Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, lies in the South Pacific Ocean, about 3,700 km (2,300 miles) west of the Chilean coast. Studded with giant carve statues that gaze, trance like, over the Pacific, it is of considerable archaeological importance. The first European visitors, the Dutch, named it Paaseiland ("Easter Island") after their own day of arrival in 1722. Its mixed population is predominantly Polynesian and live in the village of Hanga Roa on the sheltered west coast. The island is formed of three extinct volcanoes and about 600 megalithic statues still stand on the island, varying in height from 3 to 12 m (10 to 40 ft). Carved from a soft volcanic rock, they consist of huge heads with elongated ears and noses. There are also the ruins of giant stone platforms (ahus) with open courtyards on their landward sides. Excavations have also disclosed hidden caves containing decayed remains of tablets and wooden images, and numerous small wooden sculptures. The tablets are covered with finely carved and stylized figures, which seem to be a form of picture writing.
Very little is known about the people who made the megaliths and carved the wooden tablets. Archaeological and botanical evidence suggests that the island's original inhabitants were of South American origin. The ancestors of the present Polynesian population are thought to have travelled in canoes from the Marquesas Islands, massacred the inhabitants, and made the island their home. In 1722, when the first Europeans arrived, several thousand Polynesians inhabited the island, but disease and raids by slave traders reduced the number to fewer than 200 by the late 19th century. Now it is nearly 3,000. The island was taken over by the Chilean government in 1888.
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