Collection Description

Culture Name

Rapa Nui

Culture Description

Rapa Nui is the name of the people, place and Polynesian language of the original inhabitants of Easter Island, Chile. Traditionally, the population was divided into ten stratified clans with the famous large stone statues perhaps serving as markers of clan territories as well as chiefly portraits. Although settlement was coastal, subsistence was primarily agricultural. Modern subsistence supplements protein from fishing with herding of sheep and cattle, and paid employment is found within the government and the tourism industry, the latter sparking a cultural revival.


Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.


Oceania --Polynesia



OWC Code


Number of Documents


Note: Select the Collection Documents tab above to browse documents.

Number of Pages


Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication, and title where necessary.

Few investigators can resist the siren calls of the monumental anthropomorphic statues ( moai) found across the island, and the evidence for the Birdman Cult at Orongo on the southwestern point. The former are believed to date from the start of the second millennium AD to circa 1600, and the latter from that time until 1868, more than a century of after the first Euro-American contact. Nearly all reconstructions of precontact culture rely to some degree on historical accounts of the Rapa Nui and, in some cases, comparison with other Polynesian islands (esp. Lavachery 1937; Routledge 1919; Métraux 1945; and, focusing on the Birdman Cult: Routledge 1917, 1920; Lee 1986). Three are more purely archaeological studies (van Hoek 2000; Mann et al. 2007; Shepardson 2005). Two documents consider artifacts pertaining to the early postcontact period (Pollard et al. 2010; Kaeppler 1981). Three others are accounts of visitors during that period (Anonymous 1908 "Journal of…", 1908 "Narrative of…"; Cooke 1899). Métraux (1940) provides a transitional ethnography, adding direct observation to historical reconstruction. Three studies traverse portions of the modern period of intensive contact with outsiders (after 1885), with examinations of historical data on distinct topics (Drapkin 1935, Makihara 2004, González Martin et al. 2005). Two documents focus more exclusively on the cultural upheavals of the late twentieth century (Ferdon 1957, Stanton 2000).

Accounts by eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers recount early cultural encounters with the Rapa Nui and describe their island (Anonymous 1908 "Journal of…", 1908 "Narrative of…"; Cooke 1899). Métraux (1940), a member of the 1934-35 Franco-Belgian Expedition to Easter Island, provides an early ethnography incorporating some historical reflections. He also wrote a history of the Island, discussing various theories, including his own, on the origin of the precontact stone statues and petroglyphs (Métraux 1945). Another early theory about Rapa Nui cultural origins is found in Lavachery (1937). Ferdon (1957) supplements observations of contemporary customs with a brief history of the island. Drapkin (1935) provides a demographic study and report. Routledge wrote extensively about Rapa Nui culture, including an archeological survey of early settlements (Routledge 1920), a reconstruction of the Birdman Cult ceremony (Routledge 1917), and a reconstruction of the culture as a whole, with a theory of the origins of the stone statuary (Routledge 1919). Lee (1986) also writes about the Birdman Cult. More recent studies examine change in Rapa Nui identity and cultural revival (Stanton 2000) and the revival of the Rapa Nui language and rise of ethnic politics (Makihara 2004). Studies of Rapa Nui art include an examination of the meaning and function of prehistoric rock cupules (van Hoek 2000), changes in rock art following Euro-American contact (Pollard et al. 2010), and protohistoric wood and barkcloth sculptures (Kaeppler 1981). Paleoecological studies include a report on indigenous agricultural practices (Stevenson et al. 1999) and an examination of early climate and flora based on pollen samples (Mann et al. 2007). A spatial survey of moai supports Routledge’s (1919) hypothesis for a function as clan boundary markers (Shepardson 2005). An analysis of marriage records by González Martin et al. (2005) is revealing of Rapa Nui clan structure and marriage rules.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Ian Skoggard

Ahu – ceremonial platform – – use RELIGIOUS AND EDUCATIONAL STRUCTURES (346)

Colonial diglossia – positive evaluation and adopted use of dominant group’s language – – use SPEECH (191) with SOCIOLINGUISTICS (195)

Consanguinity – use REGULATION OF MARRIAGE (582)

Cupule – hemispherical stone carving – – use VISUAL ARTS (5311)

Mata – clan – – use LOCALIZED KIN GROUPS (618)

Moai, Moai kavakava – statues – – use VISUAL ARTS (5311)

Syncretic language – form of inter- and intra-sentential code switching – – use SPEECH (191) with SOCIOLINGUISTICS (195)

Tohunga – priests – – use PRIESTHOOD (793) with CHIEF EXECUTIVE (643)

Indexing Notes by

Ian Skoggard

Close Box