Homepage Up Airlines Asia (stopover) Australia Cook Islands Easter Island Fiji French Polynesia Hawaii Kiribati Pitcairn Papua New Guinea Samoa Solomon Islands South America Tonga Vanuatu Culture Gallery Nature Gallery

Country Profile Culture (1) Culture (2) History How and Why? People Petroglyphs Rongo Rongo

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

How and Why ?

wpe57.jpg (29812 bytes)

wpe54.jpg (10466 bytes)

First Inhabitants
By Liesl Clark

Ever since 1722, when Captain Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutchman and the first European known to have reached Easter Island arrived, scholars have debated the origins of the isolated population he found there. Did they sail from the east, from South American soil, or from Central Polynesia to the north and west? It is daunting to imagine a voyage to Easter Island from any direction, which would have taken a minimum of two weeks, covering several thousand miles of seemingly endless ocean. It is clear, however, that the original inhabitants must have come from a sea-faring culture, adept at building long-voyaging vessels and navigating the open seas.

 Easter Island Timeline graphic

Linguists estimate Easter Island's first inhabitants arrived around AD 400, and most agree that they came from East Polynesia. The archaeological record suggests a somewhat later date of settlement, between AD 700 and 800. As early as BC 5500 people in Melanesia were voyaging in boats and trading in obsidian. The westward movement of people continued until Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands were reached, at least by AD 300. Voyaging canoes moved southward, northward and southeast to ultimately inhabit Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand, all in the short period of about 400 years.

When Europeans first explored the Pacific and sailed from island to island, they noticed that the people of various islands, no matter how distant, had similar customs. Inhabitants looked similar in appearance and they were often able to understand each other, even though they came from islands thousands of miles apart. 

These linguistic links point to a genealogical bond that ties the people of the Pacific to one another. Indeed, in 1994, DNA from 12 Easter Island skeletons was found to be Polynesian.

According to an Easter Island legend, some 1,500 years ago a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu'a ("The Great Parent") sailed here in a double canoe from an unknown Polynesian island with his wife and extended family. He may have been a great navigator, looking for new lands for his people to inhabit, or he may have been fleeing a land rife with warfare. Early Polynesian settlers had many motivations for seeking new islands across perilous oceans. It's clear that they were willing to risk their lives to find undiscovered lands. Hotu Matu'a and his family landed on Easter Island at Anakena Beach. Te-Pito-te-Henua, "end of the land," or "land's end," is an early name for the island.

On Rapa Nui, the more modern, and local, name for Easter Island, large palm forests flourished.

Upon arrival, early Rapanui settlers would have planted the plants that they brought with them: banana trees, taro root, and perhaps even the sweet potato.

Enigma of the Sweet Potato
The existence of the sweet potato in Polynesia appears to leave open the question of who were the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui. Botanists have proven that the sweet potato originally came from South America. Does this mean that people from South America could have colonized the Pacific?

According to Thor Heyerdahl, people from a pre-Inca society took to the seas from Peru and voyaged east to west, sailing in the prevailing westerly trade winds. He believes they may have been aided, in an El Niño year, when the course of the winds and currents may have hit Rapa Nui directly from South America. In 1947, Heyerdahl himself showed that it was possible, at least in theory; using a balsa raft named Kon Tiki, he drifted 4,300 nautical miles for three months and finally ran aground on a reef near the Polynesian island of Puka Puka.

There is little data to support Heyerdahl. Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who is unconvinced by Heyerdahl's theory, notes that "all archaeological, linguistic, and biological data" point to Polynesian origins in island Southeast Asia. Interestingly, though, there are stone walls on Rapa Nui that resemble Inca workmanship; Heyerdahl contests that the scientific community has not addressed the fact that these walls are distinct in their Andean style. Even Captain Cook in 1774 noticed the quality of stonework in the supporting walls near the moai: "The workmanship is not inferior to the best plain piece of masonry we have in England. They use no sort of cement; yet the joints are exceedingly close, and the stones morticed and tenanted one into another, in a very artful manner."

So, how to explain the sweet potato and superb stonework? It may be that the Polynesians sailed as far as South America in their migratory explorations, and then, some time later, turned around and returned to the south Pacific, carrying the sweet potato with them. Or perhaps there were visits from Peruvians who brought the sweet potato and their skilled understanding of stone masonry with them.

wpe4F.jpg (11233 bytes)
Stone wall at Ahu Vinapu, Easter Island. Inca wall, Peru.
Undisputed is the fact that the sweet potato was, for the Rapanui people, "the underpinning of Rapanui culture. Literally, it was, according to Van Tilburg, "fuel for moai building."

Rapa Nui History
From at least AD 1000 to 1680, Rapa Nui's population increased significantly. Some estimate the population reached a high of 9,000 by 1550. Moai carving and transport were in full swing from 1400 to 1600, just 122 years before first contact with European visitors to the island. In those 122 years, Rapa Nui underwent radical change. Core sampling from the island has revealed a slice of Rapa Nui history that speaks of deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion. From this devastating ecological scenario it is not hard to imagine the resulting overpopulation, food shortages, and ultimate collapse of Rapa Nui society. Evidence of cannibalism at that time is present on the island, though very scant. Van Tilburg cautiously asserts, "The archaeological evidence for cannibalism is present on a few sites.

Analysis of this evidence is only preliminary in most cases, making it premature to comment on the scope and intensity of the practice as a cultural phenomenon." Most scholars point to the cultural drive to complete the colossal stone projects on Rapa Nui as the key cause of depletion of the island's resources. But it wasn't the only one. Palm forests disappeared, cleared for agriculture as well as for moving moai. Van Tilburg comments, "The price they paid for the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas was an island world which came to be, in many ways, but a shadow of its former natural self."

The world that the Europeans first observed when they arrived on Rapa Nui in 1722 has puzzled us for centuries. What was the meaning of the massive stone human statues on the island? How did they transport and erect these multi-ton statues? And, finally, how did the original inhabitants arrive on this remote island?

Ancient Navigation (By Liesl Clark)
How did the first inhabitants of Easter Island arrive? It is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. The coast of Chile lies 2,300 miles to the east, Tahiti 2,500 miles to the northwest, and the nearest island, with a total population of 54 people, is tiny Pitcairn island, 1,400 miles to the west. The answer lies in the deeply-rooted traditions of Polynesian culture.

The people of the Pacific are intimately tied to the ocean. They sailed the sea hundreds of years before Europeans, using voyaging canoes crafted from island materials and stone tools. The Polynesians approached the open ocean with respect; indeed, the ocean was integrated naturally into Polynesian culture, as they came from small islands surrounded by vast ocean expanses. No other culture embraced the open sea so fully.

For the continental Europeans, on the other hand, the ocean was looked upon as a menacing world that only the bravest explorers ventured upon for long periods of time. And even these explorers felt at odds with the ocean upon which they traveled. One of Magellan's chroniclers described "a sea so vast the human mind can scarcely grasp it." To a Polynesian islander, the world is primarily aquatic, since the Pacific ocean covers more area than land in this region. The Pacific, in fact, covers one third of the Earth's surface.

In island culture, the double canoe and its navigator were integral to the survival of the people. As an island became overpopulated, navigators were sent out to sail uncharted seas to find undiscovered islands. For weeks, they would live aboard boats made from wood and lashings of braided fiber. Thousands of miles were traversed, without the aid of sextants or compasses. The ancient Polynesians navigated their canoes by the stars and other signs that came from the ocean and sky. Navigation was a precise science, a learned art that was passed on verbally from one navigator to another for countless generations.

In 1768, as he sailed from Tahiti, Captain Cook had an additional passenger on board his ship, a Tahitian navigator named Tupaia. Tupaia guided Cook 300 miles south to Rurutu, a small Polynesian island, proving he could navigate from his homeland to a distant island. Cook was amazed to find that Tupaia could always point in the exact direction in which Tahiti lay, without the use of the ship's charts. Sadly, Cook was never able to learn and document Tupaia's navigational techniques, for Tupaia, and many of Cook's crew, died of malaria in the Dutch East Indies. Unlike later visitors to the South Pacific, Cook understood that Polynesian navigators could guide canoes across the Pacific over great distances.

But these navigational skills, along with the double canoe, disappeared with the emergence of Western technology, which mariners the world over came to rely on. In 1976, the Hokule'a', a replica Polynesian double canoe made by a team of Hawaiian canoeists, voyaged from Hawaii to Tahiti using the ancient navigational techniques of their ancestors. Ben Finney, a member of the team, explains their mission: "Since by the 1960s Polynesian voyaging canoes had disappeared and ways of navigating without instruments had largely been forgotten, those of us who objected to Heyerdahl's ...negative characterizations of Polynesian voyaging technology and skills ...concluded that we would have to reconstruct the canoes and ways of navigating, and then test them at sea, in order to get at the truth."

Using no instruments, the canoe team navigated as their ancestors did, by the stars. They had no maps, no sextants, no compasses, and navigated by observing the ocean and sky, reading the stars and swells. The paths of stars and rhythms of the ocean guided them by night and the color of sky and the sun, the shapes of clouds, and the direction from which the swells were coming, guided them by day. Several days away from an island, they were able to determine the exact day of land fall. Swells would tell them that there was land ahead, and the surest telltale sign would be the presence of birds making flights out to sea seeking food. By sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti, Hokule'a's team was able to prove that it was possible for Polynesian peoples to migrate over thousands of miles from island to island.

With the success of this voyage came renewed interest in old world navigation. More double canoes were built, and now several teams are attempting to be the first to reach Easter Island, using ancient navigational techniques. No one has navigated a raft or voyaging canoe from Polynesia to Easter Island since the early settlers arrived here in AD 400.

For the ancient Polynesians, finding Easter Island, a small 64-square-mile speck in this vast ocean, must have been like finding a needle in a haystack; but the Polynesian community today is convinced their navigators intuitively discovered and settled this island. "At the backbone of the maritime tradition lies the outrigger canoe," explains Jo Anne Van Tilburg "the quintessential symbol of Polynesian mastery of the sea. The outrigger canoe is today part of every Polynesian island child's upbringing, except on Easter Island. There, the outrigger canoe was lost sometime in the mid-1800s." Van Tilburg has been instrumental in reintroducing three outrigger canoes to the island. The islanders' loss of their sea-faring past, according to Van Tilburg, "took away the traditional link people had with the sea."

For Van Tilburg, the Polynesian canoe is a metaphor in her theories of how the Easter Islanders transported and erected their 15-ton moai. "It's not much different from erecting a mast on a very large canoe. It's a transfer of technology from one industry to another. The people who built these structures were both sailors and farmers, and they used their sea-faring technology to help them in moving and erecting their moai....Erecting a mast on a ship or a statue on a platform requires similar abilities, skills and tools."

Stone Giants
On average, they stand 13 feet high and weigh 14 tons, human heads-on-torsos carved in the male form from rough hardened volcanic ash. The islanders call them "moai," and they have puzzled ethnographers, archaeologists, and visitors to the island since the first European explorers arrived here in 1722. In their isolation, why did the early Easter Islanders undertake this colossal statue-building effort? Unfortunately, there is no written record (and the oral history is scant) to help tell the story of this remote land, its people, and the significance of the nearly 900 giant moai that punctuate Easter Island's barren landscape.

What do they mean?
The moai and ceremonial sites are along the coast, with a concentration on Easter Island's southeast coast. Here, the moai are more 'standardized' in design, and are believed to have been carved, transported, and erected between AD 1400 and 1600. They stand with their backs to the sea and are believed by most archaeologists to represent the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the name given by the indigenous people to their island in the 1860s.

Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has studied the moai for many years, believes the statues may have been created in the image of various paramount chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized representations of powerful individuals. The moai may also hold a sacred role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for communication with the gods. According to Van Tilburg, their physical position between earth and sky puts them on both secular and sacred ground; secular in their representation of chief and their ability to physically prop up the sky, and sacred in their proximity to the heavenly gods. Van Tilburg concludes, "The moai thus mediates between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods."

What is an ahu?
The word "ahu" has two meanings in Easter Island culture. First, an ahu is the flat mound or stone pedestal upon which the moai stand. The ahus are, on average, about four feet high. The word 'ahu' also signifies a sacred ceremonial site where several moai stand. Ahu Akivi, for example, is an ahu site with seven standing moai.

Moai Stats
The following statistics on Easter Island's moai are the results of Van Tilburg's survey in 1989. She reported, "A total of 887 monolithic statues has been located by the survey to date on Easter Island...397 are still in situ in quarries at the Rano Raraku central production center.....Fully 288 statues (32% of 887) were successfully transported to a variety of image ahu locations....Another 92 are recorded as "in transport," 47 of these lying in various positions on prepared roads or tracks outside the Rano Raraku zone."

Number of Moai

  • Total number of moai on Easter Island: 887
  • Total number of maoi that were successfully transported to their final ahu locations: 288 (32% of 887)
  • Total number of moai still in the Rano Raraku quarry: 397 (45%)
  • Total number of moai lying 'in transit' outside of the Rano Raraku quarry: 92 (10%)

Less than one third of all carved moai actually made it to a final ceremonial ahu site. Was this due to the inherent difficulties in transporting them? Were the ones that remain in the quarry (45%) deemed culturally unworthy of transport? Were they originally intended to remain in place on the quarry slopes? Or had the islanders run out of the resources necessary to complete the Herculean task of carving and moving the moai?

Size and weight of Moai
Measuring the size, weight, and shape of the 887 moai on Easter Island has been a 15-year process for Van Tilburg. The most notable statues are listed below:

  • Largest moai:
    Location: Rano Raraku Quarry, named "El Gigante"
    Height: 71.93 feet, (21.60 meters)
    Weight: approximately 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons)
  • Largest moai once erect:
    Location: Ahu Te Pito Kura, Named "Paro"
    Height: 32.63 feet (9.80 meters)
    Weight: approximately 82 tons (74.39 metric tons)
  • Largest moai fallen while being erected:
    Location: Ahu Hanga Te Tenga
    Height: 33.10 feet (9.94 meters)
  • Smallest standing moai:
    Location: Poike
    Height: 3.76 feet (1.13 meters)

Van Tilburg's painstaking effort to inventory and carefully measure the nearly 900 moai statues on Easter Island has enabled her to construct a digital version of an average moai. This digital statue has informed her hypothesis for a potential transport method for moving the moai; the statue which Van Tilburg's team will attempt to move and erect for the NOVA program has been made to the exact dimensions of this digital moai. The dimensions are as follows:

Statistically average moai:
Height: 13.29 feet (4.05 meters)
Width at Base: 5.25 feet (1.6 meters)
Width at Head: 4.86 feet (1.48 meters)
Depth through body at midpoint: 3.02 feet (92 cm.)
Total volume: 210.48 cubic feet (5.96 cubic meters)
Center of gravity: 4.46 feet (1.36 meters)
Total weight: 13.78 tons (12.5 metric tons)

For more information on the Sights of Easter Island, go to:

Go for further general information on Easter Island to:

For travel information on Easter Island, go to:

We have included Easter Island in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Kontiki Voyage. Another option is to create your own package to Easter Island by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, flights and excursions on the islands.

Pacific Island Travel - The Pacific Specialist
Pacific Island Travel has 3 offices in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven. Please make an appointment for a talk to our salesstaff. Our offices are opened from monday to friday between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm and on saturday between 10.00am and 4.00 pm.

Office P.I.T. Amsterdam

Office P.I.T. Eindhoven

Office P.I.T. Rotterdam

  • Herengracht 495, 1017 BT   Amsterdam
  • Ph.  +31 20 6261325
  • Fax. +31 20 6230008
  • Vestdijk 9, 5611 CA  Eindhoven
  • Ph.  +31 40 2372490
  • Fax. +31 40 2372400
  • Stationsplein 45, 3113 AK  Rotterdam
  • Ph.  +31 10 2709636
  • Fax. +31 10 4133986

© 2007 Pacific Island Travel. The information on this website is copyright protected (see terms of use). The information on this website is subject to change without notice.