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History of The World: Easter Island

easter+islandEaster Island covers roughly 64 square miles in the South Pacific Ocean, and is located some 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast. Known as Rapa Nui to its earliest inhabitants, the island was renamed Paaseiland, or Easter Island, by Dutch explorers in 1722. The island was eventually annexed by Chile in the late 19th century and now maintains an economy based largely on tourism. Easter Island’s most dramatic claim to fame is an array of nearly 900 giant stone figures that date back centuries. The statues have remained a mystery and reveal their creators to be master craftsmen and engineers, proving to be distinctive among other stone sculptures found in Polynesian cultures. There has been much speculation about the exact purpose of the statues, the role they played in the ancient civilization of Easter Island, and the way they may have been constructed and transported.
The early story of Easter Island, and exactly how the island was first inhabited is unclear.  Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions about the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a chief named Hotu Matu’a arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family.  The Austronesian Polynesians, who scientists believe first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west but scientists are still uncertain as to date of the first settlements, ranging from 300 A.D. to as late as 1200 A.D.  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 society was production of massive ‘moai’ statues that may have been a part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a unified culture and centralized governance.  Some sort of civil war ravaged the islands in the 1600s which saw many of the statues toppled and the society in pieces.  When the first-recorded European contact with the island did take place on 5 April (Easter Sunday) 1722 by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen there were only estimated 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants left on the island.  Today, you can visit the Island and marvel at the remaining ancient moai, and even see the quarries which display the statues in varies stages of completion!

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