Probably one of the most easily recognisable symbols in the world, the Maoi stone heads of Easter Island have been a source of wonderment for generations of explorers.
Far out in the Pacific is the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, the most isolated inhabited spot on earth. Rapa Nui lies in the Pacific Ocean just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and 3790 km west of Chile; its nearest neighbour is Pitcairn Island.
The island is triangular in shape, with an extinct volcano at each corner. The original inhabitants called the island Te Pito o te Henua, ‘the navel of the world’. The unique features of the island are the many ahu (ceremonial altars) on top of some of which stand 600 (or so) moai, huge stone figures up to 10 m in height and broad in proportion, representing the deified ancestors of the Rapa Nui people.
Indigenous Polynesian society, for all its romantic idylls, was competitive and it seems that the five clans that originally had their own lands on Rapu Nui demonstrated their strength by erecting complex monuments representing deceased leading figures of the tribes facing inwards as to protect his tribesfolk.
The population grew steadily until around the 16th or 17th century it passed the limits of the islands natural resources, causing a century of warfare and famine between the tribes during which most of the Moai, seen to have failed their descendents, were destroyed or at the very least knocked off their plinths. At one point the population was reduced to as little as 111 inhabitants. War was finally ended and the population slowly recovered. Many of the Moai have now been restored to their original positions.
European contact with the island began with the visit of the Dutch admiral, Jacob Roggeven, on Easter Sunday 1722. The population of the island remained stable at 4000 until the 1850s, when Peruvian slavers, smallpox and emigration to Tahiti (encouraged by plantation owners) reduced the numbers. Between 1859 and 1862, over 1000 islanders were transported as slaves to work in the Peruvian guano trade. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and from 1895 to 1952 most of it was leased to a private company, which bred sheep on its grasslands.
Nowadays, about half the island is used for grazing and agriculture, while the other half constitutes a national park. Of the current population, about 1000 are from the mainland. Tourism has grown rapidly since the air service began in 1967 and the islanders have profited greatly from the visits of North Americans: a Canadian medical expedition left a mobile hospital on the island in 1966 and, when a US missile-tracking station was abandoned in 1971, vehicles, mobile housing and an electricity generator were left behind.
Discover these remarkable figures with Explore and visit some traditional villages on the Island.