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History of Rapa Nui

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Hotu Matu'a

Was the first highest rank leader of Easter Island, he is believed to have brought his people on 2 boats more than 1.000 (perhaps even 1.700) years ago to the island.

Western literature refers to Hotu Matu'a as to "Rapa Nui's first king", although it is known that there were no real kings, but rather tribal rulers in Polynesia, we continue to use this term. Hotu Matu'a was considered the "Ariki Mau" by the locals, this meaning sort of a "major leader" or "highest ruler".

The settlement of the island

With certainly we can affirm that Easter Island has been inhabited for over 1.200 years. But, specialists still debate on when the first settlers lead by the legendary Hotu Matu'a arrived.

Specialists consider that the island was colonized sometime between 300 BC and 800 BC. Pollen analysis, DNA analysis and also the studies of local legends point out to various periods between this interval. Of course, some people might have arrived later and others earlier, but it is generally accepted by the great public that the island was uninhabited before 300 BC, despite the fact that there is scientific evidence that Easter Island was inhabited before Hotu Matu'a's arrival.

According to the legends, the Ariki Mau, Hotu Matu'a arrived from an island or group of island called Hiva. Linguistic analysis of the Rapa Nui language suggests that the place of origin was the Marquesas Islands.

Legends say that a person called Hau-Maka (Haumaka) had a dream in which his spirit travelled to an island located far away in order to look for new land for the ruler Hotu Matu'a.

Hau-Maka's dream trip took him to the Mata Ki Te Rangi, meaning "Eyes that look to the Sky", an island located in the center of the Earth. This piece of land was called "Te Pito 'o the Kainga", meaning "center of the Earth".

After Hau-Maka woke up, he told about his dream to Motu Matu'a, the supreme leader who ordered 7 men to travel to the island. So they did and they return to Hiva with the news that indeed, there is new land far away. Following this discovery, Hotu Matu'a traveled with 2 boats with settlers and colonized what we call today "Easter Island".

The conflict 

Several hundreds of years ago a bloody conflict had broken out on Easter Island. This is attributed to a variety of factors: remoteness, overpopulation, deforestation, tribal rivalry.

Easter Island is one of the most isolated islands in the World. Even today, if you fly with a modern airplane from Santiago, Chile, it takes 5-6 hours to get there. Imagine how difficult it was about 1.500 years ago!
Interestingly the island has a triangular shape and has a large number of extinct volcano cones, craters, some of which are now natural lakes, bodies of fresh water.

It is believed that this island was formed by ancient volcanic eruptions.

Roggeveen, the Dutch discoverer of the island had estimated a number of 2.000 - 3.000 inhabitants in 1722. But specialists analyzed the bones, the legends and have come to the conclusion that around the 1500s and the 1700s there could have been as many as 10.000 - 15.000 people living on the island.

Overpopulation could have been the primary reason why the locals started fighting each other. This is believed to have lead to the splitting of the population into several tribes, families. Some think there were 2 tribes fighting, others believe there were multiple families.

During the fights, many moai statues and ahu platforms were destroyed, magnificent statues pulled down. Perhaps it was a revenge against the god(s)? Or just because of anger at the constructors? Perhaps the towards the ancestors who had cut down so many trees in order to move the statues?

The tribal wars have even lead to cannibalism.

During Roggeveen's visit it was noticeable that life on the island has degenerated due to deforestation and the depletion of the island's natural resources.

Today, Easter Island has very few trees, this is due to the fact that the locals had used up all wood for firewood, boat and house construction, but certainly have irresponsibly cut down large amounts of trees for building tools to move and put the moai into place.

Once there were forests of palm trees on Rapa Nui, now the only palm trees that exist were planted. So are all other trees which were brought here from other islands and the Americas.

The disappearing of forests has coincided with the conflict on the island. There was not enough wood to make fishing boats, therefore the islands could forget about going out for fishing and also about leaving the island! The disappearance of wood has also led to the decrease of the number of bids, which could not construct nests anymore. The locals found themselves stuck for good on what they believed to be the "Center of Earth".

The discovery of Easter Island

Old drawing of Easter Island and locals


On Sunday, April 5th, 1722, the first Europeans arrived to the island called by locals "Te Pito 'o Te Henua".

Because it was discovered on Easter, it was named "Easter Island".

The discoverer was Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch captain.

The name we hear so often, "Rapa Nui" is a newer one, given to the island by Polynesians in the mid 1800.

The oldest name known for this island is "Te Pito 'o Te Henua".

Over 800 statues are today on the island, but when Roggeveen discovered Easter Island, these were in pretty good shape, many in place. Afterwards many have fallen. It is generally believed that there were revolts, conflicts and the islanders pulled them down. There even are theories that point out to the possibility of tsunami tidal waves, which could have demolished moai statues, for example it is strongly suggested that the site of Ahu Tongariki was destroyed by such a force coming from the ocean.

Recovery from the conflicts, colonization and more tragedy

Following the drastic decrease of population induced by the tribal violence and famine, Rapa Nui had recovered only by the mid 1800s, when about 4.000 people lived there. But in the 1800s and the 1900s, more and more Europeans and South Americans arrived to Easter Island, which had become part of Chile in 1888.

Tragically many Rapa Nui people were forcefully deported to Peru and Chile, many others died of diseases brought in by the white man.

All these have almost lead to the extermination of the whole population. In 1877 only 111 Rapa Nui people existed on the island.

Later, the island's population took a positive turn and many Polynesians, Amerindians and white men from Chile and Peru came to settle here.

Today tourism, fishing, some agriculture account for the main economic resources of the island. In fact, tourism which so far helped the island may be its biggest threat as more and more people flock to this tiny triangular land on a weekly basis.


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