Easter Island Flag

Easter Island Travel Guide

Island Cemetary
The island cemetary
on the north side of Hanga Roa.

The People

The original name of Easter Island was Te Pito o Te Henua, "navel of the world." The Rapanui believe they are descended from Hotu Matu'a, who arrived by canoe at Anakena Beach from Te Hiva, the ancestral homeland. The statues were raised by magic.

The original inhabitants wore tapa clothing and were tattooed like Marquesans; in fact, there's little doubt that their forebears arrived from Eastern Polynesia. The language of the Rapanui is Austronesian, closely related to all the other languages of Polynesia, with no South American elements.

The Rapanui have interbred liberally with visitors for more than a century, but the Polynesian element is still strong. Half of the 5,000 people on Easter Island are Rapanui or Rapanui-related.

The island receives around 46,000 tourists a year from Chile, Europe, the United States, and Japan, and many Rapanui earn a living as innkeepers, guides, drivers, and craftspeople. Others are employed by the Chilean government.

Over a thousand continentales (mainlanders) also live here, most of them government employees and small shopkeepers. Many mainlanders live in Mataveri south of the airstrip. Some Rapanui believe tourism and migration from the mainland are accelerating too quickly and in August 2009 a group of islanders blocked the airport runway as a protest, forcing LAN Chile to suspend flights temporarily.

Since 1966 the Rapanui have been Chilean citizens, and quite a few have emigrated to the mainland. About 1,200 Rapanui live abroad, most of them in Chile with about 150 on Tahiti. People generally speak Rapanui in private, Spanish in public, French if they've been to Tahiti, and English almost not at all. Spanish is gradually supplanting Rapanui among the young, and it's feared the language will go out of everyday use within a generation or two. Television is diluting the local culture.

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