The arrival of the first Polynesians to Rapa Nui

by Cristian Moreno Pakarati – Historiador / Historian

The origin of settlement on Rapa Nui is one of the outstanding enigmas still being discussed among archaeologists and academics in general. Although the origin of the first migrants to Eastern Polynesia is fairly well determined, the nature and flow of further migrations and the timing of the arrival of the first humans to Rapa Nui remain a mystery. The only two sources with which we can count for information on the most remote past are archaeological investigation and the oral traditions and folklore of the local community.
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The most recent archaeological evidence offers two interpretations of Polynesian colonization on Rapa Nui: 1) Early Settlement, proposed by the co-authors Paul Bahn and John Flenley and the Swedish writer Helena Martinsson-Wallin, who consider dates between the years 300 A.D. and 700 A.D. They base their theory on the available radiocarbon datings (the first of these, dating with Carbon-14, were done during the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition of 1955-1956), on obsidian hydration and on pollen registries; 2) Late Settlement, which is principally defended by the archaeologist Terry Hunt, who has come to a date around 1250 A.D. based on the premise that previous radiocarbon datings were calibrated using older, unreliable methods and not that known as “chronometric hygiene”. The problem with the latter interpretation is the short amount of time that it allows for the development and evolution of a culture as specialized as the ancient Rapanui. Today, most authors prefer not to “put their hand in the fire” and tend to indicate that the Island was settled within a time range, especially that of “800-1200 A.D.”
Undoubtedly, the Polynesian discovery of Rapa Nui involved a good amount of luck, even considering the superb navigational abilities of those who undertook the voyage. In the most important scientific work in this respect, which are the papers of Professor Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland, complemented by the large scale archaeological work of authors such as Patrick Kirch, Rapa Nui was considered part of the south-eastern navigational route within the South Pacific, connecting the Gambier Islands archipelago, through Ducie, Henderson, Pitcairn and Oeno. Contact with the rest of Eastern Polynesia was maintained until 1300 A.D., and perhaps even later but less frequently. The end of external contact and the period of extreme isolation in which the Islanders developed the megalithic focus and the cult of migrating sea birds was caused by a decrease in long distance Polynesian navigation during the period called “The Little Ice Age”.
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This extended from the decade of 1640 through to 1690 with episodes of global cooling that caused a general crisis with political, economic and social changes, to the point that the 17th Century has often been called “the Doomed Century”.

Among the folklore, the sources are the most ancient legends that were collected in the period of the French missionary priests, with additional notes made by foreign researchers from the 1870s up to the present day. These tales relate that the first organized migration from Polynesia was led by an ariki (chief) named Hotu Matu’a, and came from a place called Marae Renga, located within a now disappeared land called Hiva, which today is suspected to be the Marquesas Islands or Mangareva. To complicate the story, before the arrival of the chief, he is supposed to have sent an expedition of 6 or 7 explorers who, when they arrived to the Island, found two men: Nga Tavake a Te Rona and Te Ohiro a Te Runu. A possible previous migration? If we add to that the well known legendary arrival of the Hanau E’epe people in later time, the number of migrations could have been significantly larger.

Folklore tells us nothing about the date of the arrival of the first Polynesians. However, Father Sebastian Englert, the parish priest from the 1930s to the 1960s, was one of the few who attempted to calculate a date utilizing the family trees of those closest to the royal Miru clan, in particular that of the Ika family which seems to be the most complete. The date of arrival obtained through this method would be approximately 1400 A.D. This date is close to that of the Late Settlement theory, but it is not reliable if we consider that Hotu Matu’a and his people were not the first to arrive on Rapa Nui and that long-distance Polynesian navigation continued actively until, at least, the 15th Century.

The most detailed versions of the legends of the early Polynesian voyages to the Island were compiled by the Easter Islanders at the beginning of the 20th Century in a series of manuscripts, which were later presented to the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition in 1955-1956. Today the legends have been renovated and reinvented, especially to accommodate the arrival of massive tourism to Rapa Nui, with some of the ancient legends now almost unrecognizable. Many locals have begun to interpret in a “mythical” and personal form some of the archaeological remains in an attempt to find a connection to the ancient legends. An example is the recent association of the moai of Ahu Akivi with the famous Seven Explorers, a tale that many tour guides pass on to the tourists, in an attempt to combine the “mythical thought” with logical reality, but blurring the lines between the two. This need has arisen as a result of Western European influence in the manner of thinking of the present-day Rapanui, which is more and more oriented toward “logical thought”. However, they still retain an enormous pride in the traditions of their land, making it impossible to reject their belief in their myths and legends.

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