Chile - Easter Island - Mysteries of the Moai
Jan 25, 2006
|Easter Island, or "Rapa Nui" as its known by its residents, is one of the tiniest, most remote and isolated inhabited islands in the world, just 166 sq kms of mainly volcanic land sitting in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It's 3800km west of mainland Chile, 4000km east of Tahiti, and its nearest populated neighbor, Pitcairn Island, is 2000km across the water.
Without a doubt, Rapa Nui is universally famous for its giant stone statues of squat torsos and long brooding heads - known as "Moai" - that dot its coastline. It is believed that over 900 Moai were carved here during a period of 8 centuries. Equally interesting and famous is Rapa Nui's history, which, although still surrounded by question and great speculation, is considered one of the most fascinating cases of cultural development, prosperity, and eventual disaster, under conditions of extreme isolation.
I think I've found paradise here ... or at least I've found MY paradise. The weather is hot and humid with occasional bursts of rainfall to cool and cleanse the earth. Thousands of horses run wild and free, as, to a great extent, do all the animals, children and adults who live here. The landscape is truly amazing - volcanic craters, lava formations, white sandy beaches, brilliant blue water, night skies bursting with stars, and mysterious archaeological sites.
The Rapa Nui are among the friendliest people I've ever met. They are also beautiful; both men and women have long black hair and exotic Polynesian features. They have a strong connection with the energies of the island and all things natural, and are fiercely proud of their ancestral traditions and culture. They speak Spanish and, more commonly, their Polynesian based melodic language called Rapa Nui, of which sadly I have yet to grasp more than a handful of words.
Most people visit Easter Island for somewhere between 3 to 7 days. If I actually leave when I'm supposed to - which isn't a certainty as I've changed my plane ticket twice already - I will be here for 41 days. I don't know how to explain it but this island has a very strong hold on me; I simply haven't been able to leave.
One cannot visit Easter Island without getting drawn into the mystery and intrigue of its past. Some would suggest that the island is the remains of a lost continent, or the result of extraterrestrial influence. Some would suggest that the people who built the Moai migrated from South America, although archaeological evidence more clearly indicates discovery of the island by Polynesians in about 400AD.
Who the original inhabitants were, why they built the Moai, what happened to their ancient society, and why the Moai were eventually destroyed are all questions without firm answers. Each book and storyteller has its own interpretation. But, generally, or at least my interpretation of the story, goes something like this ...
The original settlers to arrive on Easter Island brought with them Maori culture and wise laws. They went forth and multiplied in the centuries that followed and, in complete isolation, developed a complex culture centered on ancestor worship. About a thousand years later, sometime around the early 1600's, another group of immigrants arrived, known as the "Long Ears" because of their custom to pierce and elongate their ear lobes with wooden discs. Although definitely a good thing for the gene pool, their arrival became a source of conflict because the Long Ears were extremely domineering and the Short Ears (the original settlers) began to resent them.
A large part of the population devoted their efforts, with an almost obsessive dedication, to the building of stone altars and sculpting of the Moai. This left only a small number of individuals to work on food production activities. The population eventually peaked at around 15,000, far exceeding the capabilities of the small island's ecosystem. Resources became scarce, and the once lush palm forests were over-exploited and destroyed - cleared for agriculture and moving the massive stone Moai. The lack of wood for canoe building stopped outward migration, which might have relieved population pressure inside the island.
Racial conflicts reached extremely violent levels in the last decades of the 17th century, and their thriving and advanced social order began to decline into bloody civil war. Eventually, all of the standing Moai were torn down by rivaling islanders themselves, and a fight to the death caused the extermination of the Long Ears. It should be noted that all the statues now erected around the island are the result of recent archaeological reconstruction.
The internal wars led to a new and somewhat unusual system of organization for the Rapa Nui society - the cult of the "Tangata Manu", or Birdman. Every year the chiefs of the various island tribes participated in a series of ceremonial rituals culminating with the "Birdman Competition", a dangerous race to find the egg - which for some reason was believed to be sacred - of a particular migratory bird on an islet 2km out to sea. The participants had to race down sheer cliffs, swim across shark-infested waters to the islet, find an egg, swim back with the egg tucked into a headband, and scale back up the sheer cliff. The election of the Birdman, leader of the whole island for the following year, depended on who was first to return with an intact egg. The cult of the Birdman continued until about the time the first missionaries arrived and set about converting the people to Christianity.
Contact with western "civilization" proved disastrous for the island population which, through slavery and disease, declined to 111 inhabitants by the mid 1800's. The loss of life was accompanied by the loss of a crucial part of the island's culture and collective memory as the last of the "keepers of sacred knowledge" were among those who perished. Along with its historic information, the island also lost the capability to interpret the "Rongo Rongo", an ancient form of script depicted by a series of hieroglyphic shapes and images carved in wooden tablets. To date, no modern scholar has succeeded in deciphering the Rongo Rongo.
Finally, to wrap up this fairly lengthy history lesson on Easter Island (oops, sorry!) ... the island was eventually annexed by Chile in 1888, although the Rapa Nui people didn't fare any better under their rule. An island revolt in the mid 1990's was at last instrumental in the development of Rapa Nui's own administration and improvements to the lives of the inhabitants. Present population is around 3,800. Despite being part of Chile, the island's Polynesian identity is still very strong.
Easter Island is well set up for tourists. It has lots of nice although pricey hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies ready to introduce the tourists to the Moai. I was lucky to find one of the nicer/cheaper private residences on the island that has a good location, decent rooms, a nice group of tourists, and a somewhat dodgy but adequate shared kitchen where I can cook meals and thereby avoid expensive restaurants every night. Added eccentricity/charm are a friendly Rapa Nui family, and a variety of barnyard animals - chickens, baby chicks, dogs, puppies, horses, and a foal - that wander freely around the property.
It is possible to take a few tours and see the main Moai sites in a couple of days - the island is tiny after all, measuring only 24km at its longest point and 12km at its widest point. But I skipped the group tours, hired a rental car a couple of times with other newly arrived tourists, and we explored the island on our own. This was a much better option, as least for me, as it gave us the opportunity to visit the archaeological sites at a much slower pace and without hordes of other people. Also, despite the hot weather and strong unrelenting sun, I enjoyed simply walking around the island to visit some of the nearby sites. And didn't I tell you the Rapa Nui were friendly ... one day while out walking, I had no less than 12 offers for a lift back to town, the most interesting offer from a good looking man on a horse!
It is impossible to make bad photos on this island. The Moai will simply not allow it! They are extremely photogenic, each with unique personalities, features and different levels of decline. Some have spiral designs on their buttocks believed to represent tattoos. Some have a round red stone hat or topknot called "pukao" on their heads. At this time only one Moai has eyes of white coral fixed in a slightly up-turned gaze towards the sky. Apparently other Moai around the island had similar eyes, but they have been removed and are now stored in the Rapa Nui museum after one tourist decided that a pair of eyes would make a great souvenir and was caught with them in his hand luggage when clearing security at the airport. After years of travel, I am still amazed at how incredibly stupid and selfish, and in this case terribly destructive, tourists can sometimes be.
There are areas on the island where groups of Moai have been raised and restored to former glory on their stone altars, called "ahus". But the coastline is also scattered with Moai that were knocked down from their ahus and are still lying on the ground, mostly flat on their faces in a position of humiliation. I call these Moai my "little fallen angels"; they're still beautiful to me, even in their resting position, but I can't help think what a shame it is that these incredible feats of craftsmanship were destroyed.
In addition to the Moai and the gorgeous Rapa Nui Romeos, there are many other things on the island worthy of exploration ... ancient petroglyphs and modern rock carvings, huge caves and coastal caverns, hilltops offering panoramic views of the entire island, artesanal markets, volcanic craters, and beautiful bays perfect for snorkeling. Diving, surfing and body boarding are all popular water sports. Or you can buy a few things, head down the coast, catch some fish off the rocks and have a BBQ feast. Or, if feeling less than energetic, it's also the kind of place where you can find a comfortable shady spot and spend a guilt-free afternoon simply reading a book.
Of the many scenic places around the island, I'd say my favorites include:
1) Rano Raraku - a large volcanic crater and the quarry where almost all of the Moai were originally sculpted. It's mind blowing to wander amongst the hundreds of giant heads that sprout everywhere from the ground.
2) Ahu Tongariki - the largest and most spectacular ahu on the island with 15 standing Moai. This ahu was totally destroyed in 1960 when a tsunami swept across this corner of the island, tossing the huge Moai hundreds of meters inland, and has been completely restored. It's definitely the best place on the island to catch a sunrise.
3) Tahai Ceremonial Centre - a grouping of 3 ahus (Ahu Vai Uri, Ahu Tahai, Ahu Kote Riku) with a total of 7 Moai, and where the one existing Moai (Kote Riku) with eyes is located. It's also where you'll find me almost every night catching the sunset.
4) Anakena Beach and Ahu Nau Nau - Not only is Anakena a beautiful white sandy beach fringed with palm trees, but it also has an ahu with the best preserved standing Moai ... and formerly with eyes until that one particular tourist went souvenir hunting!
5) Orongo and Rano Kau - the ceremonial village of Orongo, former site of the annual Birdman ceremonies, is perched high on the rim of a large volcanic crater called Rano Kau which has a beautiful reed-covered lake deep in the crater bowl.
Yep, Easter Island is definitely my kinda place. I never tire of walking amongst the Moai, and they've offered me a wonderfully warm and relaxing place to "recharge my batteries" after a long time of travel. In all honesty, I could be content to watch the sunset from this island every night for the rest of my life.