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Easter Island - the Navel of the World

Moais, rongo rongo and the BirdMan


Moais Ahu Tongariki

Moais Ahu Tongariki

Joseph Van Os / Getty Images
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui and Isla de Pascua, is a long way from anywhere. Te Pitoote Hanua, which means "Navel of the World" is the most isolated inhabited island in the world, being about 2000 mi (3200 km) from Chile and Tahiti, and until the Mataveri International Airport was built in the 1960's, getting there was only by ship.

That's how the island was "discovered" by the Dutch in 1772, when Admiral Jacob Roggeween landed there on Easter Sunday and gave the island its non-native name. He was the first European to describe the unusual statues carved from the volcanic rock from Rano Raraku. Standing as tall as 18 ft (5.5 m)and weighing many tons, the statues are known as moai, and each are representations of the same figure, perhaps a god or mythical creature, or an ancestor figure. This beautiful Tour of the Ruins will give you an idea of what Roggeween and his crew saw. The moais stood in a row along the coast, (see map) a few looking out to sea as sentinels or guardians of the people of Rapa Nui, but most facing inland, as if as if overseeing the activity of the island. There were many additional statues of varying sizes and stages of completion on the slopes of the volcano.

The Admiral described cultivated land and woodlands as well as the moais you'll see in Easter Island in 3 Dimensions. He estimated the population at more than 10,000. When succeeding visits from English, Spanish and French expeditions visited the island in the late 18th century, they found a much smaller population, many moais toppled and very little land under cultivation. Whalers made the island a stop, and later slave traders captured 1000 natives and took them to work the Guano islands off the shore of Peru in 1862. Of the 100 who survived, 15 came back to Rapa Nui with smallpox. The census count of 1881 listed less than 200 people.

Chile annexed the island in 1888 during a period of expansion following the War of the Pacific which took away Bolivia's access to the Pacific. Until the 1950's the Compañia Exploradora de la Isla de Pascua (CEDIP)) was the de facto governing body, as the arm of an Anglo-Chilean enterprise. The Chilean government revoked CEDIP's lease and the Chilean navy administered the island. With improvements to the basic quality of life, living on Rapa Nui became easier.

Today, with air travel, supplies and greater interest around the world, Easter Island's population is growing. They all live in the only town of Hanga Roa. Rapa Nui has been declared a World Heritage site by Unesco. There are regular flights from Santiago and tourists, scientists and the curiosity seekers come to examine the moais, learn about the island's past and ponder the lessons it has for the future.

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