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Easter Island: Saving the Rapanui

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he Rapanui of Easter Island are facing extinction. They claim their colonial masters in Chile aren’t doing enough to ensure their survival. Easter Island, also Rapa Nui (Spanish Isla de Pascua), triangular-shaped island belonging to Chile, located in the South Pacific Ocean, 3,700 km (2,300 mi) west of the Chilean coast. The island is formed by 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 Polynesians and Chileans have intermarried.

he island was named by a Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, who became the first European to discover the island 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. It is the richest site of the megaliths (see Megalithic Monuments) of the Pacific island groups and the only source of evidence of a form of writing in Polynesia.

ery little is known about the people who made the megaliths. The original inhabitants of Easter Island were Polynesians who migrated to the island beginning around ad 400. Descendants of these Polynesian settlers erected the statues between 800 and 1600. The largest of the existing 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.

ore than 880 statues remain on the island; 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 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. Area of the island, 117 sq km (45 sq mi); population, 2,095 (1989 estimate).

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