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Geologically one of the youngest inhabited territories on Earth, Easter Island was, for most of its history, one of the most isolated. Its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, have endured famines, epidemics of disease and cannibalism, civil war, slave raids, various colonial contacts, and have seen their population crash on more than one occasion. The ensuing cultural legacy has brought the island notoriety out of proportion to the number of its inhabitants.
Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions about the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a chief Hotu Matu'a arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family. They are believed to have been Polynesian. There is considerable uncertainty about the accuracy of this legend as well as the date of settlement. Published literature suggests the island was settled around 300-400 CE, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. Some scientists say that Easter Island was not inhabited until 700-800 CE. This date range is based on glottochronological calculations and on three radiocarbon dates from charcoal that appears to have been produced during forest clearance activities. Moreover a recent study which included radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material suggests that the island was settled as recently as 1200 CE. This seems to be supported by a 2006 study of the island's deforestation, which could have started around the same time. A large now extinct palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees as attested by fossil evidence; this species, whose sole occurrence was Easter Island, became extinct due to deforestation by the early settlers.
The Austronesian Polynesians, who first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian rats. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization.
The Norwegian botanist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl (and many others) has documented that cultural similarities exist between Easter Island and South American Indian cultures. He has suggested that this most likely came from some settlers arriving from the continent. According to local legends, a group of people called hanau epe (meaning either "long eared" or "stocky" people) came into conflict with another group called the hanau momoko (either "short eared" or "slim" people). After mutual suspicions erupted in a violent clash, the hanau epe were overthrown and nearly exterminated, leaving only one survivor. Various interpretations of this story have been made - that it represents a struggle between natives and incoming migrants; that it recalls inter-clan warfare; or that represents a class conflict. There is no evidence that its seed could spread by floating across the ocean, indicates that there must have been some contact between the two cultures. Either Polynesians traveled to South America and back, or South American balsa rafts drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats, or both. Polynesian connections in South America have been claimed to exist among the Mapuches in central and southern Chile. The Polynesian name for the small islet of Sala y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva, "Bird's islet on the way to a far away land") east of Easter Island has also been seen as a hint that South America was known before European contacts. Further complicating the situation is that the word Hiva ("far away land") was also the name of the islanders' legendary home country. Inexplicable insistence on an eastern origin for the first inhabitants was unanimous among the islanders in all early accounts.
Jacob Roggeveen's expedition of 1722 gives us our first description of the islanders. They were "of all shades of colour, yellow, white and brown" and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could "hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear". Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were "generally large in stature". Islanders' tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm. DNA sequence analysis of Easter Island's current inhabitants indicates that the 36 people living on Rapa Nui who survived the devastating internecine wars, slave raids and epidemics of the 19th century and had any offspring, were Polynesian. Furthermore, examination of skeletons offers evidence of only Polynesian origins for Rapa Nui living on the island after 1680.
Geneticist Erik Thorsby and colleagues have published two studies in the peer-reviewed journal Tissue Antigens that present evidence for an Amerindian genetic contribution to the Eastern Island population, which was probably introduced prior to the European discovery of the island. In general, theories about Easter Island which posited a non-Polynesian influence in its pre-European history have in the past been met with skepticism from mainstream archeology.
According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island's habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners. The last king, along with his family, died as a slave in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines. Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having only nominal authority.
For unknown reasons, a coup by military leaders called matatoa had brought a new cult based around a previously unexceptional god Make-make. In the cult of the birdman (Rapa Nui: tangata manu), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season's first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern). The first swimmer to return with an egg and successfully climb back up the cliff to Orongo would be named "Birdman of the year" and secure control over distribution of the island's resources for his clan for the year. The tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans but was suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s.
European accounts in 1722 (Dutch) and 1770 (Spanish) reported seeing only standing statues, but by James Cook's visit in 1774 many were reported toppled. The huri mo'ai - the "statue-toppling" - continued into the 1830s as a part of internal conflicts among islanders. By 1838, the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku and Hoa Hakananai'a at Orongo. In about 60 years, islanders had for some reason (possibly civil struggle between tribes) deliberately damaged this part of their ancestors' heritage. In modern times, moai have been restored at Orongo, Ahu Tongariki, Ahu Akivi and Hanga Roa.
The first-recorded European contact with the island took place on 5 April (Easter Sunday) 1722 when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited for a week and estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island. This was an estimate, not a census, and archaeologists estimate the population may have been as high as 10,000 to 12,000 a few decades earlier. His party reported "remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height", the island had rich soil and a good climate and "all the country was under cultivation". Fossil-pollen analysis shows that the main trees on the island had gone 72 years earlier in 1650. The civilization of Easter Island was long believed[by whom?] to have degenerated drastically during the century before the arrival of the Dutch, as a result of overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of an extremely isolated island with limited natural resources. The Dutch reported that a fight broke out in which they killed ten or twelve islanders.
The next foreign visitors arrived on 15 November 1770: two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, sent by the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel de Amat, and commanded by Felipe González de Ahedo. They spent five days on the island, performing a very thorough survey of its coast, and named it Isla de San Carlos, taking possession on behalf of King Charles III of Spain, and ceremoniously erected three wooden crosses on top of three small hills on Poike. They reported the island as largely uncultivated, with a seashore lined with stone statues.
Four years later, in mid-March 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island, he reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down; no sign of the three crosses and his botanist described it as "a poor land". He had a Tahitian interpreter who could partially understand the language as it was Polynesian. Other than in counting, though, the language was unintelligible.
In 1786 the French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse visited and made a detailed map of Easter Island. He described the island as one-tenth cultivated and estimated the population as a couple of thousand.
Several foreign vessels approached Easter Island during the early 19th century, but by now the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information emerged before the 1860s.
A series of devastating events killed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.
In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted, escalated by Bishop Florentin-Étienne Jaussen of Tahiti. The slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.
Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.
The first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in January 1864 and spent most of that year on the island; but mass conversion of the Rapa Nui only came after his return in 1866 with Father Hippolyte Roussel and shortly after two others arrived with Captain Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier. Eyraud was suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis) when he returned and in 1867, tuberculosis raged over the island, taking a quarter of the island's remaining population of 1,200 including the last member of the island's royal family, the 13-year-old Manu Rangi. Eyraud died of tuberculosis in August 1868, by which time the entire Rapa Nui population had become Roman Catholic.
Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier – who had served as an artillery officer in the Crimean War, but was later arrested in Peru, accused of arms dealing and sentenced to death, to be released after intervention from the French consul – first came to Easter Island in 1866 when he transported two missionaries there, returned in 1867 to recruit laborers for coconut plantations, and then came again for good in April 1868, burning the yacht he had arrived in. He was to have a long-lasting impact on the island.
Dutrou-Bornier set up residence at Mataveri, aiming to cleanse the island of most of the Rapa Nui and turn the island into a sheep ranch. He married Koreto, a Rapa Nui, and appointed her Queen, tried to persuade France to make the island a protectorate, and recruited a faction of Rapa Nui whom he allowed to abandon their Christianity and revert to their previous faith. With rifles, a cannon, and hut burning supporters, he ran the island for several years.
Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple hundred Rapa Nui to Tahiti to work for his backers. In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated 275 Rapa Nui to Mangareva and Tahiti, leaving only 230 on the island. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring.
In 1876 Dutrou-Bornier was murdered in an argument over a dress, though his kidnapping of pubescent girls may also have motivated his killers.
From that point on and into the present day, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or left in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.
Neither his first wife back in France, who was heir under French law, nor his second wife on the island, who briefly installed their daughter Caroline as Queen, were to keep much from his estate. But to this day much of the island is a ranch controlled from off-island and for more than a century real power on the island was usually exercised by resident non-Rapa Nui living at Mataveri. An unusual number of shipwrecks had left the island better supplied with wood than for many generations, whilst legal wrangles over Dutrou-Bornier's land deals were to complicate the island's history for decades to come.
Alexander Salmon, Jr was the brother of the Queen of Tahiti, and the son of an English merchant adventurer, and a member of the mercantile dynasty that had bankrolled Dutrou-Bornier. He arrived on the island in 1878 with some fellow Tahitians and returning Rapa Nui and ran the island for a decade. As well as producing wool he encouraged the manufacture of Rapa Nui artworks, a trade that thrives to this day. It was this era of peace and recovery that saw the linguistic change from old Rapa Nui to the Tahitian-influenced modern Rapa Nui language, and some changes to the island's myths and culture to accommodate other Polynesian and Christian influences (notably, Ure, the old Rapa Nui word for "penis", was dropped from many people's names).
Father Roussel made a number of pastoral visits in the decade, but the only permanent representatives of the church were Rapa Nui catechists including, from 1884, Angata, one of the Rapa Nui who had left with the missionaries in 1871. Despite the lack of a resident priest to celebrate mass regularly, the Rapa Nui had returned to Roman Catholicism, but there remained some tension between temporal and spiritual power as Father Roussel disapproved of Salmon because of his Jewish paternity.
On 8 March 1837, under the command of Teniente de Marina Leoncio Señoret, the ship of the Chilean Navy Colo Colo sailed off from Valparaíso bound for Australia. Thus, the Colo Colo was the first Chilean ship to visit the Easter Island.
Easter Island was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888 by Policarpo Toro, by means of the "Treaty of Annexation of the island" (Tratado de Anexión de la isla), that the government of Chile signed with the Rapa Nui people.
Until the 1960s, the surviving Rapa Nui were confined to the settlement of Hanga Roa and the rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm until 1953. The island was then managed by the Chilean Navy until 1966 and at that point the rest of the island was reopened.
1914 was an eventful year for the 250 residents of Easter Island. In March, the Routledge Expedition landed and began a 17 month archaeological and ethnographic survey of the island.
In December another German warship, the commerce raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich, visited and released 48 British and French merchant seamen onto the island, supplying much needed labour for the archaeologists.
Since being given Chilean citizenship in 1966, the Rapa Nui have re-embraced their ancient culture, or what could be reconstructed of it.
Mataveri International Airport is the island's only airport. In the 1980s, its runway was lengthened by the U.S. space program to 3,318 m (10,885 ft) so that it could serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. This enabled regular wide body jet services and a consequent increase of tourism on the island, coupled with migration of people from mainland Chile which threatens to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. Land disputes have created political tensions since the 1980s, with part of the native Rapa Nui opposed to private property and in favor of traditional communal property.
On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and Juan Fernández Islands the status of special territories of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island will continue to be governed as a province of the Valparaíso Region.