Identification. Rapa is the southernmost island in the Austral Archipelago. Its name is often given as "Rapa-Iti" ("Little Rapa") to distinguish it from the distant Easter Island, which is commonly known as "Rapa-Nui" ("Big Rapa"). On Rapa itself, however, "Rapa-Iti" refers to a small islet off the east coast of the main island. Early European visitors frequently identified the island as "Oparo," but the source of that name is not clear.
Location. The Austral Islands, occasionally known also as the Tubuai Archipelago, straddle the Tropic of Capricorn in the South Pacific. They form part of French Polynesia and lie to the south of the Society Islands and east of the Cook Islands. The four islands in the group in addition to Rapa are Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, and Ra'ivavae. With coordinates of 27°37′ S, 144°20′ W, Rapa is located some 420 kilometers south-southwest of Tahiti and 180 kilometers southeast of Ra'ivavae, its nearest inhabited neighbor. Rapa is a small Island of some 39 square kilometers. It is a high island, the cone of a long-extinct volcano. The highest of the peaks exceeds 600 meters. The east side of the cone has been breached by the sea so that the island has the form of a large bay (the volcanic crater) encircled by a ring of mountains. The coast is indented by several bays, each watered by one or more streams. High mountain ridges between the bays, often meeting the sea in precipitous cliffs, make inland travel difficult. Skies are often overcast and rainfall is abundant (slightly over 254 centimeters annually). Rapa becomes noticeably chilly in the winter months and average monthly temperatures range from 17° C in August to 24° C in February.
Demography. When first sighted by Europeans in 1791, Rapa reportedly had 1,500-2,000 inhabitants, but largely Because of introduced diseases the population declined to a low point of only 120 in 1867. In 1964 Rapans numbered only 360, and recent estimates indicate only 400 speakers of the Rapa language.
Linguistic Affiliation. Rapa is grouped with numerous others, including Tahitian, Tongareva, and Cook Islands Maori, in the Eastern Polynesian Subcluster of the Nuclear Polynesian Subgroup of Austronesian languages, though it has virtually disappeared as a distinct language. Tahitian is currently spoken on Rapa as it is in most parts of French Polynesia.