Rapa Nui people

This article is about the native inhabitants of Easter Island. For information on the island itself, see Easter Island.
Rapa Nui

Traditional dance of Rapa Nui people
Total population
(ca. 5,682)
Regions with significant populations
Chile (particularly Easter Island)
Rapa Nui language, Spanish
Roman Catholicism
Related ethnic groups
Oparoan, Tahitian

The Rapa Nui are the native Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The easternmost Polynesian culture, the Rapa Nui people currently make up 60% of Easter Island's population and have a significant portion of their population residing in mainland Chile. They speak both the traditional Rapa Nui language and the primary language of the island, Spanish. At the 2002 census there were 3,304 island inhabitants—almost all living in the village of Hanga Roa on the sheltered west coast.

As of 2011, Rapa Nui's main source of income derived from tourism, which focuses on the giant sculptures called Moai.

Rapa Nui activists have been fighting for their right of self-determination and possession of the island. Recent protests by the indigenous Rapa Nui on Easter Island against Chilean rule has led to violence against the Rapa Nui by the Chilean police.[1][2]


Further information: History of Easter Island

Pre-European contact (300–1722 CE)

The Rapa Nui are believed to have settled Easter Island between 300 and 1200 CE. Previously, the date of arrival was estimated to be around 700–800 CE, but more-recent evidence from radiocarbon dating supports an arrival date as late as 1200 CE. The Rapa Nui People have been found to be of Polynesian origin through genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA of pre-historic skeletons. Genetic analysis performed by Erik Thorsby and other geneticists in 2007 revealed genetic markers of European and Amerindian origin that suggest that the Rapa Nui had European and Amerindian contributions to their DNA during or before the early 1800s.[3]

Scholars believe that the Rapa Nui had early contact with South America due to the introduction of sweet potato and bottle gourd plants to Easter Island. The bottle gourd was previously thought to have been introduced to Polynesia in ancient times by the Polynesians themselves. However, more-recent research found no evidence of it existing historically in Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga. The bottle gourd has been found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas in ancient times and has been traced back to Peru as early as 6000 BCE, but the earliest evidence of the bottle gourd in Polynesia is only from around 350 BCE in New Guinea. The sweet potato also has South American origin and must have been transferred to Easter Island early to have become such a staple part of the Rapa Nui pre-contact diet. It is believed that there must have been contact between the Rapa Nui and South America by 1200–1300 CE.[4]

Early European contact (1722–1870 CE)

Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to record contact with the Rapa Nui. Roggeveen allegedly set sail either in search of Juan Fernandez Islands or David's Island but instead arrived at Easter Island on April 5, 1722 (Easter Sunday). He remained on the island for about a week.[5] Felipe González de Ahedo visited the Rapa Nui in 1770 and claimed the island for Spain on a document which the islanders wrote on in rongorongo, the now undecipherable Rapa Nui script. James Cook and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse visited the island for a few days in 1774 and 1786 respectively.



Main article: Rapa Nui language

The Rapa Nui currently speak Spanish and the traditional Rapanui language. The Rapanui language, also known as Pascuan, is classified as an Eastern Polynesian language and is currently written in Latin script. Rapanui is a minority language as most Rapa Nui people speak Spanish as their first language. Spanish is the most widely spoken language on Easter Island and the primary language of education and administration. It is believed that Rapanui is currently undergoing a shift towards more Spanish sentence structure. Rongorongo, a system of glyphs discovered in the 1800s, is believed to represent an older version of the Rapanui language. However, the decipherment of rongorongo is an ongoing process and it is not yet clear whether or not Rongorongo is a form of writing or some other form of cultural expression.


Main article: Rapa Nui mythology

The main stories of Rapa Nui mythology are that of Hotu Matu'a who was believed to be the first settler of Easter Island and the Tangata manu. The Tangata manu is the mythology of the Birdman religion and cult which had creator god Makemake and a competition with eggs to choose the birdman who would remain sacred for five months. More recent Rapa Nui mythology includes the story of the epic battle between the Hanau epe and the Hanau momoko.

The trans-Neptunian dwarf planet Makemake is named after this creator deity.


Main article: Moai

The best known aspect of the Rapa Nui culture is the moai, the 887 human figures carved from rock between 1250 and 1500 CE and transported throughout Easter Island. The moai were believed to be the living faces of ancestors and had all been toppled by 1868. The moai rest on large stone platforms called ahu, the most famous of which are Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu, and Ahu Vinapu, an ahu theorized to have been built by Incan Tupac Yupanqui. Some moai have hats of red volcanic stone known as Pukao. Currently, the Rapa Nui and the Chilean government are focused on preserving and restoring the statues including denoting an area that includes many of the statues, Rapa Nui National Park, as a World Heritage site.


The Rapa Nui have historically made feather headdresses, bark cloth, wood carvings, and stone carvings. Adzes, blunt round stones, were used to complete stone images and wood carvings. A distinguishing characteristic of Rapa Nui statues is the use of shell or coral inlaid with obsidian to represent eyes.


Rapa nui traditional music consists of choral singing and chanting accompanied by instruments including conch shell trumpets, percussive dancers, accordions, and kauaha, a percussion instrument created from the jaw bone of a horse. Modern Rapanui music has had Latin American influences creating new genres such as the Rapa Nui style of tango. Matato'a, one of the most famous musical groups on the island, promotes traditional styles of dance and music.

Interaction with the environment

A common hypothesis is held that the apparent decline of Rapa Nui culture and society before European discovery in 1722 was caused by the over-exploitation of the island’s environment, most notably through deforestation of almost all the island’s trees. The most prominent proponent of this explanation is Jared Diamond who proposes a scenario for the "ecocide" on Easter Island in his 2005 book Collapse.

This idea that Rapa Nui society collapsed came out of the imbalance between general resources present on the island, mainly population, timber and food sources, and the energy- and resource-intensive feat of transporting and raising the moai. Food resources may have been scarcer than in other areas of Polynesia because of factors like the cooler climate, lack of rainfall in comparison to other islands in the area, high winds and a lack of biodiversity, leading to common Polynesian crops not faring as well as they would in other areas of the Pacific. A source of good timber was also noticeably absent from the Island, the tallest, current plant life averaging around 7 feet.

Although Easter Island only currently has 48 different kinds of plants as evidenced by botanical surveys of the island, it once possessed many more, shown through pollen analysis conducted on sediment layers from swamps or ponds. From these samples, 22 no longer present on the island were shown to have existed at some time there. Among these plants was a giant palm, the Rapa Nui Palm, that showed signs of being the largest palm species in the world, eclipsing the size of the Chilean Wine Palm if it were not extinct. There are also signs of Easter Island once possessing a far more diverse collection of fauna. The skeletal remains of 25 different species of nesting bird have been located on the island, but have since been reduced to 16. This trend of extinction and extirpation is a common occurrence when humans populate a new area, because of tendencies to overhunt and overexploit resources.[6]

Deforestation would have caused a decrease in crop yields due to soil erosion, loss of wood as a resource to construct fishing boats, among other things, and would have necessitated a halt to the construction of the moai erected around the island. Diamond hypothesizes that resource scarcity may have led to brutal civil war, creating a drop in population. He further hypothesizes that there were about 7,000 individuals pre-war, which fell to the 2,000 missionaries met when they showed up in the 19th century and conducted the first census of the island.

Others attribute this decline to overpopulation or the introduction of Europeans to the island and the diseases that commonly came with them like smallpox.[7]


Agriculture on Easter Island shows signs of intensification before European arrival necessary because of its climate which had an excess of wind and a low amount of rainfall for the area. Archaeological finds show a multitude of composting pits and irrigation systems. Large boulders were also stacked to serve as barriers against the wind. In the fields a system of agriculture called lithic mulch was employed. In this method farmers would lay rocks out in patterns in their fields forcing the plants to grow in certain areas. This method is known to increase soil moisture while decreasing soil erosion from wind effectively combating the climate conditions.

Crops grown on Easter Island included sweet potatoes, yams, taro, bananas and sugarcane. Chickens were the sole domestic animal, though the "chicken coops" carved of stone which still dot the fields of the island were most likely tombs from which the chickens obtained calcium and phosphorus in the form of bone meal.[8]

See also


  1. "Rapanui: International Community Steps In To Stop Violence Against The Rapa Nui Nation". Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources. February 8, 2011. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013.
  2. Reiny, Samson Kaala (December 23, 2010). "L.A. rally to draw attention to violent Rapa Nui evictions". The Hawaii Independent. Archived from the original on December 26, 2010.
  3. Lie B. A.; Dupuy, B. M.; Spurkland, A.; Fernández-Viña, M. A.; Hagelberg, E.; Thorsby, E. (January 2007). "Molecular genetic studies of natives on Easter Island: evidence of an early European and Amerindian contribution to the Polynesian gene pool". Tissue Antigens. 69 (1): 10–18. doi:10.1111/j.1399-0039.2006.00717.x. PMID 17212703.
  4. Green, R. C. (June 2000). "A Range of disciplines support a dual origin for the bottle gourd in the Pacific". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. Polynesian Society. 109 (2): 191–197. JSTOR 20706916.
  5. Douglas, Peter. "The South Sea Voyage of Jacob Reggeveen, 1721-1723" (PDF). New Netherland Institute. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  6. Diamond, Jared M. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking. pp. 94–113. ISBN 0-14-303655-6.
  7. Peiser, B. (July 2005). "Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui". Energy & Environment. 16 (3/4): 513–539. doi:10.1260/0958305054672385.
  8. Ferdon, Edwin N., Jr. (September 2000). "Stone Chicken Coops on Easter Island" (PDF). Rapa Nui Journal. 14 (3): 77–79.
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