Easter Island Before the Europeans Arrived: The History of Rapa Nui Is Cloaked in Mystery and Contradictions

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775–1776 by William Hodges.[24] The earliest known painting of Easter Island.

The history of Easter Island before the Europeans first visited there is much like the land itself: remote, difficult, and mysterious.

The article “Easter Island –Conservation Efforts, Challenges” described the resentment felt by the residents of Easter Island — which they call Rapa Nui — toward the control of conservation policies and funding exerted by Chile from 3,500 km away. That is only one in a long series of controversies endured on Rapa Nui over the centuries. The history of the island and its people is a long, difficult, and yet mysterious one.

Controversy over When Easter Island Was Discovered

Easter Island has been called the most isolated, inhabited land in the world. It is a 150 square-mile triangle of volcanic rock in the South Pacific, about 2,000 miles from the coast of South America and about 1,300 miles from the nearest inhabited island of Pitcairn (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame). Easter Island is at the southeastern-most point of the Polynesian triangle formed with Hawaii and New Zealand.

As with most aspects of Easter Island’s history, the date of its first inhabitation has been much disputed. Experts have dated the first settlements from as early as 300 A.D. and as late as the year 1200.

According to most experts, it was Polynesians who arrived at Easter Island in canoes or catamarans from either the Marquesas Islands (3200 km away), the Tuamotou Islands (2600 km away), or Pitcairn. When explorer Captain james Cook visited the island in 1774, one of his crew members, a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui people.

According to legend the first settler was Hotu Matu’a, who became king or chief of the island. His family members subdivided the island among their various clans, and they lived in relative isolation on the for about 800 years, with their kings enjoying absolute, god-like power.

Controversy over the Original Name of Easter Island

In “Easter Island: The Heritage and its Conservation,” by author and stone conservation scientist A. Elena Charola wrote that even the pre-European name of the island is loaded with contradiction. On the one hand, local tradition holds that the island never had a proper name. On the other hand, legend has it that Hotu Matu’a called the island Te Pito ‘o te Henua, “the navel of the earth.”

It is also believed that it was in the 19th century that Polynesians from other islands started calling the island Rapa Nui, meaning the big Rapa, to distinguish it from the smaller Rapa island (Rapa Iti) in French Polynesia.

Moai, the Easter Island Stone Sculptures

Whatever they may have called their homeland, between 1400 and 1600, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui produced nearly 900 moai, the monolithic stone carvings for which the island came to be known; it is believed that the sculptures played a part in ancestral worship.

Experts have long been baffled by how the islanders transported the giant, multi-ton sculptures from quarries and erected them along the coastline, facing inward. One theory is that the residents cut down most of the trees on the island to make a system to roll the moai and that this decimation of the trees precipitated an ecological disaster.


  1. A Green History of the World, by Clive Ponting (Penguin Books, 1993)
  2. “Secrets of Easter Island,” from Nova online at the PBS Web site