Chronology of Easter Island - Important Events on Rapa Nui

When Did That Happen on Easter Island?

Moai Head in Rubble, Easter Island
Moai Head in Rubble, Easter Island. Phil Whiteside

An absolute agreed-upon Easter Island chronology--a timeline for the events that happened on the island of Rapa Nui--has long been an issue among scholars.

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometers away from its nearest neighbors. The events that happened there make it an icon of environmental degradation and collapse. Easter Island is often given as a metaphor, a dire warning for all of human life on our planet.

Many of the details of its chronology have been hotly debated, particularly the time of arrival and dating and causes of the society's collapse, but recent scholarly research in the 21st century has allowed me the confidence to compile this timeline.

Timeline

Up until recently, ​the dating of all events at Easter Island was under debate, with some researchers arguing the original colonization took place anytime between 700 and 1200 AD. Most were agreed that major deforestation--removal of the palm trees--took place over a period of about 200 years, but again, the timing ranged between 900 and 1400 AD. Firm dating of the initial colonization at 1200 AD has resolved much of that debate.

The following timeline has been compiled from scholarly research on the island since 2010. Citations in parentheses are provided below.

  • 2013 Tourism levels about 70,000 people visit annually (cited in Hamilton)
  • 1960s First commercial airplanes land on the island (Hamilton)
  • 1853 Easter Island made a Chilean National Park (Hamilton)
  • 1903-1953 Entire island used extensively to raise sheep, people moved into the only town (Hamilton)
  • 1888 Rapanui annexed by Chile (Commendador, Hamilton, Moreno-Mayar)
  • 1877 Census shows only 110 people descended from the original colonists left (Hamilton, Comendador, Tyler-Smith)
  • 1860s Peruvian slave trade (Tromp, Moreno-Mayar)
  • 1860s Jesuit missionaries arrive (Stevenson)
  • 1722 Dutch captain Jakob Roggeveen lands on Easter Island, bringing diseases with him. , Easter Island population estimated at 4,000 (Moreno-Mayor)
  • 1700 Deforestation completed (Comendador, Larsen, Stevenson)
  • 1650-1690 Peak in agricultural land use (Stevenson)
  • 1650 Stone quarrying stops (Hamilton)
  • 1550-1650 Highest population levels and most levels of rock gardening (Ladefoged, Stevenson)
  • 1400 Rock gardens first in use (Ladefoged)
  • 1280-1495 First genetic evidence on island for contact with South America (Malaspinas, Moreno-Mayar)
  • 1300s-1650 Gradual intensification of horticultural land use (Stevenson)
  • 1200 Initial colonization by Polynesians (Larsen, Moreno-Mayar, Stevenson)

Most of the outstanding chronology issues about Rapanui involve the processes of collapse: in 1772, when Dutch sailors landed on the island, they reported there were 4,000 people living on Easter Island. Within a century, there were only 110 descendants of the original colonists left on the island.

See the main article on Easter Island for information about the founding and culture of the original inhabits; see the article on Easter Island Collapse for the information about what scholars think happened there.

Sources

See the photo essay Making the Moai on Easter Island for more images

Commendador AS, Dudgeon JV, Finney BP, Fuller BT, and Esh KS. 2013. A stable isotope (d13C and d15N) perspective on human diet on rapa nui (Easter Island) ca. AD 1400-1900. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 152(2):173-185. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22339

Hamilton S. 2013. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)'s Stone Worlds. Archaeology International 16:96-109.

Hamilton S, Seager Thomas M, and Whitehouse R. 2011. Say it with stone: constructing with stones on Easter Island. World Archaeology 43(2):167-190. doi: 10.1080/00438243.2011.586273

Ladefoged TN, Flaws A, and Stevenson CM. 2013. The distribution of rock gardens on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as determined from satellite imagery. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(2):1203-1212.

doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.006

Malaspinas A-S, Lao O, Schroeder H, Rasmussen M, Raghavan M, Moltke I, Campos PF, Sagredo FS, Rasmussen S, Gonçalves VF et al. 2014. Two ancient human genomes reveal Polynesian ancestry among the indigenous Botocudos of Brazil. Current Biology 24(21):R1035-R1037. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.078

Moreno-Mayar JV, Rasmussen S, Seguin-Orlando A, Rasmussen M, Liang M, Flåm Siri T, Lie Benedicte A, Gilfillan Gregor D, Nielsen R, Thorsby E et al. 2014. Genome-wide Ancestry Patterns in Rapanui Suggest Pre-European Admixture with Native Americans. Current Biology 24(21):2518-2525. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.057

Stevenson CM, Puleston CO, Vitousek PM, Chadwick OA, Haoa S, and Ladefoged TN. 2015. Variation in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) land use indicates production and population peaks prior to European contact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1420712112

Tromp M, and Dudgeon JV. 2015. Differentiating dietary and non-dietary microfossils extracted from human dental calculus: the importance of sweet potato to ancient diet on Rapa Nui. Journal of Archaeological Science 54(0):54-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.024

Tyler-Smith C. 2014. Human Genetics: Pre-Columbian Pacific Contact. Current Biology 24(21):R1038-R1040. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.019