This tiny island (63 square miles/163 square kilometers) is the easternmost reach of Polynesia, off the coast of Chile in South America. Rapa Nui is most famous for its distinctive monolithic statues called moai. Not only are the moai a striking example of sculpture, but their construction and placement were instrumental in the history of the island.
Rapa Nui was first settled by people around 900 AD, with oral tradition crediting Hotu Matu'a as the founder, leading a canoe expedition from the Marquesas Islands. There is a raft of colorful alternate theories for the identity of the first settlers, but these are unsupported by the archaeological and historiographical evidence on the island. Human settlement, and most notably the introduction of the Polynesian rat, caused considerable ecological damage to the island. Construction of the moai was a labor- and material-intensive affair, and directly or indirectly responsible for the deforestation of the island. The human population had stranded themselves on a tiny rock in the middle of a vast ocean.
Archaeology and oral history describe a grim time that follows, as food sources were insufficient to reliably feed the entire population. Violence swept the island, as evinced by human remains that date to this period. Moai-building ended, and the “Birdman” cult of the god Makemake arose to assume leadership and apparent primacy in religion. Europeans first recorded the island on Easter Sunday in 1722 (hence its alternate name of Easter Island). They recorded the remarkable moai and ecological damage—there were no trees over ten feet tall on the island. Sometime between 1722 and 1860, the majority of the moai were toppled from their platforms, presumably the result of social upheaval.
In 1862, slavers raided the island, killing or enslaving hundreds, and transporting them to South America. There, most of the islanders died due to exposure to diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis. Only a few returned, and they brought smallpox back to the island, where it ravaged the population further. Christian missionaries first landed on the island in 1864, resulting in destruction of traditional clothing, practices, and cultural and religious objects. Much of the island's land was seized or bought for a pittance, and the island converted over to sheep pasturing, with islanders being forced to yield by violence.
By 1877 there were just over a hundred people left living on Rapa Nui. Ninety percent of the island's surviving population had died or fled in just over a decade. The heritage of the island, including the ability to read a unique system of writing called rongorongo, and the history of the moai and their construction, was lost forever.
Today Rapa Nui is a protectorate of Chile, and most of the island exists as a national park. Today the population can trace their heritage to a mix of settlers and Polynesians. Its history serves as a grim warning about the dangers of unintended ecological devastation, and its colonial history recapitulates the worst practices of that era. The moai have been restored to their ahu platforms, and are now UNESCO Heritage objects, but they remain as silent as ever to what they have witnessed over the centuries.