1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Easter Island

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EASTER ISLAND (Rapanui, i.e. Great Rapa), an island in the eastern part of the South Pacific ocean, belonging to Chile (since 1888), in 27° 8′ S. and 109° 28′ W., 1400 m. E. of Pitcairn, and 2000 m. from the South American coast. It is roughly triangular in shape, with its hypotenuse 12 m. long running north-east and south-west, and its three angles marked by three volcanic peaks, of which the north-eastern reaches 1768 ft. of altitude. The area of the island is 45 sq. m. The coast has no good natural harbour, and landing is difficult. There is no lack of fertile soil, and the climate is moist enough to make up for the absence of running water. Formerly the island appears to have been wooded, but it now presents only a few bushes (Edwardsia, Broussonetia, &c.), ferns, grasses, sedges, &c. The natives grow bananas in the shelter of artificial pits, also sugar-canes and sweet potatoes, and keep a few goats and a large stock of domestic fowls, and a Tahitian commercial house breeds cattle and sheep on the island.

It is doubtful whether Rapanui was discovered by Davis in 1686, though it is sometimes marked Davis Island on maps. Admiral Roggeveen reached it on Easter day 1722; in 1774 Captain Cook discovered it anew and called it Teapi or Waihu. It was subsequently visited by La Pérouse (1776), Kotzebue (1816), &c. At the time of Roggeveen’s discovery the island probably contained from 2000 to 3000 inhabitants of Polynesian race, who, according to their own tradition, came from Rapa Iti (Little Rapa) or Oparo, one of the Tubuai or Austral group. In 1863 a large proportion of the inhabitants were kidnapped by the Peruvians and transported to work at the guano diggings on the Chincha Islands. The next year a Jesuit mission from Tahiti reached the island and succeeded in the task of civilization. The natives, who number scarcely one hundred, are all Christians.

Easter Island is famous for its wonderful archaeological remains. Here are found immense platforms built of large cut stones fitted together without cement. They are generally built upon headlands, and on the slope towards the sea. The walls on the seaside are, in some of the platforms, nearly 30 ft. high and from 200 to 300 ft. long, by about 30 ft. wide. Some of the squared stones are as much as 6 ft. long. On the land side of the platforms there is a broad terrace with large stone pedestals upon which once stood colossal stone images carved somewhat into the shape of the human trunk. On some of the platforms there are upwards of a dozen images, now thrown from their pedestals and lying in all directions. Their usual height is from 14 to 16 ft., but the largest are 37 ft., while some are only about 4 ft. They are formed from a grey trachytic lava found at the east end of the island. The top of the heads of the images is cut flat to receive round crowns made of a reddish vesicular tuff found at a crater about 8 m. distant from the quarry where the images were cut. A number of these crowns still lie at the crater apparently ready for removal, some of the largest being over 10 ft. in diameter. In the atlas illustrating the voyage of La Pérouse a plan of the island is given, with the position of several of the platforms. Two of the images are also represented in a plate. One statue, 8 ft. in height and weighing 4 tons, was brought to England, and is now in the British Museum. In one part of the island are the remains of stone houses nearly 100 ft. long by about 20 ft. wide. These are built in courses of large flat stones fitted together without cement, the walls being about 5 ft. thick and over 5 ft. high. They are lined on the inside with upright slabs, on which are painted geometrical figures and representations of animals. The roofs are formed by placing slabs so that each course overlaps the lower one until the opening becomes about 5 ft. wide, when it is covered with flat slabs reaching from one side to the other. The lava rocks near the houses are carved into the resemblance of various animals and human faces, forming, probably, a kind of picture writing. Wooden tablets covered with various signs and figures have also been found. The only ancient implement discovered on the island is a kind of stone chisel, but it seems impossible that such large and numerous works could have been executed with such a tool. The present inhabitants of Easter Island know nothing of the construction of these remarkable works; and the entire subject of their existence in this small and remote island is a mystery.