Easter Island’s extreme isolation not only means its history remains little understood, but for many years it was simply off the map. The most recent estimates suggest the island was first settled between 700 AD and 1100 AD, but these assertions have been challenged, with some claiming settlement took place later.
The difference between radiocarbon dating and oral tradition has further added to the confusion. The latter identifies the white coral sand beach of Anakena as the first settlement; a likely scenario given the first settlers are believed to have been boat people from Polynesia. But then science suggests Tahai predates this area.
Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that wherever the first Easter Islanders came from, they must have come a very long way by boat, most likely from the Gambier Islands, 1,600 miles to the west. This hypothesis is largely attributed to the fact that four out of five words in Mangarevan, a dialect spoken in the Gambier, are the same or very similar to those used on Easter Island.
Historians believe the islanders started to build Easter Island’s famous statues soon after they first arrived, a practice that is widely attributed to the hierarchical nature of the community of that time, which revered ancestors and sought to immortalise them in stone. But whereas the moai helped remember the dead, they are also thought to have contributed to the death of the living, albeit indirectly. Some theories claim their construction led to the widespread deforestation seen on Easter Island, which prompted a collapse of the ecosystem, including within the human population. Home to about 15,000 people at the start of the 17th century, Easter Island saw its population plummet to no more than 3,000 people a century later when the first Europeans arrived.
Facing limited resources, a lack of shelter and materials for building boats for fishing, not to mention a huge drop in animal species, the islanders saw a dramatic shift in their social system. Instead of ancestor worship, the inhabitants turned to the Birdman, the center of a belief system known as Makemake, as depicted on the many stone petroglyphs still evident on the island. This period is believed to have coincided with the outbreak of war on the island, which led to many of the earlier, more famous statues being toppled.
The first interaction with Europeans in 1722 did not go according to plan, certainly for the islanders. Many were killed following a misunderstanding when Jacob Roggeven of the Netherlands arrived and spent a week here. The Spanish were the next to arrive in 1770, quickly followed by the British in the form of the famous explorer James Cook. By the early 19th century, the islanders appear to have grown weary of outsiders, having resorted to violence in a bid to stop ships landing here, meaning little is known of this period. This weariness was perhaps wise given what was to follow.
In December 1862, ships from Peru removed half the population, some 1,500 people, to be sold as slaves, depriving Easter Island of its leader, its heir and anyone that could speak the local Rongorongo script. When forced to return these people, the Peruvian slave raiders disembarked a number of smallpox carriers which devastated the island further along with the Marquesas Islands.
The first Christian missionaries arrived a matter of years later, by which time tuberculosis had also landed on the island, killing hundreds more. As whole families were wiped out, a local sheep ranch bought up their land and eventually most of the island, save the area around Hanga Roa, was private grazing land. In effect, the vast majority of Easter Island’s population had been wiped out by disease brought in from outsiders who had then had them replaced with sheep. By the late 1870s, only 111 people remained after more than 97 percent of the population perished in the preceding decade.
After the island was ceded to Chile in 1888, the population steadily grew but the inhabitants remained confined to Hanga Rua as the sheep farm remained the key commercial interest here. It wasn’t until 1966 when the Chilean Navy took over management that the entire island was reopened and its people given Chilean citizenship.
Easter Island Culture
Visitor numbers to Easter Island continue to soar, with some 50,000 arriving in 2007, a figure that was expected to have reached many times this number in 2013 amid concerns the tourist industry has began to put a strain on the island and its resources.
Most visitors include a traditional Polynesian dance as par for the course, which sees locals dress in garland dresses and bikini tops with flowers woven in to their hair as bare-chested men play drums.