Finding Rapa Nui

We'll be off at the end of the week on a trip that will take us to Istanbul and Kyiv, so we'll close the book for now on Easter Island. Here's just a portion of an article, more of which will show up later in a much longer form.


Oral tradition has it that Rapa Nui’s first colonizers arrived in two ships, one led by Hotu Matu’a, the other by Ava Reipua, either Hotu Matu’a’s wife or sister, probably in double canoes, although petroglyphs like the one at Orango are the only evidence.

The little museum outside Hanga Roa town points out that navigation solely by the stars has long been supplanted by charts, science and precision, except in Micronesia, where the by-the-stars tradition is still handed down orally.

The stars needn’t have been an ancient Polynesian navigator’s only tools, however. If they’d spent the previous centuries sailing from island chain to island chain, farther and farther out from indonesia to the Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, the Societies and Tuamotus and Hawaii, a fair encyclopedia would have accreted to their collected body of their lore. There are many ways the ancient navigator would have been able to see land before he could see it.

Strictly speaking, for discovery, a precise location isn’t required. The curve of the horizon limits islands’ visibility to a distance of about 60 miles at best. At 510 meters, Rapa Nui’s highest peak was spotted from 35 sea miles by a 1882 German expedition.

While albatrosses tend to want to stay at sea, others return to nest in the late afternoons, and in ancient times Easter Island attracted great quantities of sea birds. Navigators would have watched them keenly.

To the lifelong seafarer, islands set up detectable variations in wave patterns and ocean swells. Clouds may form into towering cumulus banks over mountain peaks, and the practiced eye can even detect changes in the color of the sky due to reflection off land. Floating logs, seaweed and other detritus also signal land.

The little museum has decided that means Polynesian sailors could “see” land within 32 to 48 kilometers before they could actually see it on the horizon, and within hundreds of kilometers for an archipelago. That sounds over-precise and too scientific but I’d guess, if you count that as true on either side of an island it’s fair to estimate a nearly 100 kilometer “footprint” and that would expand the chances of spying this little 16 K long island a whole lot.


There may have been a visit here prior to the early eighteenth century, but if there was it has gone unrecorded. In the world of 1700s Europeans had all the sparkle dust. Europe flourished at home and abroad. In England, Sir Isaac Newton was elected president of the Royal Society in 1703. Johann Pachelbel, the German composer, died in 1706, the year Benjamin Franklin was born.

William Dampier, the first person to circumnavigate the world three times, was out reconnoitering northwest Australia for the British crown. Pierre Lemoyne was founding the first French settlements in the western Gulf of Mexico.

Reasons of commerce urged sailors ever farther out into the sea. Ferdinand Magellan had already sailed past Easter Island in the service of the King of Spain two hundred years before. But there was no reason he, or anybody, really, should happen upon a spot so tiny, random and remote.

Until Jacob Rogeveen did, sailing in the service of the Dutch East India Company, on Easter Sunday in 1722.

Survey the horizon, as you can from most any point on the island, and imagine the islanders’ awe. Imagine your life delineated by a water horizon, when aliens appeared out there with technology you’d never seen, aliens who looked like you’d never seen, and neither had your fathers or their fathers or even the ancestors who told the founding legends.

Until that day, for all your life you’ve never even seen a stranger. You know everybody in the world personally. Until right now. That must have been a big day.

Likewise, if you stand on the little canoe landing outside Hanga Roa town at the foot of Ahu Vai Uri and gaze up at the moai, you can imagine that probably the awe went both ways.

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