Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin that settled there c. A.D. 300 established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai , which created an unrivalled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.
Moai de Rapa Nui
© Sacred Sites
Rapa Nui contains one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena in the world. An artistic and architectural tradition of great power and imagination was developed by a society completely isolated from external cultural influences of any kind for over a millennium. The substantial remains of this culture blend with their natural surroundings to create an unparalleled cultural landscape.
The island was settled around AD 300 by Polynesians, probably from the Marquesas, who brought with them a wholly Stone Age society. All the cultural elements in Rapa Nui before the arrival of Europeans indicate that there were no other incoming groups. Between the 10th and 16th centuries the island community expanded steadily, settlements being set up along practically the entire coastline. The high cultural level of this society is best known from its monumental stone figures (moai ) and ceremonial shrines (ahu ); it is also noteworthy for a form of pictographic writing (rongo rongo ), so far undeciphered.
However, there was an economic and social crisis in the community in the 16th century, attributable to over-population and environmental deterioration. This resulted in the population being divided into two separate groups of clans who were constantly involved in warfare. The warrior class that evolved from this situation gave rise to the so-called Birdman cult, based on the small islands offshore of Orongo, which superseded the statue-building religion and threw down most and slighted most of the moai and ahu.
On Easter Sunday 1722 Jacob Roggveen of the Dutch East India Company chanced upon the island and gave it its European name. It was annexed to Chile in 1888.
The most famous archaeological features of Rapa Nui are the moai, which are believed to represent sacred ancestors who watch over the villages and ceremonial areas. They range in height from 2 m to 20 m and are for the most part carved from the scoria, using simple picks (toli ) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes.
A number of moai are still in an uncompleted condition in the quarries, providing valuable information about the method of manufacture. Some have large cylindrical pieces of red stone known as pukao, extracted from the small volcano Punapao, as headdresses: these are believed to denote special ritual status. There is a clear stylistic evolution in the form and size of the moai, from the earlier small, round-headed and round-eyed figures to the best-known large, elongated figures with carefully carved fingers, nostrils, long ears, and other features.
The shrines (ahu) vary considerably in size and form. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and levelled area in front of the platform. Some have moai on them, and there are tombs in a number of them in which skeletal remains have been discovered. The ahu are generally located on the coast and oriented parallel to it.
The Orongo ceremonial village, which was probably the centre of a complex of religious practices related to the Birdman cult, consists of over fifty semi-subterranean stone-houses built in contiguous groups, located on the rim of the Ran Kay crater below a towering cliff. There are abundant remains of the stone houses (hare) built by the earlier inhabitants of the island. The houses were raised on basalt foundation and form the nucleus for associated structures such as ovens or hearths, farm buildings and stone chicken houses. House groups sited near the coast are sometimes associated with round stone towers.
The nature of the geology of the island in such that are many caves (ana ) around the coast of the island, and these were used in the past by the islanders as temporary of permanent dwellings, being converted by the erection of stone walls at their mouths. A number of these contain wall paintings of deities, birds and fertility symbols. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
Rapa Nui was settled around AD 300 by Polynesians, probably from the Marquesas, who brought with them a wholly Stone Age society. All the cultural elements in Rapa Nui prior to the arrival of Europeans indicate that there were no other incoming groups; they rule out the many hypotheses that have been advanced regarding settlement from South America, Melanesia, Egypt, or elsewhere. According to island tradition, the colonizing expedition of fifty people in two canoes was led by King Hotu Matu'a.
Between the 10th and 16th centuries the island community expanded steadily, small settlements being set up along practically the entire coastline. The high cultural level of this society was high, and is best known from its monumental stone figures that evolved from this Situation gave rise to the socalled "Birdman" cult, based on the small islands Offshore of Orongo, which superseded the statue-building religion and was instrumental in most of the moai and ahu being thrown down and slighted.
On Easter Sunday 1722 Jacob Roggeveen of the Dutch East India Company chanced upon the island, and gave it its European name. The Spanish, led by Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez, claimed the island in 1770, naming it San Carlos in honour of Carlos III. The celebrated English explorer, Captain James Cook, was there briefly in 1774, and his great French contemporary, the Comte de la Perouse, in 1786. Whalers began to call at the island in the early 19th century, bringing with them venereal disease, which ravaged the population. However, the most devastating impact on the island's society and culture came in the 1860s, when Peruvian slavers carried off some two thousand islanders, including the king and the priests, in 1862. AS a result of public protests, about a hundred of them were put on a ship to be taken back to the island in 1865. However, smallpox broke out on board and only fifteen islanders survived to return to Rapa Nui, bringing with them the disease which led to an epidemic that nearly wiped out the remaining islanders: by 1877 only 111 inhabitants remained out of the estimated population of around 10,000 When Europeans first arrived. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 in the belief that it had strategic and economic potential, but the mainland farmers who settled there found that agriculture was not profitable. A sheep ranch was moderately successful, but the lease of the company running this operation was revoked in 1952 and the Chilean Navy took control of the island. In the 1960's civil administration was resumed, Easter Island being given the status of a department within the province of Valparaiso. The population is now around two thousand people, about one third of them from Chile and the remainder descendants of the original Polynesian settlers. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation