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The Mystery of Easter Island

Easter Island 01

Easter Island’s connection to the Christian holiday is one of pure coincidence – a Dutch explorer landed on it while looking for something else. Today it is a popular nature tourism site.

Easter Island is something of a legend, precisely because no one knows for sure why it exists and what its main attractions – giant carvings of humans – mean. The most credible theories, however, suggest that three waves of migrations overtook the small island located in the Pacific, some 3,500 kilometers off Chile’s coast.

Were the first migrants Polynesian … or Latin American?

Up until the mid-twentieth century, historians believed that Polynesian boatmen sailed from various Pacific islands to Easter Island. But that theory has been challenged by other researchers who believe that it wasn’t Polynesians but rather Latin Americans, probably of Mayan origin, who settled the island. In any case, these first inhabitants most likely carved the large Easter Island heads (Moais) for which the island is best known. The second migration, during the 16th century, was the invasion of the ariki, who were probably Polynesian. This group brought chickens and mice (before that, there were only turtles and sea birds on the island). The third migration consisted of Europeans in 18th and 19th centuries (they brought the slave trade and diseases that ravaged the local population) Many island natives learn Rapa Nui, an Eastern Polynesian language native to the territory. The island is also called Rapa Nui in this local language.

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Where does the name ‘Easter Island’ come from?

Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen encountered Easter Island on Easter Sunday 1722, while searching for Davis or David's island. Chile, which annexed the island in 1887, calls it “Isla de Pascua” (which also means “Easter Island”).

The art of Easter Island

Easter Island heads – or moais – are the most relevant expression of Rapa Nui art.  Easter Island Heads are believed to be the representation of an ancestor with supernatural and divine power. Some people also say they were sculpted to perpetuate the memory of the deceased. The most common moais are heads with male torsos. Faces usually feature long noses and ears. At first, they were manufactured with basalt, trachyte and red slag, but later statues are carved from volcanic material found in the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano. The average height of a moai is four meters, though two large moai – one measuring 10 meters, the other 22 – can be found on the island.

Although many think these sculptures look to the ocean, local tradition holds that they face the island in order to watch over their people. Only one statue is oriented towards the Hiva, their mythical continent of origin.

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What to do on Easter Island

Easter Island’s tourism website suggests sightseeing and sports like scuba diving and horseback riding.

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How to get to Easter Island

Lan Chile is the only airline that offers flights to Rapa Nui. Depending on the season, there are between four and seven flights a week from/to Santiago, and two flights a week from/to Papete (Tahiti). There are also two weekly flights available from/to Lima (Peru). Round trip tickets in standard economy class cost from $500-900 dollars. Flights are often overbooked due to excessive reservations, so book ahead!

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