George Vancouver discovered this island in 1791 and named it Oparo. A number of ancient ruins (“pa” or “pare”, a kind of fort) scatter the island, especially across ridges and steep areas. Similar ruins can also be seen on the larger islets of Marotiri. Notably, Thor Heyerdahl carried out excavations to seek connections between the two Rapas (The other Rapa is Rapa Nui, known as Easter Island). In fact, the link is demographic. After the original Easter Islander population—who appear to have arrived from Hiva in the Marquesas—was almost exterminated by Peruvian slaveholders in 1861, French settlers moved from Rapa to Easter Island in 1864, taking with them agricultural laborers to work on plantations and livestock farms. This is why present-day Easter Island Polynesians are called Enata Rapa Nui (“People from Big Rapa”) and have not forgotten their roots, especially since the Easter Island Catholic mission relied on the vicariate in Tahiti until 1911. The island of Rapa has a surface area of about 40 km2 (15 sq. mi.) and is composed of an ancient volcano, Mount Perau, 650 meters high (2132 ft.).
Part of the volcano collapsed and the ocean filled the crater. The ten rocky islets of Marotiri, 70 km (43 mi) to the east-southeast of Rapa, constitute the most southern landmarks of French Polynesia. Rapa is the southernmost inhabited island of the Austral Islands and the most isolated at 500km (310 mi) from Raivavae, the closed inhabited island and more than 1420km (880 mi) from Tahiti. The island has no airstrip and is connected to the other islands every two or three months via cargo ship. A French Navy patrol boat also conducts liaison missions from Tahiti. Due to its isolation, the Rapa language is distinctly different from other languages in the Austral Islands, and is referred to locally as reo rapa. The island is the main center of the Rapa commune (Rapa and Marotiri). Ahurei, the main village on the island, is located on the edge of the submerged crater. 482 people lived on the island in 2007. The other village is called Area.