A triangular-shaped island (area: 117 sq km or 45 sq mi) belonging to Chile, in the South Pacific Ocean, about 3700 km (about 2300 mi) west of the Chilean coast.
The island is formed of three extinct volcanoes. Swept by strong trade winds, the area is warm throughout the year. Indigenous vegetation consists mainly of grasses. Potatoes, sugarcane, taro roots, tobacco, and tropical fruits are grown in the fertile soil. The prime source of fresh water is the rain that gathers in the crater lakes. In 1722 several thousand Polynesians inhabited the island, but disease and raids by slave traders reduced the number to fewer than 200 by the late 19th century. Some intermarriage has taken place between the Polynesians and the Chileans.
The island was named by a Dutch explorer who landed here on Easter Day in 1722. The Chilean government annexed the island in 1888. An area on the western coast is reserved by the government for the indigenous population; the remainder is used as grazing land for sheep and cattle.
Easter Island is of considerable archaeological importance both as the richest site of the megaliths (see Megalithic Monuments) of the Pacific island groups and as the only source of evidence of a form of writing in Polynesia.
Very little is known about the people who made the megaliths and carved the wooden tablets. One belief is that settlement of Easter Island took place about 18 centuries ago, although some scholars contend that the settlement occurred more recently. Previous archaeological and botanical evidence suggested that the island's original inhabitants were of South American origin and that the ancestors of the present Polynesian population traveled in canoes from the Marquesas Islands, massacred the inhabitants, and made the island their home. Many archaeologists believed that at the time of the invasion the megaliths, including about 600 statues, were standing throughout the island and that many were destroyed by the Polynesians during a period of violence on Easter Island, but recent pollen and DNA studies point to a more ancient (30,000 years) Polynesian origin for the Island inhabitants.
Largest of the extant stone monuments are the great burial platforms, called ahus, which were used to support rows of statues. The ahus were situated on bluffs and in other positions commanding a view of the sea. Each ahu was constructed of neatly fitted stone blocks set without mortar. The burial platform usually supported 4 to 6 statues, although one ahu, known as Tongariki, carried 15 statues. Within many of the ahus, vaults house individual or group burials.
About 100 statues stand on the island nowadays (most have been re-erected by modern visitors); they vary in height from 3 to 12 m (10 to 40 ft). Carved from tuff, a soft volcanic rock, they consist of huge heads with elongated ears and noses. Material for the statues was quarried from the crater called Rano Raraku, where modern explorers found an immense unfinished statue, 21 m (68 ft) long. Many of the statues on the burial platforms bore cylindrical, brimmed crowns of red tuff; the largest crown weighs approximately 27 metric tons.
Excavations have also disclosed hidden caves containing decayed remains of tablets and wooden images, and numerous small wooden sculptures. The tablets are covered with finely carved and stylized figures, which seem to be a form of picture writing.
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