The island was settled by Polynesians some time between 700 to 1200 CE. It gets its name from Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who discovered the island on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. The Polynesian name for the island, however, is Rapa Nui, or Big Rapa, named after the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands group which has the same general shape.
Easter Island is volcanic. Three large volcanoes give the island a somewhat triangular shape. The island is part of a volcanic chain that formed as the Nazca Plate floated over a mantle plume known as the Easter hotspot. A hotspot creates a string of islands and seamounts as a tectonic plate moves over the top of the mantle plume. The Hawaiian Islands is another example of an island chain formed by a hotspot.
The Easter Island moai statues were carved out of volcanic ash, or tuff from the Rano Raraku volcano. The inhabitants used hand tools and chisels to carve the 887 statues, which average about 4 meters tall. The largest, Paro, is 9.8 meters tall and weighs 74.3 metric tons. Almost half the statues still remain at the quarry. Mystery still surrounds the statues, as the people who carved them were nearly wiped out by famine from drought and soil erosion, war, disease, and slavery. When discovered in 1722, the estimated population of the island was around 4,000, and by 1887, just over 100 islanders remained. In recent times, the population has climbed back to nearly 4,000. Much of the history and traditions of the early inhabitants have been lost.
See our past Earth Story article about Easter Island:
(November 27, 2012)
Image of a moai quarry on the slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, Easter Island courtesy of Rivi, Wikimedia commons