Located 3,700 km (2,300 miles) off the west coast of Chile, Easter Island is the world's most isolated inhabited island. It is also one of the most mystifying places on Earth, possessing a history that remains as unclear as it is evocative.
Easter Island's tiny land area (only 117 sq. km.) and remarkable isolation make its discovery and settlement an event that seems as unlikely as it was mysterious. The original settlers seem to have been Polynesian, although there is substantial evidence that they were joined by a South American people early in the island's history. The island's native name, Rapa Nui, is Polynesian. Isolated for centuries from the outside world, the people of Rapa Nui developed their own distinctive culture, a culture perhaps best known by the moai, huge figures carved of volcanic rock. Hundreds of these sculpted monoliths dot the landscape, some in imposing rows, others toppled, broken, and scarred by violence. Scholars have been able to reconstruct some of the tragic history that lies behind the disintegration of Rapa Nui culture, but many important parts of the puzzle-including how and why the moai were built-remain uncertain.
The first Europeans to stumble upon the tiny island were the Dutch, under the command of Admiral Jacob Roggeveen. Roggeveen made landfall on Rapa Nui on Easter Day of 1722, thus providing Easter Island with its modern name. Easter Island remained only slightly less isolated over the ensuing centuries, although it did attract the malevolent interest of Peruvian slave ships during the 19th century. Despite these depredations, the majority of Easter Island's population is still composed of descendants of its original inhabitants Even today, their distinctive language and cultural traditions give visitors a glimpse of an ancient lifestyle.
All of the residents of Easter Island live in the town of Hanga Roa, and it is an easy day's drive from town around the island in search of moai and ahu (the rectangular stone platforms which moai were mounted on). One of the most famous sites on the island is Rano Raraku, where 70 moai seem to rise from the earth. The remains of over 150 other figures lie in a nearby volcanic crater, where the rock for the moai was extracted. It is still unclear how the moai were moved from these rock quarries to other parts of the island.
The restored village of Orongo offers another Easter Island mystery. The village sits in a spectacular setting, between the volcano of Rano Kao and a sheer cliff drop-off. Rocks found at the village contain 150 carvings showing figures with a man's body and a bird's head. Anthropologists believe they were part of a religious cult, but the details on the "Bird Man" are still obscure.
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