Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin established an original tradition of monumental sculpture and erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivaled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.
Rapa Nui National Park is a protected Chilean wildlife area located in Easter Island, which concentrates the legacy of the Rapa Nui culture. This culture displayed extraordinary characteristics that are expressed in singular architecture and sculpture within the Polynesian context.
Easter Island, the most remote inhabited island on the planet, is 2,300 mi (3,700 km) from the coast of continental Chile and has an area of over 41,000 acres (16,600 ha) while the World Heritage property occupies an area of approximately 17,000 acres (7,000 ha), including four nearby islets.
The island was colonized toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era by a small group of settlers from Eastern Polynesia, whose culture manifested itself between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries in great works such as the ahu (ceremonial platforms) and carved moai (colossal statues) representing ancestors. Rapa Nui National Park most prominent attributes are the archaeological sites. It is estimated that there are about 900 statues, more than 300 ceremonial platforms and thousands of structures related to agriculture, funeral rites, housing and production, and other types of activities.
Prominent among the archaeological pieces are the moai that range in height from 6 to 65 ft (2 m to 20 m) and are for the most part carved from the yellow–brown lava tuff, using simple picks (toki) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes. There are many kinds of them and of different sizes: those in the process of being carved, those in the process of being moved to their final destinations (the ahu) and those being torn down and erected. The quarries (Rano Raraku and others) are invaluable evidence of the process of their carving.
The ahu vary considerably in size and form; the most colossal is the Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and leveled area in front of the platform. Also extremely valuable are the rock art sites (pictographs and petroglyphs), which include a large variety of styles, techniques and motifs. Other archaeological sites are the caves, which also contain rock art.
There is also a village of ceremonial nature named Orongo which stands out because of its location and architecture. While it has not attracted as much attention, the housing and productive structures are of extreme interest.
Orongo is a stone village and ceremonial center at the southwestern tip of Easter Island. It consists of a collection of low, sod-covered, windowless, round-walled buildings with even lower doors positioned on the high south-westerly tip of the large volcanic caldera called Rano Kau.
The original cult of the ancestor was replaced by the cult of the man-bird, which has as exceptional testimony the ceremonial village of Orongo, located at the Rano Kau volcano. Fifty-four semi-subterranean stone houses with elliptical floor plans complement this sacred place, profusely decorated with petroglyphs alluding to both the man-bird and fertility. This cult would see its end in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Below Orongo, on one side, a 300 m (985 ft barren cliff face drops down to the ocean; on the other, a more gentle but still very steep grassy slope leads down to a freshwater marsh inside the high caldera.
According to some studies, the depletion of natural resources had brought about an ecological crisis and the decline of the ancient Rapa Nui society by the 16th century, which led to decline and to the spiritual transformation in which these megalithic monuments were destroyed.
Colonization, the introduction of livestock, the confinement of the original inhabitants to smaller areas, the dramatic effect of foreign diseases and, above all, slavery, reduced the population of Rapa Nui to little more than a hundred. Currently, the island is inhabited by descendants of the ancient Rapa Nui as well as immigrants from diverse backgrounds, accounting for a significant mixed population.