The Backstory: Easter Island


The most remote island is the world is a tiny speck of a thing, only 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, born of volcanic eruptions in the middle of the Pacific and now known primarily for its collection of bizarre stone statues.

The first inhabitants of the island arrived from Polynesia around 300-400 A.D. (though admittedly the details are fuzzy now). Having traveled so far and long to get there, they clearly decided a return trip wasn’t worth it, so they stayed, and eventually named the island Rapa Nui. They were master craftsmen and engineers, and at some point over the ensuing centuries, they turned their talents to constructing large stone busts, known as “moai,” and erecting them along the shoreline. The statues may have represented deified ancestors, but their exact purpose is unknown (presumably they weren’t planning ahead for tourism marketing materials). And how they managed to move the behemoth art pieces – averaging 13 feet high and 13 tons – remains a mystery.

Not satisfied with their earlier work, starting around 1000 A.D. the Rapa Nui people destroyed many of the original moai and replaced them with bigger and (in their eyes) better versions. The largest statue from this period is 32 feet tall and was carved from a single piece of rock weighing 82 tons.

Flash forward a few more centuries, and things started to go downhill. Extreme deforestation destabilized the island’s ecosystem, which in turn broke down the social order. Around 1680, the peace that had existed between the island’s two ethnic groups (known as the Short-Ears and the Long-Ears) fell apart and civil war broke out. More moai were destroyed.

The Dutch arrived in 1722 and named it Easter Island, apparently (if not imaginatively) because they landed on Easter Day. Other Europeans soon jumped on the Easter Island bandwagon and, sadly but not surprisingly, small pox was not far behind. By the 1870s, only around 100 local people were left. In 1888, Chile – the nearest country, at a mere 2,300 miles away – claimed Easter Island for itself.

Side note: In the 1970s, scientists found a unique compound in the soil of Easter Island that turned out to be an excellent immunosuppressant for organ transplant recipients, including yours truly, and they named the new drug Rapamune in honor of its island provenance.

These days, Easter Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and survives mostly on tourism. Blessed with a year-round temperate climate and dramatic natural beauty, Easter Island makes for a fascinating and unique destination. The island has a distinctly Polynesian flare, though the indigenous people (the descendants of the Short-Ears and the Long-Ears) now mostly speak Spanish. Fortunately, many of their ancient traditions survive, along with almost 900 of the mysterious moai.


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