Culture of Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui (“Great Rapa”) or Te Pito o te Henua (“Navel of the World”) was first settled about
1,500 years ago. The adventurous chief, Hotu Matu’a, led his people to the isolated island of
Rapa Nui where they lived in isolation from the rest of Polynesia for many generations. They
called their home Te pito o te henua — “the navel [or center] of the world,” as the phrase is
often translated; however, it can also mean “the end of the land” — which aptly describes the
distant map-dot. About a century ago a visiting Tahitian thought the shape of the island
reminded him of one of his home islands, Rapa Iti [Small Rapa], and he gave the island its
widely known Polynesian name, Rapa Nui [Big Rapa]. Today, while the people there are
citizens of Chile, they still share a common Polynesian heritage with their “cousins”
throughout the rest of Polynesia.
Rapa Nui is located about 4,300 miles southeast of Hawai’i (it’s actually closer to Antarctica).
It is approximately 2,000 miles to the East of Tahiti and approximately 2,200 miles off the
coast of Chile, making it one of the most isolated islands in the world. Its nearest neighbor,
tiny Pitcairn Island where the mutineers from HMS Bounty and their Polynesian family and
friends settled in 1790, is over 1,200 miles away
Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as it is currently called, is a small volcanic island that encompasses
about 67 square miles of land mass, and at its highest point rises to about 1,700 feet.
According to research and oral traditions, it was once covered with trees, which have since
all been cut down, possibly to aid in the construction and transportation of the almost 900
moai or stone monuments. The main community is located at Hanga Roa (‘Great Bay’).
Thanks to the U.S. space program, NASA extended an existing runway into a full-length
airstrip capable of handling an emergency landing of the space shuttle. Today, Lan Chile, the
official carrier of Chile, provides regularly scheduled commercial air service to Rapa Nui.
Just under 3,000 people live on Rapa Nui today, most of them Polynesians. Like many of the
other Pacific islands during the 18th through early 20th centuries, European diseases and
indentured labor practices decimated the population. For example, as many as 5,000
islanders were carried away to work in Peru, and only a few ever returned. About 1875, 500
more were taken to work the sugar plantations in Tahiti, where a small number of Easter
Islanders remain to this day. At one point in the early 1900s there were only 111 Rapa Nui
people left on the island; and while the slowly growing population has managed to hang on
to much of their Polynesian culture, a great deal was also lost forever. For example, the
people of Rapa Nui may have been the only Polynesians to have something akin to a writing
system in the form of their rongorongo tablets, a few samples of which have survived to
present times in widespread museums. The ability to translate them, however, seems to
have been lost forever.
- History and Discovery
As with all other Polynesian people, the islanders of Rapa Nui left no written history, but
anthropologists believe they came from the area now called French Polynesia about 1,600
years ago. There is no indication of other subsequent contact with Polynesia; but some
anthropologists believe there was also contact with or from South America because of the
stone moai — which they believe could reflect Incan or Meso-American influence, as well as
sweet potatoes — which botanists have proved came from the Americas. Oral tradition says
the years between Hotu Matu’a and first contact with the western world were filled with
growth to a population as large as 10,000, as well as the creation of the moai, but also with
civil warfare, cannibalism and the complete deforestation of the land. Dutch admiral Jacob
Roggeveen came upon Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday, 1722, hence the English name Easter
Island. Rapa Nui is also known by its Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, which is the
transliteration of the English name. Rampant inter-clan warfare began within a few decades
of this contact, and resulted in all of the moai being toppled by 1864. British explorer Capt.
James Cook came in 1774. Other explorers followed — all of whom marveled at the stone
moai. In 1888 Chile annexed the island, which remains a territory of that nation to this day.
In the 1950s the famous anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, whose successful rafting voyage
from Peru to Tahiti a few years earlier suggested a connection between South America and
Polynesia, came to Rapa Nui to study and excavate the moai. His visit probably spurred
subsequent efforts to restore some of the ahu platforms and the moai to their upright
positions. The work continues to this day, with a number of Rapa people involved. For
example, Sergio Rapu, a former governor of the island who previously worked at the
Polynesian Cultural Center, has done extensive archeological and anthropological research
on his homeland.
The predominant language is Rapa Nui and Spanish, with a limited amount of English. The
Rapa Nui language is very similar to other Polynesian languages, particularly Tahitian. The
Rapa greeting word, Iorana, for example, is nearly identical to Tahiti’s greeting. You’ll also
notice that the Rapa word for house, hare, is similar to the Tahitian fare [pronounce both
- Rapa Nui Moai
Since they came to the attention of the outside world, the moai have captured the
fascination of everyone who sees them. These stone statues range from just a few feet high
to almost 80 feet high, and are made from scoria — or hardened volcanic ash. Unfortunately,
scoria is not very durable, and ongoing conservation of the existing moai is a major concern.
In all, the islanders created almost 900 statues, although the majority of those were never
transported or erected on ahu platforms, or even finished.
Many theories have been put forth about why they were carved and how people without
sophisticated machinery could move the heavy megaliths. One island tradition says those
moai that were eventually set up on ahu platforms facing the ocean “walked” there. Those
with more of an engineering orientation say this is feasible, suggesting the people may have
used a series of long ropes and log rollers to tip a moai a little toward one side and then pivot
it forward on the resting point, much as one person can move a heavy object by rocking it
forward without having to pick it up. This and similar theories also suggest that all of the
trees on the island were eventually cut down to provide the log rollers. Another widely
publicized author at one time suggested extraterrestrial beings were somehow involved in
But most of the islanders, including the four carvers who came to the Polynesian Cultural
Center to create the ones here, today believe the moai represent their ancestors. They point
to the fact that no two moai were or are carved the same. The carvers also believe the
capstones, usually made from reddish scoria rock, represent their ancestors’ hair or topknots. Asked why one of the moai at the Cultural Center’s Ahu Tu’u Koihu doesn’t have
“hair,” the lead carver responded (through a translator), “He was bald.”
The carvers told how they each dived and brought pieces of white coral and dark scoria with
them to Hawai’i to make the “eyes” for the moai; and after they placed these eyes into the
sockets they had carved, then the moai were no longer “blind,” but now “could see. The eyes
give life to the moai and, therefore, to the people who were [traditionally] buried under the
The carvers also explained that moai were erected on an ahu platform, which is where their
ancient ancestors buried their ariki or high chiefs. “Today, we interpret these moai as
sculptures of particular ariki who were buried in this ahu. In the Rapa Nui culture when a
high chief passed away, the family or perhaps the wife, would make a moai representing the
person buried in the ahu.” Finally, the four carvers said, “Although this ahu is a partial replica
of Ahu Nau Nau in Rapa Nui, we have chosen to give it the name Ahu Tu’u Koihu. Tu’u Koihu
was an ancient ariki [high chief] from Rapa Nui who initiated the art of carving moai.
- Interesting Facts
Since it was not practical to import scoria from Rapa Nui, or prudent because that volcanic
slag is not very durable, the Rapa Nui carvers who came to the Polynesian Cultural Center
worked with local engineers and a cement factory to create a cement-like compound they
felt was similar to the stones they were used to carving. The carvers then used traditional
toki or adzes as well as modern steel chisels, hammers, and even jackhammers to shape the
ma’ea or stone into moai.