The first inhabitants of Easter Island were a small group of Polynesians accidentally blown off course or deliberately in search of a new settlement. Some findings suggest they were seeking a new kingdom, escaping warfare or overpopulation of the other islands. Archaeological evidence shows the first inhabitants arrived with a full panoply of colonisation goods.
The original settlement came in two large double canoes with up to 40 people, along with their sweet potatoes, chickens and other vital resources. The theory of the first Easter Island settlements is supported with an orthodox opinion of continued Polynesian exploration and settlement across the Pacific Ocean that began out of Southeast Asia about 1,000 BC.
The Easter Island originally had a strong class system, with a high chief commanding nine clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendent through firstborn lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. The large stone statues, for which Easter Island is famous, are called moai. Over 800 statues were carved from 1100–1680 for religious purposes, and without a doubt the construction contributed to environmental degradation of the island.
Islanders had exploited their crucial forests so heavily that they did not allow it time to renew, thus destroying it. Subsequent soil erosion combined with intentional fires to clear the land for more agricultural surfaces also contributed to environment degradation. These events created resource and food scarcity which caused a civil war and a complete societal breakdown.
In 1877 only 111 people lived on Easter Island from the estimated original population around 3000 people when Europeans arrived. Estimates of the pre–European population range from 7–17,000. Only 36 of the original native survivors had any offspring. With over 97% of the population dead or gone, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost. From that point on the island's population slowly recovered.
The increase in population was partly caused by the arrival of people of European descent from the Chilean mainland. The recorded population in 1982 was 1,936 people. Around 70% of the population are natives and pretty much all of today's Rapanui claim descent from the 36 survivors.