A Tale of the Fading Culture and Customs of the Easter Islanders

Introduction to the Easter Islanders

If you think that the naming of the island has something to do with the Easter holiday, then you are right. Back in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen, an explorer, found this island. It is an island situated in the easternmost location in Polynesia. Jacob Roggeveen arrived here on Easter Sunday. Hence the story behind the naming. Before it was named as such, the locals of the island had not given it a name. In the 1800s, the local Polynesians started calling it Rapa Nui. Eventually, this became the preferred name and the locals started recognizing it.

About Easter Islanders
by Kiwireports

The period between 1862 to 1863 was a major catastrophe for the island. Easter Island started losing most of its population. The situation got so dire that the traditional customs, passed down by generations, were on the verge of being extinct. Subsequently, the Islanders intermingled with the people of Chile. This led to many of their own traditions and customs becoming blended with the customs and traditions of Southern Americans. At present, Rapa Nui or Easter Island is known as Chile’s dependency.


Easter Island is spread over an area of 180 square kilometers. It’s situated about 1760 kilometers away from Pitcairn island. The distance from Rapa Nui to the coast of Chile is around 4200 kilometers. This island is geographically distinct from others due to its triangular shape. Additionally, it has three volcanic peaks that you can see in its three corners.

The history of the island tells of the land being densely forested in the past. However, at present, it is mostly barren. Historically, only sea birds, as well as rats, were the indigenous animals found on the island. Later on, Europeans and visitors from other islands brought with them cattle, sheep, pets, dogs, chickens, and other animals. The island has a prominent climate of tropical weather. Spring and collecting rainwater were the known methods of water collection by the natives.


Rapa Nui is the official language spoken by the locals. It is also referred to as Pascuense. It is a Polynesian language that has been found to have similarities with the languages of Mangareva, Maori in New Zealand, and the people of Tahiti. Ever since the wider world was introduced to the locals, many more foreign words have been blended into the language. Subsequently, some elements of French, English, and Spanish can be found in Rapa Nui.

There is an interesting debate still going on about the presence of language in prehistoric times. There have been symbols found carved on rongorongo(which is a type of wooden board). Rongorongo carvings are of ancient origin. This has led to speculations over the possibility of the presence of written communication from prehistoric times of the island. However, there is another theory that concludes it might be just Spanish document copies left behind by some random explorers of earlier times.

History of the Easter Islanders

The exact origin of the Easter islanders is still a matter of much debate. While some consider it to be South America, others disagree. Kon-tiki expedition by Thor Heyerdahl depicted the origin of the first people of the island as South America. However, there has been evidence found of other islanders in the Polynesian region having settled on their islands as far back in time as A.D. 400. Rapa Nui is located considerably far away from the other islands of the province. This leads to a fact that they might have remained undiscovered by other people living in the same province.

First Contact

contact with outsiders of the rapa nui
contact with outsiders of the Rapa Nui by Wikipedia

The locals came in contact with the Europeans for the first time in 1722 through meeting Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer. It has been estimated that the island’s first people were on the slope of population decline during this time. Deforestation has been determined as a cause behind it. Furthermore, the culture and customs of the locals were on the verge of extinction. Subsequently, after the first contact, the Spanish, English, French, Russian and American explorers are known to have visited the island frequently. Additionally, traders and whalers were also known to have visited the island regularly.

While the introduction to the outside world helped the locals by procuring modern products through traders, negative impacts happened as well. It should be noted that during 1862, Peruvian slavers raided the island. They are known to have kidnapped around 1000 people. Subsequently, they shipped them off to the Guano islands in the Peruvian coastal region.

Tragedy strikes the Easter Islanders

The Easter Islanders were forced into mining by the slavers. It is estimated that almost 900 people perished during this inhumane ordeal. International powers concerning the Easter islanders started exerting pressure on the Peruvian government for their release. Afterward, the rest of the 100 people were sent back to their homeland. However, tragedy struck the Easter islanders once again.

Out of the 100 journeyings, merely 15 people came out alive on the journey. Furthermore, they were suffering from smallpox infection. As they were left in their homeland, smallpox from them spread to others in their community. Moreover, the infection trimmed the already declining population of the island. Experts estimate that the infection reduced the population of the Easter islanders to about 25 percent of the population in 1862.

A continuous tragic cycle pestered the locals to no end. First, there was deforestation. Then, there was fear of diseases brought by outsiders and death caused by them. Additionally, the slavery incident birthed a deep wariness towards outsiders in the Easter islanders. Depopulation has become a serious problem for first people.

Furthermore, the passing away of chiefs of the communities caused cracks in their social structure. Eventually, this all led to chipping away of the cultural identity of the Easter Island natives. Their traditions faded with time, dying with the community leaders. To add to it, the originality of their culture was forgotten in time due to intermingling with outsiders.

Arrival of missionaries

1863 is marked by the arrival of Catholic missionaries to this island. While their numbers have always been small, they have shown a dedicated and constant presence on the island. In the following decade, the missionaries proceeded to convert each one of the remaining inhabitants into Roman Catholics.

The cultural identity of the locals frayed further on as their native beliefs were painted over by the Catholic religious views. Social structures present in their communities also faced changes as the Roman Catholic values rooted themselves deep among them. Easter Island was adjoined to Chile in 1888. Subsequently, Chile gave the Williamson and Balfour Company a lease of about 160 square kilometers of the island’s property. This was used for establishing a sheep ranch for wool-related industrialized processing.

An area of barely 20 square kilometers was left to the locals for their inhabitants. The Chilean Navy overtook the command of the island, including the company as well as the locals, in 1954. After much deliberation over the constant complaints of the locals, the governance of the island was finally transferred back over to the control of the locals.

Economy and Lifestyle of the Easter IslandersThe lifestyle of Easter Islanders

Most of the population of the Island is localized around the village of Hangoroa. This is situated towards the southwest corner of Easter Island. Presently, the local architecture has deviated towards European-style housing from the early traditional styles. Historically, before the arrival of Catholic missionaries, the locals lived near the coastal regions.

The interior parts of the island were almost completely neglected by the inhabitants. Traditional housing structures of the ordinary populace included thatched structures, caves, and semi-subterranean dwellings. However, the wealthy in the same communities, including the chiefs, lived in dwellings with better foundations (oftentimes stones), spacious interiors, and relatively luxurious amenities.

It was discovered that the communities of the locals also comprised of structures other than housing. An underground oven system was found that helped in cooking-related activities. There were even proper shelters for cooking to be done for the entire community. Animal husbandry structures in the form of chicken coops were introduced later on. While the island lacked animals in ancient times, the outsiders brought with them many animals for trade. Additionally, there were also turtle watchtowers for sentries of the community.

Culture of the Easter Islanders

The culture of Easter Islanders
The culture of Easter Islanders II by Ninja Journalist

The culture of Easter Island inhabitants, before its rapid decline, had a rich history. It was discovered that the locals believed in at the very least 90 different gods. Almost all of the same gods had their own names and distinct identity according to the traditional beliefs.

Religion before Catholic missionaries’ arrival

A structure akin to a pantheon was believed to be among the deities of the locals. The pedestals of higher gods included the Make-Male god, the god of rain, and the god of creation.

Additionally, the strata of the lesser deities comprise demons, spirits of nature, and the ancestral spirits of the local forefathers. Some of the religious ceremonies featured prayer chanting by priests, tapa, and food to be offered to the deities. The priests weren’t bound to be from any gender, but were, however, chosen from among the higher social strata. As the local culture has disappeared with time, the actual work and position of the priests have been lost to time. Most of the information regarding the ancient social structure of the first people of the land is a work of speculation by experts.

Religious views and ceremonies of the Easter Islanders

They were believed by the locals to communicate to the spiritual dimension by going into a trance. The priests also acted as healers for the ailments of the locals. Easter islanders believed in sorcery and they had special positions as sorcerers who were believed to be able to curse people.

Religious ceremonies were often practiced to please the supernatural. From praying for rain to warding off the evil spirits or gratitude for a bountiful harvest, ceremonies were held for everything. Even though most of the traditional customs of Easter islanders are lost to time, the Tangata-Manu or bird cult, as well as the feast of the bird-man is known to be their two significant rituals.

The “ahu” platform was where the bodies of the departed were placed. Then the body was left to be naturally decomposed with time. Furthermore, the bones of the departed were then collected and then buried inside the specialized ahu vaults. The ceremony of the body displaying on the ahu platform was a serious one. Any casual activity was banned to respect the departed.

The traditional practices have been replaced by the funeral practices followed by Roman Catholic people. However, it is known that the burial ceremony lasted the longest of all the other local cultural traits, which faded away with time.


Stone-carvings are the most popular of the arts that feature the East islander people. The province is particularly known for the “ahu”. Reaching a height of about 600 feet, “ahu” are the statues carved from stone decorated with a range of peculiar expressions. It is believed among the experts of the field that these statues depict the ancestors of the locals. Perhaps it was a way of remembering the departed, through their carved portraiture, seeking protection from their ancestral spirits.

Before the locals even made first contact with Europeans, the art of stone carvings had already been long lost to time. Almost 150 statues were found left incomplete. In the traditional customs of Easter islanders, body tattoos were popular. Presently, the wooden carving art of earlier times has been transformed into a tourist attraction and a local specialty.

After the introduction of the Roman Catholic religion, all the beliefs of the locals were lost to time. The religious views of the Catholic missionaries were propagated in such a way that almost all of the ancient religious identity of the island was erased in merely a decade.

In conclusion:

The exact origin of the first people of the locality is a matter of debate to this date. However, what has been agreed upon unanimously, is that they were cut off from the rest of the world, even the local Polynesian province, for a long while. This was possible due to the location of the small island. It’s located about 1760 kilometers away from its nearest neighbor.

The first contact with outsiders brought them many amenities in time. Newer animals to the farm, types of equipment, and accessories. Additionally, a trade route opened up between various parties and the locals. As there are light and dark sides to most situations, contact with outsiders isn’t always a good thing either. Peruvian slavers kidnapped about one thousand of the locals, and the later returned survivors infected most of the population with smallpox. The population kept declining with time. As did their traditions and ancient customs.

It is not particularly a happy tale, their history. However, hope is alive for the locals still. For as long as they survive, their culture, their traditions, their values, lives inside them.


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