On Easter Sunday in 1722, a Dutch explorer sailing in the vast and nearly landless waters of the South Pacific Ocean came upon a small island, alone in more than 8.5 million square miles of sea. In honor of the religious holiday, the explorer, Jacob Roggevee, called the lonely spot Easter Island. Today, the native people call the island Rapa Nui, but the oldest known name appears to be Te Pito o Te Henua, or “The Center (or Navel) of the World.”
When the Dutch sailors arrived, the isolated island had already been inhabited for more than one thousand years, most likely settled by Polynesian sailors in canoes between 400 and 700 A.D. The most amazing cultural artifacts on display were giant stone statues, called moai, resting on ahu, a raised platform of expertly fitted stones. (Ahu also describes a sacred ceremonial site where several moai stand.)
Most of the hundreds of moai on the island were carved out of volcanic rock in the crater of Rano Raraku, located in the southeastern part of the island. In addition to the hundreds of moai located at ahu around the island, Rano Raraku is littered with moai, some only half-carved, others that appear to have broken in the attempt to remove them from the quarry, and still others that seem to simply have been abandoned.
East of Rano Raraku is Ahu Tongariki, where in 1960 a tidal wave caused by an earthquake in Chile struck the southern coastline and swept 15 moai inland for several hundred feet. In 1992, the site was restored by a Chilean archeologist. On the western end of the island is the only town, Hanga Roa, where most of Rapa Nui’s 2,000 residents live. South of the town is the island’s largest volcanic crater, Rana Kao. Along the crater rim looking southward over the coast, lie the ruins or Orongo, a ceremonial site containing elaborate stone carvings and other artwork.
Speculation about how the island’s inhabitants built and moved the massive moai to ahu all along the coastline and at various sites in the island’s interior has fueled scientific imagination and controversy that goes on today. Several experiments have been carried out using materials that would have been available to the inhabitants, and most scientists agree that any method they might have used would have required a large amount of wood and wood fiber: to construct sleds or other sliding platforms, to make ropes, and to create levers to help position the statues.
The demand for wood eventually stripped the island of nearly all its forests, and when the lush palm forests disappeared, the topsoil began to erode. Crops failed and archeological and anthropological evidence suggests violent civil wars and perhaps even cannibalism preceded the collapse of Rapa Nui’s first civilization. The loss of wood guaranteed the inhabitant’s isolation for hundreds of years. The islanders were unable to build canoes. After hundreds of years of isolation, the arrival of the Dutch sailors was probably as surprising to the native islanders as the discovery of a populated island in such a remote location was to the Europeans.
Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) instrument collected this image of the island on January 3, 2001.
NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data obtained from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility.
On September 25, 2002, astronauts aboard the International Space Station viewed Easter Island, one of the most remote locations on Earth. Easter Island is more than 2000 miles from the closest populations on Tahiti and Chile—even more remote than astronauts orbiting at 210 nautical miles above the Earth. Archaeologists believe the island was discovered and colonized by Polynesians at about 400 AD. Subsequently, a unique culture developed. The human population grew to levels that could not be sustained by the island. A civil war resulted, and the island’s deforestation and ecosystem collapse was nearly complete.
The ghostly white shapes northeast and immediately southwest of Wrangel Island are sea ice. Over the course of the satellite record, Arctic sea ice has advanced and retreated past Wrangel Island many times. From 1979 to 2000, the sea ice edge at the end of summer generally fell somewhere in the vicinity of Wrangel Island, but this is not the first summer when the sea ice edge has retreated well north of the island.
Bouvet Island is known as the most remote island in the world; Antarctica, over 1600 kilometers (994 miles) to the south, is the nearest land mass. Located near the junction between the South American, African, and Antarctic tectonic plates, the island is mostly formed from a shield volcano—a broad, gently sloping cone formed by thin, fluid lavas—that is almost entirely covered by glaciers.
Named Isla de Aves in Spanish, (meaning “Island of the Birds”) Aves Island lies west of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. It provides a nesting site to green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and, of course, birds. Because the abundant bird droppings, known as guano, could be used in fertilizer and gunpowder, guano miners worked on the island until they depleted the supply. Since its discovery by Europeans, likely in the late 16th century, Aves Island was subsequently claimed by several European nations. The island is currently claimed by Venezuela, although disputes about ownership of the island, and the surrounding exclusive economic zone in the Caribbean, continue today.