by Lee Foster
A melancholic feeling arises on Easter Island as one learns that the Stone Age people who lived here gradually destroyed themselves by incrementally degrading their environment.
They created remarkable monuments, the huge stone carvings at which a traveler marvels. Their tool was a hand ax. Archaeological scholars of Easter Island believe that the political and spiritual ambition of these people proved too great to sustain themselves on their small, isolated mid-Pacific island.
The example is not lost on a modern-day observer. Easter Island, one of the most remote specks of land on Earth, is to the Earth as the Earth is to the solar system. One wonders if the degradation of our environment on “island” Earth will eventually be the cause of our decline.
The changes must have come gradually and may have been difficult to notice fully in a lifetime for the Easter Island people. After arriving sometime between the 5th and the 7th centuries from the Marquesas or other Polynesian islands to the west, a remarkable journey of 2,500 miles, they built a survivable society, living off the sweet potatoes, yams, taro, and chickens they brought, plus the fish and shellfish bounty in the ocean surrounding the island.
Gradually the concept arose that cutting huge sculptures from a volcanic mountain of compacted rocky ash was a pursuit with merit. The stone sculptures, called moai, were meant to represent the spirits of beloved ancestors. With a moai looking down on the village from its seaside position and with ancestral graves at its feet, a positive spirit or mana would flow into the village, resulting in protective and beneficial effects. The island was divided politically into eight clan regions, and the moai were dragged to their individual destinations from the mountainside quarry on the east end.
About 300 of these enormous moai, some 30 feet in height, were created and positioned on ahus (stone platforms) from roughly the 10th to the 16th centuries, the period of cultural magnificence for Easter Island. Then the social system began to collapse. Population numbers soared to burdensome heights. The largest trees on the island were cut to provide the log rollers, log sleds, or log support structures for transporting the moai to coastal sites. Erosion of precious topsoil may have followed the deforestation. A huge amount of energy was diverted from practical pursuits to further the spiritual goal of constructing more stone statues. Possibly there was clan rivalry to build bigger and better moai.
Eventually a period of internecine conflict broke out on the small 10-by-15-square-mile island. In the warring period, the 1500s-1600s, many of the moai on the island were toppled by rival clans seeking to intimidate and demoralize each other. The social system collapsed shortly before the era of European contact began. No further statues were carved or delivered.
One striking site to see is the mountainside quarry, Rano Raraku, where about 400 moai are lying today in various stages of completion. Some are ready to ship, standing upright and complete. Others are partially carved, still attached to their rocky birthplace. Some statues at the quarry are larger than any distributed around the island. One is more than 60 feet long, suggesting that the ambition of the designers may have overreached their capacity to deliver. The last shipment of a moai was probably in the 16th century.
The task of carving and transporting a moai must have been a Herculean task. Some scholars believe they were moved upright, using only ropes and logs for support and as rollers. Large teams of men must have been required. Social cohesiveness would have been a prerequisite. The island terrain is highly uneven. If a statue toppled over while enroute, it was abandoned because the locals believed that its mana or spirit would have been destroyed in the fall at the moment when the carved head touched the earth.
Going to see the moai of Easter Island will provoke in a traveler a question that arises in other contexts of major human achievement, however arbitrary. Why and how did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Why and how did the Christians of medieval France construct the cathedral at Chartres? Why and how did the Chinese bury 7,000 terra-cotta warriors in the tomb of a certain emperor in Xian? The Easter Island example of human vision is poignant because of the size of the stone carvings and the primitiveness of the tools available. The carvers had only ston etools of varying degrees of hardness, one to serve as the chisel and the other as the sculpted medium. They possessed only logs and ropes to move these monoliths relatively long distances over hilly ground to their designated resting places.
Getting To and Around Easter Island
Anticipate a long travel time to get to Easter Island. First, there is the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles or Miami to Santiago, Chile. It is best to rest up for a day or more in Santiago, allowing for flight delays from the United States. Then there is another five-hour flight west to get to Easter Island, which is controlled by Chile.
The locals call the island Rapa Nui. This name was actually Captain James Cook’s name for the island, meaning “Big” Rapa, because he passed a smaller island named Rapa on his way to Easter Island. The name Easter Island resulted because a Dutch navigator, Jacob Rogeveen, discovered the island on Easter Day 1722. His discovery was noteworthy because Easter Island is one of the most remote locations on Earth, about 2,000 miles from the nearest inhabited place, Pitcairn Island.
The island has several small hotels in the only town, Hanga Roa. There are only 4,000 inhabitants on Easter Island today. Hotels serve as bases of operation. I stayed at the Hotel Otai. Meals are eaten at your hotel or at a few local restaurants. Rental four-wheel-drive vehicles and guides with small tour buses can be arranged. My preferred way of exploring was in a small tour group with a knowledgeable guide and driver. I was fortunate to have Elena “Nena” Delgado Araya of the Kia-Koe Tour Company as my guide. Elena had both expert knowledge and good English. Without a competent guide, it would have been difficult to understand what I was seeing, even though I had prepared by reading such books as the Lonely Planet Chile and Easter Island guide. Each day we did a morning excursion after breakfast, returned to the hotel for lunch, and then ventured out again for an afternoon exploration. Roads around the island are primitive, often merely dirt tracks.
I traveled in the cool spring month of October (remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere). The spring-summer months of October-February are the choice time of travel to Easter Island. The island is subtropical, so summer is hot.
Starting in Hanga Roa
In the town be sure to see the Hanga Roa Church, where islanders gather for Sunday Mass at 10 a.m. This is an interesting ritual to observe because of the language issue. The service is delivered in Spanish, with some hymns in the Rapa Nui language, plus a smattering of English in the sermon and in the Mass, partly because tourists are the “new” islanders. One irony is that Catholicism once suppressed Rapa Nui culture, but now has emerged as its encourager. Music in the church is provided by a drummer, accordionist, and guitarist. The musicians play the disco on Saturday night and the church service on Sunday morning.
The other ceremony to experience in Hanga Roa is the Kari Kari dance troupe that entertains at the Hotel Hanga Roa. The dancers perform a lively range of Rapa Nui and Polynesian dances, with emphasis on sensuality and the rapid shaking of the body.
Fortunately, within walking distance of the town is one of the most celebrated platforms, or ahus, with the sculptures, the moai. This is the site Ahu Tahai, which is adjacent to the sea.
On one platform at Ahu Tahai there is a single, completely restored moai. This sculpture has a stone topknot of red rock, which came from a separate quarry, and has the white coral and black obsidian eyes with which most of the moai were believed to be adorned. During the time of conflict, when the moai were desecrated by toppling and disfigurement, the eyes were stripped out, partly to diminish the spirit or mana of the statue.
Adjacent is another platform with five partially restored moai. The entire grassy village site is striking because of its completeness. Uphill from the platforms, which are positioned adjacent to the sea, there are stone houses and stone chicken coops such as the islanders built. Chickens and their eggs, plus bananas, were considered the valuable currency of the classic period (A.D. 1000-1600).
Visit this site in the morning when the sun shines on the moai, which face inland toward the village they were meant to protect. Then return also at sunset to savor the full power and beauty of the site as the sun drops into the ocean behind the monoliths.
Adjacent to Ahu Tahai is the must-see Sebastian Englert Museum of Anthropology, the main scholarly interpreter of the island culture. Though the exhibits are labeled in Spanish, there is an English guide translating them. The guide is an excellent informational souvenir.
Restoration of the toppled moai began in the 1950s. The primary goal has been to get them standing upright again on their platforms.
Excursions Around the Island
When exploring the island, traversing roads sometimes paved and sometimes dirt, here are some of the main sites to explore beyond Ahu Tahai:
*At Rano Raraku, the remarkable quarry for all the moai, marvel at the process of carving, then hike up to view a reed-filled lake in the crater of a volcano. The “quarry” is not a deep hole, like other quarries of your experience, but is a mountainside of rocky compacted ash.
*At Ahu Tongariki, near the quarry, fifteen restored moai stand on one platform, the most impressive collective display on the island. As is typical, they face inland from the sea. Some of the 4,000 horses grazing around the island will probably be munching grass in front of the sculptures.
*Ahu Akivi is an inland array of moai. The setting of the sculptures is unusual, facing the sea, probably indicating a substantial inland village in the classic period.
*The beach at Anakena is believed to be where the first Polynesians landed. This lovely white-coral-sand beach is a distinct contrast to the usual, rough, black, volcanic shoreline of the island. There are several restored moai at this salubrious site.
When sated with blockbuster visits to large clusters of moai, there are further nuanced sites to consider.
*Puna Pau is a red-stone quarry where the red topknots, an ornament for the heads of the moai, were carved. It is believed that most moai had these large, round, multi-ton stone block topknots, believed to resemble the hair style favored by the natives, who used clay and red pigments to adorn themselves. From this site, the huge topknots were transported to moai throughout the island.
*At Ahu Vinapu one can compare two stages of platform construction for the moai. At the early-period platform, or ahu, the stones are crudely cut. However, in the later-period platform the joints of the stones fit with great precision. Here there is also a female moai sculpture, which is not typical.
*Orongo Village, on the top of a volcano adjacent to the sea, is a crucial restoration that documents the evolving island culture after the time of trouble when all moai carving had ceased. Recognizing the destructive situation, the islanders in the 1600s developed a new mythology and a new way of social governance. Each of the eight clans was allowed to propose one of their leaders as the potential king-of-the-year. These contenders then nominated a designated athletic representative to perform a ritual test to see who would actually be king. The test itself was quite ingenious and elaborate. While the nobility waited in stone houses along the rim of the Orongo volcano, the athletes went into the crater and harvested reeds in the crater’s lake, fashioning personal support rafts, a kind of reed surfboard. Each then paddled with the reed raft a mile or so out to an offshore island, where migrating birds, such as frigate birds or sooty terns, nested and laid their eggs. The athletic goal was to find the first egg of the season. The athlete who brought the first intact egg to the hillside position where the nobility waited could proclaim a year of kingship for his patron. This “birdman” ritual became an important governing mythology for the island, from roughly the 1600s to 1866. The annual cult resolved the political question of who would rule. At the Orongo Village, several restored stone houses and many petroglyphs of the birdman cult can be seen. During the period when the cult flourished, the ceremonial Orongo Village was used for only about two months per year.
*Those who were not nobility waited in distant locations for the annual news of who would be king. One site for those who waited is a large cave known as Ana Kai Tangata. The ceiling of the cave contains important historical paintings of the birdman cult.
Driving around the island acquaints you with the rolling hill country, covered with open grass prairie in some areas and dense eucalyptus forests in other places. Horses, kept as status symbols and for riding, are everywhere. Some cattle are also grazed. Vegetable farming occurs in the hardscrabble volcanic landscape. But tourism, however, is the main viable industry on the island.
Anyone concerned about the sustainability of “island” Earth will find poignant the story of how the Easter Island people destroyed themselves by gradually degrading their environment.
Easter Island: If You Go
The overall tourism site for Chile is www.visitchile.com.
Lonely Planet’s guidebook Chile and Easter Island is quite informative.
One of the more experienced local companies for Easter Island touring is Kia-Koe Tours, www.kiakoetour.co.cl.
An association dedicated to preserving Easter Island has an informative website. See the Easter Island Foundation at www.islandheritage.org.