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Hotu Matu'a was the legendary first settler and ariki mau ("supreme chief" or "king") of Easter Island.[1] Hotu Matua and his two canoe (or one double hulled canoe) colonizing party were Polynesians from the now unknown land of Hiva (probably the Marquesas). They landed at Anakena beach and his people spread out across the island, sub divided it between clans claiming descent from his sons, and lived for more than a thousand years in their isolated island home at the southeastern tip of the Polynesian Triangle.


Polynesians first came to Rapa Nui/Easter Island sometime between 300 CE and 800 CE. These are the common elements of oral history that have been extracted from island legends. Linguistic, DNA and Pollen analysis all point to a Polynesian first settlement of the island at that time, but it is unlikely that other details can be verified. [2]

During this era the Polynesians were colonising islands acroass a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Hotu Matua led his people from Hiva. Linguistic analysis comparing Rapanui to other Polynesian languages suggests this was the Marquesas Islands.


It is said that Hau-Maka had a dream in which his spirit travelled to a far country, to help look for new land for King Hotu Matu'a. In the dream, his spirit travelled to the Mata ki te Rangi (Eyes that look to the Sky). The island has also been called "Te Pito 'o te Käinga", which means "the Center of the Earth." Both islands are commonly said to be Easter Island.

When Hau-Maka woke, he told the King. The King then ordered seven men to travel to the island from Hiva (a mythical land) to investigate. After they found the land, they returned to Hiva. The King and many more travelled to this new island. [3]

Theories and controversy[]

Tu'u ko Iho[]

Resemblance of the name to an early Mangarevan founder god Atu Motua ("Father Lord") has made some historians suspect that Hotu Matua was added to Easter Island mythology only in the 1860s, along with adopting the Mangarevan language. The "real" founder would have been Tu'u ko Iho, who became just a supporting character in th Hotu Matu'a centric legends.[4]

Date of First settlement[]

There is considerable uncertainty about the accuracy of this legend as well as the date of settlement. Published literature suggests the island was settled around 300-400 CE, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. Some scientists say that Easter Island was not inhabited until 700-800 CE. This date range is based on glottochronological calculations and on three radiocarbon dates from charcoal that appears to have been produced during forest clearance activities.[5] Whilst a recent study, with radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material, proves the island was settled by 1200 CE.[6] This seems to be supported by the latest information on island's deforestation that could have started around the same time. [7] Any earlier human activity seems to be insignificant or low impact.

South America or Polynesia[]

The Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl pointed out many cultural similarities between Easter Island and South American Indian cultures which he suggested might have resulted from some settlers arriving also from the continent.[8] According to local legends, a group of long-eared[9] unknown men called as hanau epe[10] had arrived on the island sometime after Polynesians, introducing the stone carving technology and attempting to enslave the local Polynesians.[11] Some early accounts of the legend place hanau epe as the original residents and Polynesians as later immigrants coming from Oparo.[12] After mutual suspicions erupted in a violent clash, the hanau epe were overthrown and exterminated, leaving only one survivor.[13] The first description of island's demographics by Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 still claimed that the population consisted of two distinctive ethnic groups, one being clearly Polynesian and the other "white" with so lengthened earlobes that they could tie them behind their necksPlantilla:Verify source. Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were "generally large in stature". Islanders' tallness was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm.[14]

The fact that sweet potatoes, a staple of the Polynesian diet, and several other domestic plants - up to 12 in Easter Island - are of South American origin indicates that there may have been some contact between the two cultures. Either Polynesians have traveled to South America and back, or Indian balsa rafts have drifted to Polynesia, possibly unable to make a return trip because of their less developed navigational skills and more fragile boats, or both. Polynesian connections in South America have been noticed among the Mapuche Indians in central and southern Chile.[15] The Polynesian name for the small islet of Sala y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva, "Bird's islet on the way to a far away land") east of Easter Island has also been seen as a hint that South America was known before European contacts. Further complicating the situation is that the word Hiva ("far away land") was also the name of the islanders' legendary home country. Inexplicable insistence on an eastern origin for the first inhabitants was unanimous among the islanders in all early accounts.[16]

Mainstream archeology is skeptical about any non-Polynesian influence on the island's prehistory, although the discussion has become political. DNA sequence analysis of Easter Island's current inhabitants (a tool not available in Heyerdahl's time) offers strong evidence of Polynesian origins. However, since few islanders survived the 19th century slave raids and epidemics deportations (perhaps only 0.25% of the peak population) this evidence depends on how representative the survivors were of the general Rapanui population.

See also[]


  1. Carlos Mordo, Easter Island (Willowdale, Ontario: Firefly Books Ltd., 2002)
  2. Summary of Thomas S. Barthel's version of Hotu Matu'a's arrival to Easter Island.
  3. Thomas S. Barthel’s The Eighth Land: The Polynesian Settlement of Easter Island (Honolulu: University of Hawaii 1978; originally published in German in 1974)
  4. See Steven Fischer (1994). Rapanui's Tu'u ko Iho Versus Mangareva's 'Atu Motua. Evidence for Multiple Reanalysis and Replacement in Rapanui Settlement Traditions, Easter Island. The Journal of Pacific History, 29(1), 3-18. See also Rapa Nui / Geography, History and Religion. Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific, University of Chicago Press, 1938. pp. 228-236. Online version.
  5. Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books: 2005. ISBN 0-14-303655-6. Chapter 2: Twilight at Easter pp.79-119. See page 89.
  6. Hunt, T. L., Lipo, C. P., 2006. Science, 1121879. See also "Late Colonization of Easter Island" in Science Magazine. Entire article is also hosted by the Department of Anthropology of the University of Hawaii.
  7. Hunt, Terry L. (2006), "Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island", American Scientist 94 (5): pp. 412-419, http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/53200?fulltext=true&print=yes#53362 
  8. Heyderdahl, Thor. Easter Island - The Mystery Solved. Random House New York 1989.
  9. There is no doubt that the Polynesian elite practiced ear-lengthening on Easter Island until the late 19th century, but its possible origin from South America has been noted. The Inca chiefs were called Orejones, "big ears," by the Spaniards because the lobes of their ears had been enlarged artificially to receive the great gold earrings which they were fond of wearing. See Inca Land - Explorations in the Highlands of Peru by Hiram Bingham, 1912. Online version.
  10. There is a dispute whether this should be spelled as hanau eepe or hanau epe. "Eepe" is a Polynesian word for "stocky" while the word "epe", specific to Easter Island only, means the earlobe. See Sebastian Englert's Rapa Nui dictionary with original Spanish translated to English. All early accounts of the legend spell the word "hanau epe". See Heyerdahl.
  11. Compare this with South American traditions recorded in the 16th century, in which the Inca Emperor Tupac Inca Yupanqui is credited to have undertaken an almost year-long Pacific exploration around 1480, encountering "black people" and finding islands Nina and Hahua chumpi. The same legend claims that occasional travels oversees were done already earlier. See History of the Incas by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, 1572. Online version of the book, page 91; in English.
  12. This version was recorded by Doctor J.L. Palmer in 1868. See Heyerdahl. It must be noted, however, that the legends may be influenced by the situation of the 1860s: fierce fighting ensued on the island when the remaining population and returning immigrants fought for the land and resources.
  13. The "Hanau Eepe", their Immigration and Extermination.
  14. See Heyerdahl.
  15. Mapuche Indians and Polynesian connections.
  16. This was recorded e.g. by the British B. F. Clark in 1877. See Heyerdahl.

4 The Mystery of Easter Island - Katherine Routledge 1919

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