The full moon shone on the night of Wednesday, April 1, 1722. To the south of the Pacific Ocean, an expedition of three ships was moving away from the coast of Chile under the command of the Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen. That was the first full moon after the equinox, so the following Sunday Easter was celebrated in the Christian world. It was that day, April 5, 1722, when they sighted an island, already more than 3,500 km from the mainland, and the marine explorer thought it appropriate to name it Paasch-Eyland or Easter Island . Today it is famous throughout the world, mainly because of the presence of the moais , huge sculptures of a human face. Roggeveen, 63 years old, had left the island of Texel (Holland) eight months earlier commanding an expedition made up of some 250 men, of whom around 60 were soldiers. At that time, the Pacific Ocean harbored many unknowns, and the objective of the expedition was to find the mythical Terra Australis and Tierra de Davis . The Dutch were on the island for a few days, and had to abandon it after an incident in which a young lieutenant was afraid when he saw himself surrounded by tall and corpulent Indians, and fired, causing a dozen deaths.
Easter Island then had between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants who are believed to have designated it by different names such as Te pito or Te henua (in 1877 it was translated as “The navel of the world”, although other authors believe that it means “Three finisterres”, alluding to to the three points of the island); they also used Mata ki te rangi (“Eyes that look at the sky”). The first maps, where some moais are already drawn, were made in 1770 by Spanish sailors in an expedition commanded by the Cantabrian Felipe González Ahedo. This, who had left Peru, took possession of that territory on behalf of the Spanish crown and called it “Isla de San Carlos”, in homage to Carlos III. During the slave events starting in 1860, references to the island began as RapaNui (“Big Island” in the Tahitian language). The islanders later adopted that name for the territory and also the use of a single word (Rapanui) for their ethnicity and culture. Today, it is considered the official name of the island.
The moais are 887 giant sculptures scattered throughout the island , most of them on the coast and almost always with their backs to the Pacific . On average they measure about five meters high, although the largest of those installed reaches ten and weighs ninety tons. They were carved in the volcanic stone quarry and transported to their site, sometimes 20 km away. Some are buried several meters, leaving the head and part of the torso visible. They began to be built from the twelfth century and it seems that they continued that tradition until after the arrival of the Europeans.
The island had been populated at an undefined date, between the fourth and twelfth centuries of our era, by sailors from Polynesia who arrived there in open double-hulled canoes carrying, among other things, sweet potatoes, bananas and sugar cane, chickens and… rats. Various studies have shown that for thousands of years the vegetation was exuberant , formed mainly by palm tree forests, but it ended in deforestation. Some estimates indicate that the total population could have exceeded 17,000 indigenous people in the year 1500. Although there are different criteria, and knowing that there were also other factors, which include overpopulation, clan struggles —including cannibalism— and the action of the rats, it seems that that civilization began to collapse due to the depletion of natural resources and was about to become extinct. In 1877, when slavers and disease had helped decimate the population, there were only 111 Indians. Since its annexation to Chile and despite the vicissitudes suffered by being confined in ghettos, with oppression, mistreatment, poverty and exploitation of resources until the middle of the 20th century, the population recovered slowly, but a large part of its cultural heritage was lost forever .
Today it is the most isolated inhabited place on the planet. Easter Island is one vertex of the Polynesian triangle, the other two of which are New Zealand and Hawaii. With 164 square kilometers of surface, it is more than 3,500 km from the Chilean coast. The last census (2017) registered 7,750 inhabitants, of which 45% are Rapanui . Its closest neighbors are the 926 inhabitants of the Juan Fernández archipelago, some 1,850 km to the east.