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Easter Island

Easter Island, Span. Isla de Pascua, Polynesian Rapa Nui, remote island (1992 pop. 2,770), 66 sq mi (171 sq km), in the South Pacific, c.2,200 mi (3,540 km) W of Chile, to which it belongs. Of volcanic origin, Easter Island is mostly covered with grasslands and is swept by strong trade winds. About half of the inhabitants are of Polynesian stock; the rest are mainly more recent settlers from the Chilean mainland. The increasing non-Polynesian population led in 2010–11 to Polynesian protests in favor of autonomy and immigration restrictions and clashes with security forces. Farming and sheep raising are the principal occupations; wool is the only export.

Chile regards the island as an integral part of the mainland, not as a colony, and the island forms a province and (since 2007) a special territory in the Valparaiso region. The inhabitants are citizens of Chile but do not pay taxes and are not subject to military conscription. A Chilean naval officer is governor, and a mayor and council of elders have a voice in local matters but no power to raise revenues. There have been sporadic campaigns for the island's independence, and an independence movement exists.

It is unclear when the isolated island was settled by Polynesian voyagers, but recent estimates date their arrival to as early c.AD 800 or as late as c.AD 1200. Easter Island was named on Easter Day, 1722, by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeven. At that time the population was about 4,000, down from perhaps 9,000 two centuries earlier, probably because of overuse of sparse resources. The spread of European diseases, especially smallpox, and the raids of Spanish slavers reduced the population to slightly more than 100 by 1887. Chilean annexation in 1888 led to stabilization.

Easter Island has long been famous for its hieroglyphs and for hundreds of remarkable monolithic stone heads (moais) whose origin and meaning have been widely debated. Carved from soft volcanic tufa, the statues are from 10 to 40 ft (3–12 m) high, some weighing over 50 tons. Regarding the origin and culture of the builders of these monuments, one formerly popular theory is that of Thor Heyerdahl, that fair-skinned invaders from the East carved the monoliths, and that later (c.1680) the present Polynesians conquered the island, unleashing violent strife leading to near extinction of the population. Now generally accepted, however, is the conclusion of French ethnologist Alfred Métreaux that the statues are no more than 500–600 years old and that they were built by the Polynesian ancestors of the present inhabitants. DNA samples taken from the oldest bones found on the island reveal Polynesian characteristics. Among other ideas now debunked are those connecting Easter Island with Egyptian or Hindu cultures or making it the remnant of a "lost continent." The entire island is now a national park.

See studies by J. Dos Passos (1971) and J. A. Van Tilburg (1994).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge
John Flenley; Paul Bahn.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Rongorongo: The Easter Island Script: History, Traditions, Texts
Steven Roger Fischer.
Clarendon Press, 1997
Easter Island: A Stone-Age Civilization of the Pacific
Alfred Metraux.
Oxford University Press, 1957
Southern and Eastern Polynesia
Glynn Barratt.
University of British Columbia Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Part One "Easter Island"
The Politics of the Past
Peter Gathercole; David Lowenthal.
Routledge, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 18 "Fifty Years of Conservation Experience on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile"
Early Settlement of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Martinsson-Wallin, Helene; Crockford, Susan J.
Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 40, No. 2, Fall 2001
Modern Rapanui Adaptation of Spanish Elements (1)
Makihara, Miki.
Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 40, No. 2, December 2001
How Many People Can the Earth Support?
Joel E. Cohen.
Norton, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Case Study: Easter Island" begins on p. 356
The Living Past
Ivar Lissner; J. Maxwell Brownjohn.
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1957
Librarian’s tip: "The Unsolved Mystery of the Easter Island Script" begins on p. 237
Writing
David Diringer.
Frederick A. Praeger, 1962
Librarian’s tip: "Easter Island Script" begins on p. 89
The Rongorongo Tablets from Easter Island: Botanical Identification and 14C Dating
Orliac, Catherine.
Archaeology in Oceania, Vol. 40, No. 3, October 2005
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