Easter Island: Rapa Nui National Park (Chile)

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Easter Island: Rapa Nui National Park (Chile)

Easter Island lies at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. It is famous for its monumental moai statues, created by the early Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui National Park is a protected Chilean wildlife area and UNESCO World Heritage Site on Easter Island.

Easter Island

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is an island and special territory of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. It lies at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. It is most famous for its nearly 1,000 surviving monumental statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui.

The island stands in isolation 1,900 km (1,200 mi) east of Pitcairn Island and approximately 3,500 km (2,200 mi) west of Chile. Forming a triangle approximately 22 km (14 mi) long by 11 km (7 mi) wide, it has an area of 163 sq km (63 sq mi). Its highest point is Mount Terevaka, 600 m (1,968 ft) above sea level.

It is believed that Easter Island's Polynesian inhabitants arrived on Easter Island sometime near 1200 AD. They created a thriving and industrious culture, as evidenced by the island's numerous enormous stone moai and other artifacts. However, land clearing for cultivation and the introduction of the Polynesian rat led to gradual deforestation.

The name "Easter Island" was given by the first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. Roggeveen named it Paasch-Eyland (18th-century Dutch for "Easter Island"). The island's official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means "Easter Island."

The current Polynesian name of the island, Rapa Nui ("Big Rapa"), was coined after the slave raids of the early 1860s and referred to the island's topographic resemblance to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group.

By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's human population was estimated to be between 2,000 - 3,000. European diseases, Peruvian slave raiding expeditions in the 1860s, and emigration to other islands, such as Tahiti, further depleted the population, reducing it to a low of 111 native inhabitants in 1877.

Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. Pitcairn Island is the nearest inhabited land (around 50 residents in 2013). The nearest town with a population of over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva. The nearest continental point lies in central Chile, 3,512 km (2,182 mi) away.

Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888. In 1966, the Rapa Nui people were granted Chilean citizenship. In 2007, the island gained the constitutional status of "special territory." Administratively, it belongs to the Valparaíso Region. The 2017 Chilean census registered 7,750 people on the island, of whom 3,512 (45%) considered themselves Rapa Nui.

The Tapati Festival is Easter Island's most important cultural and sporting event. It takes place every year during the first half of February. The "Tapati Rapa Nui," which was born more than 40 years ago and originated in the ancient "spring festivities" celebrated in Chile, has been transformed over time to become a tribute to the ancestral traditions of the Rapanui people.

With much of Easter Island protected within Rapa Nui National Park, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1995.

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Rapa Nui National Park

Rapa Nui National Park is a protected Chilean wildlife area located on Easter Island, which concentrates on the legacy of the Rapa Nui culture. The park is now under the administrative control of the Ma'u Henua Polynesian Indigenous Community, the first autonomous institute on the island.

The indigenous Rapa Nui people have regained authority over their ancestral lands and are in charge of managing, preserving, and protecting their inheritance. On the first of December 2017, the government of Chile returned ancestral lands in the form of a park to the indigenous people. For the first time in history, the revenue generated by the National Park is invested in the island and used to conserve the natural heritage.

Rapa Nui National Park is located on Easter Island, approximately 3,700 km (2,300 mi) from the coast of continental Chile and has an area of over 16,600 ha (41,000 acres). The World Heritage property occupies an area of approximately 7,000 ha (17,000 acres), including four nearby islets.

The island was colonized toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era by a small group of settlers from Eastern Polynesia, whose culture manifested itself between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries in great works such as the ahu (ceremonial platforms) and carved moai (colossal statues) representing ancestors.

Rapa Nui National Park's most prominent attributes are the archaeological sites. It is estimated that there are about 900 statues, more than 300 ceremonial platforms, and thousands of structures related to agriculture, funeral rites, housing and production, and other activities.

Prominent among the archaeological pieces are the moai that range in height from 2 - 20 m (6 - 65 ft) and are, for the most part, carved from the yellow-brown lava tuff, using simple picks (toki) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes.

There are many kinds of moai of different sizes: those in the process of being carved, those in the process of being moved to their final destinations (the ahu), and those being torn down and erected. The quarries (Rano Raraku and others) are invaluable evidence of the process of their carving.

The ahu varies considerably in size and form; the most colossal is the Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and a leveled area in front of the platform.

Also extremely valuable are the rock art sites (pictographs and petroglyphs), which include various styles, techniques, and motifs. Other archaeological sites are the caves, which also contain rock art.

Map of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Map of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

There is also a village of ceremonial nature named Orongo, which stands out because of its location and architecture. While it has not attracted as much attention, the housing and productive structures are fascinating.

Orongo is a stone village and ceremonial center at the southwestern tip of Easter Island. It consists of a collection of low, sod-covered, windowless, round-walled buildings with even lower doors on the high south-westerly tip of the large volcanic caldera, Rano Kau.

The original cult of the ancestor was replaced by the cult of the man-bird, which has as exceptional testimony the ceremonial village of Orongo, located at the Rano Kau volcano.

Fifty-four semi-subterranean stone houses with elliptical floor plans complement this sacred place, profusely decorated with petroglyphs alluding to the man-bird and fertility. This cult would see its end in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Below Orongo, on one side, a 300 m (985 ft barren cliff face drops down to the ocean; on the other, a more gentle but still very steep grassy slope leads down to a freshwater marsh inside the high caldera.

According to some studies, the depletion of natural resources had brought about an ecological crisis and the decline of the ancient Rapa Nui society by the 16th century. This led to the deterioration and spiritual transformation in which these megalithic monuments were destroyed.

Colonization, the introduction of livestock, the confinement of the original inhabitants to smaller areas, the dramatic effect of foreign diseases, and slavery reduced the population of Rapa Nui to little more than a hundred.

The island is inhabited by descendants of the ancient Rapa Nui and immigrants from diverse backgrounds, accounting for a significant mixed population.

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As the island was isolated for so long, many endemic animal and plant species exist. The park is under IUCN Management Category II in southeastern Polynesia.

Its biogeographic and ecological history has changed from ancient times when palm trees and a broad-leaf forest existed.

Before the Polynesians settled here in the 4th century, the island had an extensive forest cover of trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. The island is now almost entirely grass-covered, with only a few ornamental trees and shrubs scattered over the island.


Of the 150 recorded plant species, 45 are endemic. However, the island is covered mainly by grass with three endemic species.

In ancient times, the only species of tree found here was Sophora toromiro, which is now extinct on the island; it is a species related to the Chilean palm, Jubaea chilensis.

In the steppe areas of the island, the vegetation consists mainly of species of Stipa and Nassella. Other species recorded are of introduced varieties. The Hau Hau (Triumfetta semitriloba) is still present among the shrubs.

The wood of the now-extinct Jubaea palm was used to make devices for transporting the colossal stone moai statues. Carbon dating has established that this tree species existed on the island until the 17th century.

Ferns are indigenous to Rapa Nui, and four of the 15 species noted are endemic: Doodia paschalis, Polystichum fuentesii, Elaphoglossum skottsbergii, and Thelypteris espinosae.

According to a recent report (1991), apart from 166 introduced species of plants, 46 indigenous plant species, including nine endemic species, have been recorded.


The island's only mammals are rodents and carnivorans. The reptiles recorded are three species of marine turtles and two terrestrial lizards, Lepidodactylus lugubris and Ablepharus boutoui poecilopleurus.

Four bird species (three terrestrial and one marine) are found on the island. These are Fregata nubor, red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda), and Kermadec petrel.