A UNIQUE AND ENIGMATIC CULTURE
At 3.700 km off the South American continent and surrounded by the clearest, deepest waters on the planet, Rapa Nui has been the cradle of a unique and enigmatic culture that continues to endure today. The island’s language, music, and numerous traditions are kept alive by the island’s inhabitants, while the enormous carved stone Moai are testimony to their mysterious past.
Rapa Nui would have been occupied around the year 600 AD by a group of settlers believed to have come from the Marquesas Islands in the eastern Pacific. This original colony of the island is sanctified in myth, whose protagonist is Chief Hotu Matu’a, the first king and founding figure of the Rapa Nui culture.
The milestones of this prehistoric age are the development of Rongo Rongo, an indecipherable writing system, and a devotion to ancestors symbolized by the Moai, whose construction would have started around the year 1000 AD, and would eventually total more than 900. Constructed of volcanic stone and located in large ceremonial altars, named Ahu, they allegedly possessed mana, and were a fountain of well-being, prestige, and legitimacy of the ruling class.
The overexploitation of the island’s resources in the fifteenth century sent the culture into crisis, which caused the established ruling class and ideological system to collapse. The Moai were toppled and the devotion to ancestors was abandoned.
During this time, in 1722, the expedition of a Dutchman by the name of Jacob Roggeveen arrived to the island, who later divulged the existence of Rapa Nui to Europe.
Contact with the West was catastrophic for the inhabitants of Rapa Nui. Almost a third of them were taken to Peru to be used as forced labor. A few managed to return to the island, introducing epidemics that reduced the population to 111 people.
In 1888 Rapa Nui was incorporated as a soveriegn land of Chile, and the “Compañía Explotadora de Isla de Pascua” was established, dedicated to the breeding and raising of sheep. Due to constant abuses by the Compañía, in 1953 the Chilean government left the administration of the island in the hands of the Chilean Navy.
Isla de Pascua
The power of the Birdman: Tangata Manu
The widespread crisis led to the emergence of new warrior leaders whose power and authority were not hereditary, but acquired through ritual competitions. The most important of these was the birdman ceremony, Tangata Manu, held every year at the advent of spring. In it, representatives of different lineages competed to be the first to acquire an egg of the manutara seagull.
The chosen representatives gathered in the ceremonial center Orongo, where they then had to descend the treacherous cliffs and swim to the small island of Motu Nui, obtain an egg, and return it to Orongo intact. The winner was anointed as Tangata Manu, reincarnation of the creator god Make Make, and awarded numerous privileges.
The Rapa Nui culture has evolved to the present day keeping many of its original forms, those expressed in foods, sports, dances, music, ceremonies, crafts, and most importantly the language Vananga, which is still actively used. The dances, like Sau-Sau and Tamuré, together with the traditional music, continue to add color to festivals and ceremonies. The gastronomy is a repository of ancient recipes like Tunuahi, in which fish is cooked over volcanic rocks heated by firewood.
The arrival of catholic missionaries during the nineteenth century generated some religious fusion, which can be observed during Sunday mass in the church of Hanga Roa, the principal town of Rapa Nui. The ritual is accompanied by songs in the language of Vananga, and the churchgoers come dressed in typical clothing and flowers.
Currently on the island there are several active groups of dance and music that regularly offer traditional shows which you can attend in the evenings.
For its remoteness, geographical beauty, and rich culture, Rapa Nui was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.
La Isla Grande (The Big Island)
The name given to the island in antiquity continues to remain a mystery. Today there are three variations: “Te Pito o te Henúa” meaning “The Navel of the World,” “Te Pito o te Kāinga” translated as “The Home” or “The Womb,” and “Mata ki te rangi” which means “Eyes looking to the sky.” Easter Island is the Christian name coined by Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, as he arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722.
During the nineteenth century it was baptized by Western sailors as Rapa Nui (Big Island) due to its resemblance to Rapa Iti, an island situated 5000 km to the west.
Notable explorations of Rapa Nui
- 1722: Jacob Roggeveen, Dutch sailor.
- 1770: Felipe González and Aedo, Spanish sailor.
- 1774: James Cook, English explorer.
- 1786: Count de La Pérouse, French explorer.
- 1955: Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian explorer.