How did such a tiny island become inhabited? While Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition theorized that the island was settled from South America, the most accepted answer until recently was that the first islanders arrived from the Marquesas, as early as the 4th or 5th century. More recent works suggest that the first islanders arrived either from the Marquesas, the Mangarevas, the Cook Islands or Pitcairn Island around the 8th century.
According to legend, the initial settlers were led by King Hotu Matua (matua is a Polynesian word for 'ancestor' and means 'father' on Rapa Nui), who came from the east and landed at Anakena on the island's north coast. Some experts estimate that Hotu Matua arrived around AD 450, though the earliest archaeological evidence of people dates from around 800.
Recent research suggests that, although islanders were few after Hotu Matua first landed at Anakena, their numbers grew over the centuries, first slowly and then rapidly. Intensively cultivated gardens yielded an agricultural surplus sufficient to support a priestly class - the artisans and laborers who produced the moai (giant statues) and their ahu (ceremonial platform) - and even a warrior class.
However, there were limits to this development and sheer numbers eventually threatened the available resources. Conflict over land and resources erupted in warfare by the late 17th century, only shortly before the European arrival, and the population started to decline. Population estimates for the early 19th century range from 4000 to 20, 000.
Dissension between different clans led to bloody wars and cannibalism, and many moai were toppled from their ahu. Natural disasters - earthquakes and tsunamis - may have also contributed to the damage. The only moai standing today have been restored during the last century.
Spanish vessels entered the Pacific from South America in the early 16th century but on Easter Sunday, 1722, a Dutch expedition under Admiral Jacob Roggeveen brought the first Europeans to set foot on Rapa Nui.
Not until 1770 did Europeans again visit Rapa Nui, when a Spanish party from Peru under Don Felipe González de Haedo claimed the island for Spain and renamed it San Carlos. At the time, most islanders inhabited caves, while others lived in ellip- tical boat-shaped houses. The islanders' only weapons were sharp obsidian knives. The absence of goods and metal implements suggested no commerce with the outside world, but gardens with sugar cane, sweet potatoes, taro and yams provided a healthy subsistence.
In 1774 the celebrated Englishman Captain James Cook led the next European expedition to land on Rapa Nui. Cook, familiar with the people of the Society Islands, Tonga and New Zealand, concluded that the inhabitants of Rapa Nui belonged to the same general lineage. His account is the first to mention that, although some moai still stood and carried their topknots, others had fallen and their ahu were damaged.
Only one other 18th-century European, the Frenchman La Perouse, visited Rapa Nui in 1786, coming from Chile. In 1804 a Russian visitor reported more than 20 moai still standing, including some at the southern coastal site of Vinapu. Existing accounts from ensuing years suggest another period of destruction, so that perhaps only a handful of moai stood a decade later.
Whether or not the people of Rapa Nui experienced a period of self-inflicted havoc, their discovery by the outside world nearly resulted in their annihilation. By the late 18th century European and North American entrepreneurs saw the Pacific as an unexploited 'resource frontier.' First came the whalers, followed by planters who set out to satisfy an increasing European demand for tropical commodities such as rubber, sugar and coffee.
Then came slavers who either kidnapped Polynesians or induced them to sign contracts to work in mines and plantations in lands as remote as Australia and Peru. The worst example of this occurred in 1862, when Peruvian slavers made a ruthless raid on Rapa Nui and took about a thousand islanders - including the king - to work the guano deposits on Peru's Chincha Islands. After Bishop Jaussen of Tahiti protested to the French representative at Lima, Peruvian authorities ordered the return of the islanders to their homeland, but disease and hard labor had already killed about 90% of them. On the return voyage, smallpox killed most of the rest, and the handful who survived brought back an epidemic that decimated the remaining inhabitants of the island, leaving only a few hundred traumatized survivors. The knowledge and culture lost has never been fully regained.
Another disaster came in the form of the Catholic missionaries. In the mid-1860s they converted the few remaining islanders, suppressing and degrading local customs and practices.
Commercial exploitation of the island began in 1870 when the French adventurer Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier introduced the wool trade to Rapa Nui. Importing sheep, he intended to transform the entire island into a ranch and expel the islanders to the plantations of Tahiti. The missionaries, who planned to ship the islanders to mission lands in southern Chile or the Mangarevas, opposed his claims to ultimate sovereignty over the island and its people.
Dutroux-Bornier raided the missionary settlements and forced the missionaries to evacuate. Most reluctantly accepted transportation to Tahiti and the Mangarevas, leaving about a hundred people on the island. Dutroux-Bornier ruled until the remaining islanders killed him in 1877.
By 1897 Rapa Nui had fallen under the control of a single wool company, which became the island's de facto government, continuing the wool trade until the middle of the 20th century.
In 1953 the government took charge of the island, continuing the imperial rule to which islanders had been subject for nearly a century.
Rapa Nui remained under military rule until the mid-1960s, followed by a brief period of civilian government until the military coup of 1973 once again brought direct military control. In the 1960s the islanders' grievances included unpaid labor, travel restrictions, suppression of the Rapanui language, ineligibility to vote (Chilean universal suffrage did not extend to Rapa Nui) and arbitrary naval administration. However, 1967 was a turning point; the establishment of a regular commercial air link between Santiago and Tahiti, with Rapa Nui as a refueling stop, opened up the island to the world and brought many benefits to Rapa Nui people.
Despite being 3700km from the mainland, Rapa Nui is considered part of the region of Valparaíso. Some islanders speak hopefully of autonomy, and even independence, but ongoing economic reliance on mainland Chile renders this unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The main claim is for the return of native lands. Native Rapanui control almost no land outside Hanga Roa. A national park declared in 1935 comprises more than a third of the island, and nearly all the remainder belongs to Chile.
Native groups have asked the Chilean government and the UN to return the park to aboriginal hands, or at least to give them control of the resources to preserve the heritage sites. In late 1996 the Frei administration agreed to return about 1500 hectares of land to islanders from the state development company Corfo.
The Rapanui are also concerned about the development and control of the tourism industry. Tourism is keeping up, but not booming - approximately 40, 000 visitors come to the island each year.