Easter Island - Orientation

Identification. Easter Island, the easternmost island in Polynesia, was so named by Jacob Roggeveen who came upon it on Easter Sunday in 1722. Easter Islanders evidently never had a name of their own for the island. "Rapa Nui" (also Rapa-nui, Rapanui) came into use in the 1800s and eventually became the preferred name for Easter Island throughout Polynesia. The origin of Rapa Nui is unclear but the name was evidently given by people from another island, perhaps Rapa. In 1862 and 1863 Easter Island experienced a severe depopulation that led to the destruction of much of its traditional culture. Subsequent contact with Chile, which took possession of Easter Island in 1888, has produced a culture containing many elements borrowed from South America. Easter Island is currently a dependency of Chile.

Location. Easter Island is located at 27°8′ S and 190°25′ W, about 4,200 kilometers off the coast of Chile and 1,760 kilometers east of Pitcairn Island, the nearest inhabited island. It is a triangular-shape volcanic high island with a total area of 180 square kilometers. The most prominent physical features are the three volcanic peaks, each located at one corner of the island. The land is either barren rock or covered by grass or shrubs, although parts were heavily forested in the past. Only flocks of sea birds and the Polynesian rat were indigenous to the island, with chickens, dogs, pigs, sheep, and cattle introduced by people from other islands or Europeans. The climate is tropical. Water was obtained from springs and by collecting rainwater.

Demography. Population estimates by European explorers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ranged from 600 to 3,000, although none can be considered reliable. There are indications that the precontact population could have been as much as 10,000 people. From 1862 to 1871 severe depopulation resulted from the kidnapping of about 1,000 men by Peruvian slavers, a smallpox epidemic, and relocation to Mangareva and Tahiti. In 1872 reliable missionary reports indicated only 175 people on Easter Island. The population continued to decline until the late 1880s and then slowly increased to 456 in 1934. In 1981, there were about 1,900 Easter Islanders on Easter Island and others living in Chile, Tahiti, and the United States. Easter Islanders make up about two-thirds of the island population, with the others being mainly Chilean military personnel or government employees.

Linguistic Affiliation. Easter Islanders speak Rapa Nui (Pascuense), a Polynesian language that has been described as closely related to the languages spoken on Tahiti, Mangareva, and by the Maori in New Zealand. Since contact, words from French, English, and Spanish have been added to the lexicon. Because of the Chilean presence, many Easter Islanders also speak Spanish. There is debate over whether symbols found carved in wood boards called rongorongo are a precontact written language, pictographs, symbolic ornamentation, or copies of Spanish documents left by early explorers.

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