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Islanders know the place as Rapa Nui, but the rest of us know it as Easter Island. One of the most remote inhabited places on earth, the island's nearest neighbor is Pitcairn Island, which has a population of only about fifty, and is 1,289 miles away.

Spelled "Rapanui," it is also used as an adjective, as the name of the native inhabitants, and as the name of the local language.

Easter Island has a land area of 63.2 square miles. There are three freshwater crater lakes near the summit of Ma'unga Terevaka, the largest of the three extinct volcanoes that form the island, but there are no permanent streams or rivers. Although the Rapanui countryside and climate are pleasant enough, it is not spectacular. Easter Island is a very small island without much in the way of magnificent scenery or tropical beaches. Temperatures range from sixty to eighty degrees Fahrenheit, cooler than most Pacific islands. Hurricanes are rare.

The shape of the island forms an almost perfect rectangle, with its three volcanic mountains at the corners. Easter Island and its surrounding islets, namely Motu Nui and Motu Iti, represent the summits of a large volcanic mountain, which is itself part of an underwater mountain range. The island was once covered by subtropical broadleaf forests. One of its dominant trees was a large palm, now extinct. The remnants of palm stumps throughout the island indicate that the trees were cut, probably to build settlements a few hundred years ago. Today, trees are sparse; there are no forests and few natural groves. The removal of trees has led to erosion in some places. Researchers suggest that up to half of its native plants have become extinct since the first humans arrived on the island, largely due to deforestation and agriculture.

The oral tradition of the island is that its original settlers arrived in one or two large canoes, and it is believed that they were Polynesian. Easter Island was probably settled around the same time as Hawaii, sometime between 300 and 800 AD, although some studies insist that it was settled as recently as 1200 AD.

According to legends recorded by early missionaries on the island, the natives had a clear class system with a king who had complete power. A tradition still in existence at the time that the first Europeans came was an annual competition in which a member chosen from each clan would swim across shark-infested waters to Moto Nui to collect one of the first eggs of the season laid by a sooty tern. The first to return, and scale the cliff with an intact egg would be given control over the distribution of the island's resources for his clan for one year.

The characteristic for which most people know Easter Island are the massive moai, which are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapanui people between 1250 and 1500 AD. Nearly half of these are at Rano Raraku, the main quarry, but hundreds of them had been transported from there and set up on stone platforms around the perimeter of the island. When Europeans first visited the island in 1722, all of these statues were still standing, but all of them had fallen by the latter part of the 1800s. In all, there are more than nine hundred of these statues, the tallest weighing more than ninety tons. Archaeologists suggest that the statues served as symbols of authority, and were both religious and political in nature. They probably represented ancient ancestors. Except for seven which face the sea, the Easter Island heads face away from the ocean and toward the villages.

When the Dutch navigator, Jacob Roggeveen, arrived on Easter Island, he estimated the island's population as being from 2,000 to 3,000, although archaeologists believe that it was as high as 12,000 only a few decades earlier. The island had been mostly deforested prior to the arrival of Europeans. While they were there, a conflict occurred in which up to a dozen islanders were killed. The next recorded visit was in 1770, when two Spanish ships arrived, its crew spending five days surveying the coast and mapping the interior of the island. They named it Isla de San Carlos and declared it a possession of Spain. Four years later, the British Captain James Cook arrived, reporting that the statues appeared to have been neglected, and several had fallen over.

In 1862, Peruvian slave traders arrived. Violent abductions continued for several months, in which about 1,500 men or women were killed or captured. In response to international protests, the slaves were freed within a year but, by then, most had died. Only about a dozen returned, and they brought smallpox, which reduced the island's population to the point where the dead were no longer even buried.

In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile. Until 1960, the surviving islanders were confined to the settlement of Hanga Roa, while the rest of the island was used as a sheep farm.

 

 

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