Rapa Nui, a Glimpse at Hawaii's past

Blain Chun

The health problems of Native Hawaiians have been well documented. Our ethnic group is afflicted with some of the nation's highest rates of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and all of the obesity-related diseases. There is also documentation to show the excellent health Hawaiians enjoyed pre-western contact. Early explorers described Hawaiians as being lean and muscular and close to seven feet tall. They were also described as having a tremendous capacity for work. This is supported by the remnants of lo'i (taro fields), fishponds and heiaus. All of this changed as the Native Hawaiian lifestyle became assimilated into the western way of life.

The people of Rapa Nui have not yet lost their traditional way of life. Upon arriving in Rapa Nui, I was surprised by the similarities between Hawai'i and Rapa Nui. The landscape reminded me of a rural outer island, not unlike Moloka'i or Lana'i. There is one main street through town, about three blocks long. Most people walk or ride horses through town. There are no stoplights, buildings are all single story. Many people farm their land, grow sweet potato, pineapple, taro and various other greens. Cattle and horses roam freely. All livestock are branded and not limited by fences.

In my personal observations and interviews with local Rapa Nuians and the medical director at the local hospital, I found the Rapa Nui people to be in good health. They are all physically active, beginning with the children. On a field trip down to the harbor where Hokule'a was anchored, the children walked from their school, approximately one to two miles away. There are no fast food chains, the local resturants make everthing fresh. The Rapa Nuians still speak their native language, along with Spanish.

I did not see any obese locals, most were on the lean side. Some ills of modern society have taken hold there, including alcohol excess, marijuana use and tobacco smoking. In general, the Rapa Nui people have maintained good health with their active lifestyle, traditional plant based diet and retention of their culture through their native language. Hopefully, we can learn from Rapa Nui and get back to good health with increased physical activity, a traditional plant based diet and maintainence of our culture.