THE HISTORY OF EASTER ISLAND
Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions about the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a chief Hotu Matu’a arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family. They are believed to have been Polynesian. 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 AD, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii.
A recent study which included radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material suggests that the island was settled as recently as 1200 AD. This seems to be supported by a 2006 study of the island’s deforestation, which could have started around the same time. A large, now extinct, palm,
Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm Jubaea chilensis, was one of the dominant trees, as attested by fossil evidence; this species, whose sole occurrence was Easter Island, became extinct due to deforestation by the early settlers.
The Austronesian Polynesians, who first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization.