When most people think of Easter Island, they imagine massive stone heads jutting out of the sand and little else. As is the case with many island nations, Easter Island had a history long before the arrival of European explorers.

Ancient Origins

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722, the island’s indigenous Rapa Nui were the only people on the island. Native oral tradition states that the island’s first inhabitants arrived via a two-person canoe. The island is thought to have been settled between 300 and 1200 CE. Genetic historians believe the Rapa Nui to be of Polynesian descent, though evidence of European and Amerindian interaction hasn’t been ruled out. Their descendants make up roughly 60% of Easter Island’s current population.

Like many of their Polynesian counterparts, the Rapa Nui used tattooing as a central part of their sacred traditions. Of all the Rapa Nui’s traditions, their stone monuments are by far the most recognized. Initially, there were 887 of these figures, called Moai, around the island. Historians believe that they were carved between 1250 and 1500 CE and that they represented the faces of the inhabitants’ ancestors. By 1868, all of the Moai had been knocked down, but recent efforts by the Chilean government have restored some of these megalithic portraits to their former glory, complete with red Pukao hats.

European Influence

As is the case with nearly any culture touched by early European explorers, the Rapa Nui faced casualties upon the arrival of Jacob Roggeveen and later settlers. Between 1862 and 1888, roughly 94% of the native population either died or left the island. From 1862 to 1863, approximately 1,500 natives were subject to blackbirding. The few who returned from slavery brought smallpox to the island, infecting the few remaining communities and decimating the population. Descendants of the original Rapa Nui people are still fighting to regain their homeland and rights as indigenous people.