Visiting Easter Island (Boat-Based)

Easter Island Background Information

A tourist map of Easter Island, scanned from the free tourist brochure available from Sernatur, the Chilean National Tourism Service. Click on the map for a bigger version (151 kb); use your browser's "back" command to return here.   Easter Island now is part of Chile; this is the national flag.

Easter Island is a small volcanic island located in a remote area of the South Pacific Ocean; it's about 2,300 miles west of the South American mainland and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. Easter Island is said to be the most remote inhabited island on Earth—its nearest inhabited neighbor is tiny Pitcairn Island, about 1,200 miles to the west. Easter Island is also considered to be the easternmost island of Polynesia. The Polynesian name for the island is Rapa Nui, and the Spanish name is Isla de Pascua.

The island is about 64 square miles in area and is shaped like a triangle with a major volcano at each corner; all the volcanoes are long dormant. The tallest volcano, Maunga Terevaka, has an elevation of 1,660 feet; there are numerous smaller volcanic cones between the major volcanoes. Most of the island's surface consists of rocky volcanic soil with numerous exposures of weathered basalt from old lava flows. The island is largely grass covered with some small forests and farms; the forests and farms are all introduced species. The shoreline is very rocky, frequently with steep cliffs, but there are a few small sandy beaches.

At latitude 27° South the island is outside the tropics and has a temperate-zone climate. Summers are muggy and warm with highs in the upper 70's to low 80's, while winters are cool with lows in the upper 50's to low 60's, but with a significant wind chill due to the ever-present winds. The average annual precipitation is about 45 inches. The island can experience stormy weather, particularly in winter, but it is not affected by cyclones or hurricanes.


Easter Island was formed by volcanic action starting about three million years ago; the most recent eruption occurred about 10,000 years ago which was long before human habitation. Polynesian culture spread through the islands of the South Pacific from west to east, and migrating Polynesians first settled on Easter Island relatively recently, around 400 A.D. According to Rapa Nui folklore, the first settlement was founded by Chief Hotu Matua at Anakena.

Over time, the settlers occupied most of the island and the population grew steadily. They followed typical Polynesian practices and cleared land to grow crops and raise animals. They also followed typical Polynesian cultural practices by creating shrines to sacred chiefs and gods. A typical shrine consisted of a rock platform called an ahu with one or more carved stone statues called moai standing on the ahu. Some moai had a cylindrical carved stone topknot called a pukao on top.

Despite the island's small size, Easter Island has about 350 ahu, over 800 moai, though fewer than 100 pukao. The moai and pukao were carved from volcanic stone at two quarries on the island and transported to the ahu (which are mostly near the shore) probably using wooden rollers. They were probably erected using wooden levers and piles of stones to support the partially-erected statue. A typical moai weighs about 12 tons, and a pukao weighs a few tons.

It required a great deal of skilled labor and coordinated effort to create and erect so much finely crafted stonework. Additional workers provided support services, such as making stone tools, fashioning rollers and ropes, and of course basic services like providing food and shelter. That this type of activity took place on such a grand scale on such a small island means that Easter Island at its peak had a complex, specialized, and highly organized society.

Unfortunately, there is a dark and sorrowful side to the island's history, starting with the burgeoning population outstripping the island's resources. As an example, before human habitation the island had been covered with dense groves of trees, but slash and burn agriculture denuded much of the land and depleted the soil. Many trees were also used to transport and erect moai, and no doubt for other purposes such as constructing shelters, making canoes, firewood, etc. It's hard to believe this could happen, but eventually the last standing tree was chopped down and a major and essential resource vanished. Without wood to transport and erect moai hundreds of unfinished moai were abandoned. As an aside, you might think it would be simple to reestablish forests, but the changeover to grasslands so altered the ecosystem that attempts to reestablish native tree species have failed, even in modern times.

The stresses of resource depletion led to strife and warfare between rival tribes. The old culture that erected the moai lost influence; the new culture rejected the old sacred symbolism and toppled the moai and destroyed the ahu (they were only reconstructed in modern times).

The island's isolation ended in 1722 when a Dutch explorer discovered the island on Easter Sunday and named it Easter Island. The island was visited by a number of explorers during the next century, including Captain Cook who visited in 1774. Throughout this time, the island was of little value to Europeans due to its lack of fresh water and safe anchorages.

Starting in the early 1800's, whaling and sealing ships visited the island, spreading venereal disease and capturing natives for crew. In the 1860's, Peruvian slavers captured more than 1,000 natives and sold them into slavery; additional natives were killed during the raids. In a single raid, the slavers captured about one-third of the island's population. Due to serious international repercussions, the slave raids were outlawed and the Peruvian slavers agreed to return 100 natives. After a voyage of extreme privation, only 15 natives survived to be put ashore. In the process, they introduced smallpox to the island and the remaining islanders were nearly wiped out. After the slavers came the missionaries, and though their intentions were good, the native culture was nearly erased.

In the late 1860's, a French sailor named Dutroux-Bornier arrived and carried out a bold plan to exploit the island. Over the course of several years, he bought up much of the land and established a vast sheep ranch; he then forcibly expelled most of the natives, skirmished with the missionaries and drove them off, then proclaimed himself lord of the island. By the time the natives finally murdered Dutroux-Bornier in 1877, there were perhaps only 150 natives left on the island and their culture was in ruins.

The misery wasn't over yet. Chile annexed the island in 1888, but with no plans for it, the island was leased to a private company that continued operating the sheep ranch. A ruthlessly efficient business, the company confined all natives to Hanga Roa and used walls, fences, and guards to enforce the confinement. This company sold the lease to another company that continued the exploitation. As living conditions deteriorated, the natives revolted in 1914, however the uprising was put down. In 1953, the company lease was finally terminated and the Chilean Navy took over control, but living conditions barely improved for the natives.

As Easter Island entered the modern era, some light started to appear at the end of the long dark tunnel. After another revolt and subsequent political machinations, the Chilean Navy abandoned its control of the island and the natives finally became citizens who could vote and manage most of their own affairs. A more benevolent mainland government provided improvements. Mataveri Airport was completed in 1967, providing quick and easy transportation to the mainland. Hanga Roa received a public water system in 1967, and the town was fully electrified by the 1970's. The airport allowed for easy visits by tourists, and tourism became a major business with an estimated 20,000 visitors annually in recent years.

As an aside, after reading this short history you might be appalled at the extreme abuse and exploitation the Easter Island natives were forced to endure for long periods of time. But consider how Native Americans were treated during the rapid colonization of the North American continent during the 1800's and especially after the Civil War. Vast numbers of Native Americans were forcibly displaced or exterminated and their land was seized and exploited for ranching and farming. If we are appalled by the treatment of the Easter Island natives, we must also be appalled by the treatment of the North American natives; we modern-day Americans have no moral high ground when discussing this issue.

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