The indigenous people called the island Rapa Nui; the Spanish explorers called it Isla de Pascua, Spanish for the name bestowed by the Dutch “discoverer,” Easter Island. Easter Island is currently a province of Chile. The iconic symbols of the place, recognized worldwide, are the moai, gigantic heads carved from volcanic rock.
The source of the rock from which the moai were carved is easily identified, but the method of distributing them around the island is only one of the major mysteries of the place. The largest of the 887 moai identified to date weighed 82 tons. Contrary to the impressions given in tourist materials, most of the moai do not look out to sea, but rather inland. One of several possible translations of the indigenous name of the place is “navel of the world,” so perhaps the inland-facing moai were navel-gazing or perhaps the inhabitants were making a political statement.
Another major mystery is where the people on the island came from if all the peopling of the Americas happened by walking across the Bering Strait during certain windows of time when that was possible. Carbon dating of sites on mainland South America have been making hash of that hypothesis for years. As older evidence of humans farther south keeping coming out, the theory of a stroll across a dry Bering Strait is less credible. Whether the last dry opportunity was 12,000 years ago or 20,000, evidence of human habitation is getting too old for the theory.
Easter Island is about 2,300 miles from mainland South America and 1,100 miles from the nearest inhabited island. People who could travel such distances by water could surely manage a little over 50 miles from Siberia to Alaska even in the much less hospitable Bering Sea. The crossing has been made in modern times by kayak.
The question of how much seafaring indigenous people could manage has been colored by the astronomical and mathematical abilities necessary to cover great distances out of sight of land. Since the Spanish burned the Mayan libraries, it took a long time for Europeans to understand that mathematics and astronomy were quite advanced in the Americas even if metallurgy was not.
A new DNA study of the indigenous population of Easter Island noted in Current Biology showed substantial interbreeding between islanders and Indians on mainland South America between 1300 and 1500 C.E.
The European “discovery” of Rapa Nui did not happen until 1722, and the peopling of the island happened several centuries before the genetic exchange with the mainland.
The evidence suggests that Polynesians settled the island originally but after that there was substantial trade with Indians who already lived on the mainland. The sweet potato was first domesticated in the Andean highlands and spread westward across the Pacific, according to a study reported in Science back in 2010 as well as two subsequent studies in 2013 and this year. Chickens were thought to have been introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, but Archaeology reported radiocarbon dating of chicken bones recovered on a Chilean beach between 1321 and 1407, well before Mr. Columbus got lost.
The evidence gets stronger all the time that South American Indians and Polynesians had as much competence at seafaring as Europeans, so strong that it’s a wonder that none of the moai discovered so far is thumbing his Polynesian-Indian nose.