The most isolated island in the world—2,985 km (1,850 mi) from its nearest populated neighbor and 3,700 km (2,295 mi) off the Chilean coast—Easter Island was uninhabited until around 1,500 years ago. That's when, according to local legend, King Hotu Matu'a and his extended family landed on a beach on the northern shore. Exactly where they came from is still a mystery. Norwegian explorer
Thor Heyerdahl believed they came from South America and, to prove the journey was possible, set sail in 1947 from Peru in a balsa-wood boat called the Kon-Tiki. Most archaeologists, however, believe the original inhabitants were of Polynesian descent.
Its earliest inhabitants called the island Te Pito o Te Henua—the navel of the world. They cleared vast forests for cultivation and fished the surrounding waters for tuna and swordfish. To communicate they created rongo-rongo, a beautiful script and the only written language in all of Polynesia. But their greatest achievement was the hundreds of sad-eyed stone statues called moai they erected to honor their ancestors.
Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to encounter the island, gave it the name most people recognize when he landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722. He found a thriving community of thousands but, in 1774, British Captain James Cook found only several hundred impoverished people and many moai had been toppled from their platforms. What happened during those 50 years? Archaeologists believe overpopulation devastated the island and warfare broke out between clans, who knocked down the moai belonging to their opponents.
This period pales in comparison to the devastation the island suffered in 1862, when slave traders from Peru captured more than 1,000 islanders. Forced to work in guano mines on the mainland, most of them died of hunger or disease and when the few that remained alive were returned to their island, they spread smallpox to the rest of the population, killing all but 110 people. Everyone who could read the rongo-rongo script died, and to this day no one has been able to decipher the language.
With the collapse of Spanish influence in South America, several countries began to covet Easter Island. In 1888 a Chilean ship raced westward and claimed the island. Chile leased the entire island to a British sheep company, which restricted the islanders from venturing outside the little town of Hanga Roa. It left in 1953, but life didn't really begin to improve for islanders until an airport was constructed in 1967. Tourism is now the biggest industry on Rapa Nui—the name locals give the island (known as Isla de Pascua by mainland Chileans)—and most of the 5,000 residents are involved in this endeavor in some way.