Easter Island. Its name automatically makes you wonder. Why is it called Easter Island? Where is it? Do people live on the island? Not only is the name intriguing but the island was also found to be scattered with huge statues, adding to the awe and fascination. In this article I will be exploring the captivating history of Easter Island as well as unfolding the history behind the mystical Moai statues.
Easter Island is a beautiful island 3,800 kilometres off the coast of its nearest neighbour Chile. It is a Polynesian island in the South Pacific and is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands. It became a special territory of Chile in 1888.
It is called Easter Island thanks to Jacob Roggeveen. Roggeveen, a Dutch admiral, is the first recorded European visitor to the island on 5thApril 1722. This day so happened to be Easter Sunday and so he named it ‘Paasch-Eyland’ which is Dutch for Easter Island. The island is known as Rapa Nui (Great Rapa) to the indigenous people.
Polynesians are believed to have settled on the island around the first millennium AD. Legend says that the intrepid Chief Hotu Matu’a led his people to Easter Island around 800 to 1,700 years ago from the mythological Polynesian island of Hiva. It is believed that there was a thriving population of a few thousand living on the island for many years.
However, civil wars, epidemics, slave raids, famine and deforestation caused the population to decline to just 111 people in 1877. Today, around 8,000 people live on the island with half considering themselves indigenous Rapa Nui.
Easter Island is famous for having 887 statues called Moai. The word comes from Rapa Nui and means “so that he can exist”. The statues are called Moai because they were built to honour a chieftain or important people, they represent the faces of worshipped ancestors. The bodies are buried underneath the ground with only the face and shoulders above ground. The natives believed the spirit of the person would watch over the tribe and bring good fortune.
The statues were originally known as ‘Easter Island heads’ before archaeologists discovered they had bodies in 1914.
It is believed that the Rapa Nui people carved these statues between 1100-1680 AD when the population was at its peak with 15,000 people.
Originally there were thousands of these statues across the island but due to civil wars, clans tore down each other’s Moais.
The average size of a Moai statue is 4m tall and 14 tons. The largest is called “Paro” and weighs 82 tons and is 9.8m tall. Nearly all of them were carved from tuff, solidified volcanic ash, at a quarry site on the side of the extinct Rano Raraku volcano. They used basalt stone hand chisels with various teams working on different statues at the same time. A single Moai took a team of 5-6 men and about a year to finish.
Researchers agree that the statues were placed on wooden sleds and pulled across the island. But it wouldn’t have been easy. 1,500 people would have been required to move the biggest statue.
A quarter of the statues were installed. Nearly half still remained at the quarry site with others sitting along the way to their intended locations.
Easter Island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 after some of the Moai statues had been stolen by collectors.
You can see the statues in the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London.
Not only is Easter Island mystical and magnificent with the Moai statues but it is also home to some of the clearest ocean waters in the world. The water is transparent up to a depth of 50 to 60 metres. The only way to get to Moai is by plane, it has no harbours and takes around five hours from Chile.
Those that live on Easter Island celebrate their culture annually with the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival. It is held during the first two weeks of February. For one of the festivities the island splits up into two teams where both teams are led by a queen and the winning team’s queen is crowned ‘Queen of the Island’ for the rest of the year.
Crystal clear waters, mythical Moai statues and intriguing indigenous people. Easter Island is a wonder and there is no surprise it is a World Heritage Site.