How Easter Island Works

Settling Easter Island

Forbidding cliffs on Easter Island's jagged coastline.
Forbidding cliffs on Easter Island's jagged coastline.
Michal Wozniak/

Easter Island is a very small parcel of land and one of the most remote places in the world. Chile is the closest neighboring country, but at nearly 2,299 miles (3,700 kilometers) away, it's not exactly a next-door neighbor. Easter Island is only 64 square miles (165.76 square kilometers) and is shaped like a triangle [source: Mysterious Places]. Like many Oceanic islands, Easter Island was created from volcanic eruptions. In fact, its largest volcano, Rano Kau, can be seen from space.

The island's blue waters and white sandy beaches may seem idyllic, but don't bank on honeymooning there just yet -- more prominent landforms range from massive, jagged cliffs to dark caves and volcanic craters.

The Rano Kau volcano on Easter Island is visible from space. The Rano Kau volcano on Easter Island is visible from space.
The Rano Kau volcano on Easter Island is visible from space.

Based on soil samples and dating methods, scientists suspect that the island was once a green paradise with as many as 16 million palm trees [source: Fischer]. Millions of years before the Polynesians arrived, life on the island was scarce. The surrounding ocean waters are low in nutrients, so no coral reefs or many fish could be sustained there. Inland, there were only insects, mollusks and lizards. Seabirds were the island's liveliest visitors, perhaps even depositing seeds that grew into the dense palm forest.

The Polynesians introduced new flora and fauna. On their voyage, they brought provisions like bananas, sweet potatoes and taro (a leafy vegetable), which they planted on the island. They also brought a few chickens and learned to deep-sea fish for porpoises and dolphins that swam nearby, but their diet was primarily vegetarian.

Like their canoes, the Rapanui built their huts in an elliptical shape. The Rapanui kept busy by adjusting to life on the island and expanding their population. While we can't be sure how many islanders came over on the voyage to the island from Polynesia, we're certain that the population expanded rapidly. By 1150 A.D., there were 7,000 to 9,000 Rapanui living on Easter Island. Some scholars suggest that early Rapanui inbred, which contributed to a sharp population increase as well as some anatomical anomalies among the islanders: It wasn't uncommon for a Rapanui to have six toes on each foot [source: Island Heritage].


They may have put thousands of miles between themselves and Polynesia, but the Ra­panui fostered Polynesian culture in their new land. In a traditional political system, tribal chiefs led the Rapanui, and they worked to foster a sense of mana, political and spiritual authority. One important way that mana was instilled was through arts and worship that honored the gods and ancestors. Among these art forms were tattooing, petroglyphs (rock carvings), music, dance and string figures, which were used in storytelling. But their most significant artistic endeavor is indisputably the moai.

In the next section, we'll learn about the creation process behind these Goliaths.