The history of Easter Island is rich and controversial. Its inhabitants have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids, colonialism, and near deforestation; its population declined precipitously more than once.
Estimated dates of initial settlement of Easter Island have ranged from 300 to 1200 CE, approximately coinciding with the arrival of the first settlers in Hawaii. Rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the previously posited early settlement dates in Polynesia. Rapa Nui has more recently been considered to have been settled in the narrower range of 700 to 1100 CE. An ongoing study by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo suggests a still-later date: “Radiocarbon dates for the earliest stratigraphic layers at Anakena, Easter Island, and analysis of previous radiocarbon dates imply that the island was colonized late, about 1200 CE. Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement.”
According to oral tradition, the first settlement was at Anakena. Jared Diamond notes that the Caleta Anakena landing point provides the best shelter from prevailing swells, as well as a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings, so it seems likely to have been an early place of settlement. However, this hypothesis contradicts radiocarbon dating, according to which other sites preceded Anakena by many years, especially the Tahai, whose radiocarbon dates precede Anakena’s by several centuries.
The island was most likely populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600 km (1,600 mi) away) or the Marquesas Islands, 3,200 km (2,000 mi) away. When James Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, a Polynesian from Bora Bora, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan with an 80% similarity in vocabulary. In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was able to reach Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days.
The first known painting of Easter Island in 1775 by William Hodges
According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system, with an ariki, high chief, wielding great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through first-born lines of the island’s legendary founder, Hotu Matu’a. The most visible element in the culture was the production of massive statues called moai that some believe represented deified ancestors. According to National Geographic: “Most scholars suspect that the moai were created to honor ancestors, chiefs, or other important personages, However, no written and little oral history exists on the island, so it’s impossible to be certain.”
It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead where the dead provided everything that the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune etc.) and the living, through offerings provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Most settlements were located on the coast and most moai were erected along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.