Easter Island, a part of mystery

(continuer en français) – Last updated: October 3, 2020

Easter Island is fascinating, Easter Island is questioning. The enigmas posed by the past still resist the hypotheses of the specialists.

Here there is a world apart that has been able to evolve without contact with the rest of humanity for several centuries.

23 km long, 164 km2, it is a confetti lost in the Pacific, 3700 km from South America, 4000 km from Polynesia. One arrived there by chance, one did not leave.

A brief chronology

Around 1200, arrival of the first inhabitants from Polynesia.
1722 – Discovered by Jakob Roggeveen (Netherlands) on Easter Day, hence the name
1770 – Felipe González de Ahedo (Spain) annexes the island for the benefit of Spain
1774 – James Cook (England) stops here.
1786 – Jean-François de La Pérouse (France) stops there.
From 1859 to 1863 slave traders decimated and deported the indigenous population.
From 1864 to 1888, French entrepreneurs from Polynesia settled in, but France was slow to claim the territory.
1888 – Chile annexes the island


Rapa Nui: the large Rapa in reference to Rapa Iti, the small Rapa, the island of Polynesia from which the current population arrived at the end of the 19th century. Rapa Nui is the name used in the native language to refer to Easter Island.

Moai (invariable word): there are about 900 of them, between 2.5 and 9 meters high, weighing up to 80 tons. Most of them come from the Rano Raraku quarry.

Pukao (invariable word): red stone placed at the top of the moai, extracted from the quarry of Puna Pau. Rather than hats, they would likely represent the hair held in a red-dyed bun, the privilege of important people.

Ahu (invariable word): platform on which the moai stand. It is a sacred space that visitors should not climb. There are about 300 of them, most of them reduced to a few things. Where the platform still exists, it is preceded by another sacred area marked with spaced stones, not to be entered either.

The moai quarry at Rano Raraku

The moai were carved into the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano. The trenches from which the statues were extracted can be seen, while some have remained unfinished, still trapped in the rock. At the foot of the slope, many moai await their delivery, since they have been buried by a landslide has preserved them from weathering.

Pukao’s quarry in Puna Pau

The pukao came from another quarry with very red volcanic stone. As with the moai, production came to an abrupt end, leaving the last cuttings in place before they were delivered.

Contact with the Incas

Among a number of questions that are still being debated are possible contacts with the outside world, especially with the Incas. The main clue is the Vinapu ahu, whose typical stone adjustment corresponds to the technique used by the Incas at that time. The chance of such a similarity is highly unlikely.

It is possible to imagine a group of men from the continent on a boat lost in the ocean. Miraculous of an involuntary drift, unable to return to sea on a boat in poor condition. For a generation they would have been able to pass on their technical knowledge, before their possible descendants would have blended into the existing population.

The ecological disaster

We want to see it as a prefiguration of what’s to come. Like a small-scale model of our world. A limited territory and limited resources facing the challenge of a growing population. Once the break-even point is reached, environmental collapse begins. But it is only as it approaches exhaustion, with the obvious scarcity of available food, that human adjustment occurs. Abrupt correction, famines and conflicts reduce the number of people, to the point of toppling a civilization, as symbolically illustrated by the fall of the moai.

In the case of Easter Island, the natural process was probably distorted by the intrusion of Western travellers, bringing with them contagious diseases and invasive animals, rats and then sheep. As a result, an island covered with forests is left without a single tree, the exposed soil erodes and becomes unproductive, and the population declines.


This is the new challenge facing Easter Island. The same logic of the spiral can be found again, increasing demand for visits in the face of limited reception capacities. Overtourism takes on its full meaning here and reaches the limits of what is possible much faster than elsewhere.

A few figures:
In 2003: 5,000 inhabitants and 20,000 visitors
In 2018: 7.750 inhabitants and 150.000 visitors

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