Easter island
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  Patagonia, Santiago & Easter Island

The settlement of the island

Easter Island has been inhabited for over 1.200 years but, specialists still debate on when the first settlers arrived. Specialists consider that the island was colonized sometime between 300 BC and 800 BC.
Hotu Matu'a was the first highest rank leader of Easter Island. According to the legends, the Ariki Mau, Hotu Matu'a arrived from an island or group of islands called Hiva; apparently a catastrophe had sunk their land. Linguistic analysis of the Rapa Nui language suggests that the place of origin was the Marquesas Islands.
Legends say that a person called Hau-Maka had a dream in which his spirit travelled to an island located far away in order to look for new land for the ruler Hotu Matu'a. Hau-Maka's dream trip took him to the Mata Ki Te Rangi, meaning "Eyes that look to the Sky", an island located in the centre of the Earth. This piece of land was called "Te Pito 'o the Kainga", meaning "centre of the Earth".

After Hau-Maka woke up, he told about his dream to Hotu Matu'a, the supreme leader who ordered 7 men to travel to the island. So they did and they return to Hiva with the news that indeed, there is new land far away. Following this discovery, Hotu Matu'a travelled with 2 boats with settlers and colonized ‘what is now known as Easter Island.

The first islanders found a land of undoubted paradise - archaeological evidence shows that the island was covered in trees of various sorts, including the largest palm tree species in the world, whose bark and wood furnished the natives with cloth, rope, and canoes. Birds were abundant as well, and provided food for them. A mild climate favored an easy life, and abundant waters yielded fish and oysters.

The islanders prospered due to these advantages, and a reflection of this is the religion which sprouted in their leisure, which had at its centerpiece the giant moai, or heads, that are the island's most distinctive feature today. These moai, which the island is littered with, are supposed to have been depictions of ancestors, whose presence likely was considered a blessing or watchful safekeeping eye over each small village.

Towards 1610 the descendant’s of Hotu Matu’a were astonished with the arrival of a second immigration. The name given to them, because of the strange appearance of their long earlobes was ‘Tangata Hanau Eepe’ (robust man) and the natives gave themselves the name of ‘Tengata Hanau momoko’ (slender man). Legend says that they arrived without women.

Their arrival was very important because it gave a further boost to the construction of the megalithic monuments, the ahu and the pukao. They developed the hieroglyphic writing known as Rongo Rongo. The origin is still unknown as there is nothing similar to it in Polynesia or any other part of the world.

The destruction of the island

The island’s population peaked at about 10,000 inhabitants. However, as the population grew, so did pressures on the island's environment. The vegetation was intensely affected due to its use in ceremonies, firewood, and by the slash and burn type of agriculture, cutting down forests to plant tubers. Deforestation of the island's trees gradually increased, and as this main resource was depleted, the islanders would find it hard to continue making rope, canoes, and all the necessities to hunt and fish, and ultimately, support the culture that produced the giant stone figureheads.

Towards the 17th century, the ecological disaster of deforestation eliminated the raw materials necessary for the transportation of the moai. With the island’s ecosystem fading, destruction of crops quickly resulted in famine, sickness and death. Social order declined due to a fierce war between brothers finishing the Hanau e’epe race.

The disappearing of forests has coincided with the conflict on the island. There was not enough wood to make fishing boats, therefore the islanders could forget about going out for fishing and also about leaving the island! The disappearance of wood has also led to the decrease of the number of birds, which could not construct nests anymore. The locals found themselves stuck for good on what they believed to be the ‘Centre of Earth’.

During this period the island underwent a process of severe environmental deterioration. Overpopulation and lack of resources could have been the primary reason why the locals started fighting each other. This is believed to have lead to the splitting of the population into several tribes or families. Some think there were 2 tribes fighting, others believe there were multiple families fighting.

Previously there was a clear social-class system, with an ‘Ariki’ king wielding absolute god-like power.  For tribal war reasons a new cult based around the god Make Make with its annual birdman ceremony was established. (see Orongo). This new order allowed other tribes to accede to the royal, symbolic power over the Rapa Nui society.

During the fights, many moai statues and ahu platforms were destroyed and magnificent statues pulled down. Perhaps it was revenge against the god(s)? Or just because of anger at the constructors? Perhaps towards the ancestors who had cut down so many trees in order to move the statues? Some say that the tribes pulled down their own statues and buried them with stones to prevent them being destroyed by the ‘opposing tribes’.  It is said that the tribal wars even led to cannibalism.

So the destruction was due to remoteness, overpopulation, deforestation and tribal rivalry.

The discovery of Easter Island

On Sunday, April 5th, 1722, the first Europeans arrived to the island called by locals "Te Pito 'o Te Henua". Because it was discovered on Easter, it was named "Easter Island". The discoverer was Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch captain. The name we hear so often, "Rapa Nui" is a newer one, given to the island by Polynesians in the mid 1800.

Roggeveen had estimated a number of 2.000 - 3.000 inhabitants and recorded that life on the island had degenerated due to deforestation and the depletion of the island's natural resources. He noted the presence of many statues that were in good shape and in position.

Recovery from the conflicts, colonization and more tragedy

Following the drastic decrease of population induced by the tribal violence and famine, Rapa Nui had recovered only by the mid 1800s, when about 4.000 people lived there. But in the 1800s and the 1900s, more and more Europeans and South Americans arrived to Easter Island, which had become part of Chile in 1888.

Tragically many Rapa Nui people were forcefully deported to Peru and Chile as slaves, many others died of diseases brought in by the white man. All these have almost led to the extermination of the whole population. In 1877 only 111 Rapa Nui people existed on the island.

Later, the island's population took a positive turn and many Polynesians, Amerindians and white men from Chile and Peru arriving to settle here.

Today, Easter Island has very few trees and there is no evidence of any new tree planting. (There is only one plantation in the middle of the island).  They say that the soil is too poor.

Once there were forests of palm trees on Rapa Nui, now there are only a few.  New trees would have to be imported from the mainland.

Today tourism, fishing and a very small amount agriculture account for the main economic resources of the island. There are no sheep, only a few cows. In fact, tourism which, so far has helped the island may be its biggest threat as more and more people flock to this tiny triangular land on a weekly basis.