they explain these elements either by the hypothesis that Polynesians sailed to South America and returned, or that a small group of American Indians arrived on Easter Island or the Marquesas and then were absorbed into the local population.


Puchkov, P. I. Naselenie Okeanii. Moscow, 1967.
Tumarkin, D. D. “Tur Kheierdal i problema zaseleniia Polinezii.” In Avstraliia i Okeaniia (Istoriia i sovremennost’). Moscow, 1970. (Contains a bibliography.)
Heyerdahl, T. Aku-Aku: Taina ostrova Paskhi. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from Norwegian.)
Métreaux, A. Easter Island. Oxford, 1957.


Easter Island

an isolated volcanic island in the Pacific, 3700 km (2300 miles) west of Chile, of which it is a dependency: discovered on Easter Sunday, 1722; annexed by Chile in 1888; noted for the remains of an aboriginal culture, which includes gigantic stone figures. Pop.: 3791 (2002). Area: 166 sq. km (64 sq. miles)
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