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European diseases and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population, to a low of only 111 inhabitants in 1877.

the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 2,606 km (1,619 mi) away; the nearest continental point lies in central Chile, 3,512 kilometres (2,182 mi) away.

Oral tradition states the island was first settled by a two canoe expedition, originating from Marae Renga (or Marae Toe Hau), and led by the chief Hotu Matu'a and his captain Tu'u ko Iho.

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At their time of arrival, the island had one lone settler, Nga Tavake 'a Te Rona.

After a brief stay at Anakena, the colonists settled in different parts of the island. Tu'u ko Iho is viewed as the leader who brought the statues and caused them to walk.

However, there are two words pronounced pito in Rapa Nui, one meaning 'end' and one 'navel', and the phrase can thus also mean "the Navel of the World".

Another name, Mata ki te rangi, means "Eyes looking to the sky".

The last forest was cut down by about 1640, and by about 1700, the flora was almost completely gone.