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Easter Island

Easter Island, Span. Isla de Pascua, Polynesian Rapa Nui, remote island (1992 pop. 2,770), 66 sq mi (171 sq km), in the South Pacific, c.2,200 mi (3,540 km) W of Chile, to which it belongs. Of volcanic origin, Easter Island is mostly covered with grasslands and is swept by strong trade winds. About half of the inhabitants are of Polynesian stock; the rest are mainly more recent settlers from the Chilean mainland. The increasing non-Polynesian population led in 2010–11 to Polynesian protests in favor of autonomy and immigration restrictions and clashes with security forces. Farming and sheep raising are the principal occupations; wool is the only export.

Chile regards the island as an integral part of the mainland, not as a colony, and the island forms a province and (since 2007) a special territory in the Valparaiso region. The inhabitants are citizens of Chile but do not pay taxes and are not subject to military conscription. A Chilean naval officer is governor, and a mayor and council of elders have a voice in local matters but no power to raise revenues. There have been sporadic campaigns for the island's independence, and an independence movement exists.

It is unclear when the isolated island was settled by Polynesian voyagers, but recent estimates date their arrival to as early c.A.D. 800 or as late as c.A.D. 1200. Easter Island was named on Easter Day, 1722, by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeven. At that time the population was about 4,000, down from perhaps 9,000 two centuries earlier, probably because of overuse of sparse resources. The spread of European diseases, especially smallpox, and the raids of Spanish slavers reduced the population to slightly more than 100 by 1887. Chilean annexation in 1888 led to stabilization.

Easter Island has long been famous for its hieroglyphs and for hundreds of remarkable monolithic stone heads ( moais ) whose origin and meaning have been widely debated. Carved from soft volcanic tufa, the statues are from 10 to 40 ft (3–12 m) high, some weighing over 50 tons. Regarding the origin and culture of the builders of these monuments, one formerly popular theory is that of Thor Heyerdahl, that fair-skinned invaders from the East carved the monoliths, and that later (c.1680) the present Polynesians conquered the island, unleashing violent strife leading to near extinction of the population. Now generally accepted, however, is the conclusion of French ethnologist Alfred Métreaux that the statues are no more than 500–600 years old and that they were built by the Polynesian ancestors of the present inhabitants. DNA samples taken from the oldest bones found on the island reveal Polynesian characteristics. Among other ideas now debunked are those connecting Easter Island with Egyptian or Hindu cultures or making it the remnant of a "lost continent." The entire island is now a national park.

See studies by J. Dos Passos (1971) and J. A. Van Tilburg (1994).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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