Easter Island! The name* brings me back to my youth, when I first read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. Modern DNA analysis, linguistic and material evidence have largely discredited Heyerdahl’s thesis: that the Polynesian islands were first settled not from the west but from the east and that the same architects who built Machu Picchu carved and raised Easter’s great statues, the “moai.” But Heyerdahl’s bold effort to cross the 2,300 miles of open ocean from the South American coast on a reed raft inspired interest in Easter island, and his early archeological work, although now mostly surpassed, contributed to the growing body of knowledge about this extraordinary island “at the end of the world.”
*NOTE: the name “Easter Island” has largely been replaced by the name “Rapa Nui,” which the islanders use today. But this name only arrived in the mid-nineteenth century with travelers who invented it, Rapa Nui means “large Island.” I will use both names interchangeably.
After a good night’s rest and dinner in our beautiful hotel, the Hangaroa Eco Lodge on the edge of the western coast of the island (the Lodge’s roofs are covered with grass, (Some photos),
we set out on our morning excursion. First stop: Ahu Tahai. This is a ritual sacred altar beside the sea, on which is placed one of the largest of the moai—and one of the few with its red scoria topknot in place, and one of the only ones whose white coral eyes, with their red scoria pupils, have been inserted. The eyes, we learned from our anthropologist guide Claudio Christin, were only inserted for ritual events. Doing so awakened the statue, representing a sacred ancient ancestor, making him receptive to the offerings of his human kin.
From Ahu Tahai, we traveled eastward, almost the full length of the island to the Rano Raraku volcano and quarries. These quarries, which girdle the volcano, are the birthplace of all the moai. They were carved out of the volcanic tuff and transported from here throughout the island, a distance sometimes as great as fifteen miles. One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is how the islanders transported statues (887 have been found) weighing up to 80 tons down the sides of Rano Raraku and across miles of fields and hills. (There are currently several competing theories about this question. Claudio Christin had a very persuasive one, which you will have to come to Easter or read his new book to learn. His theory does not involve extraterrestrials.)
We took the path up the side of Rano Raraku to one of the many quarries that ring the hillside. Beside the path lay many moai whose fragile tuff broke en route and that were abandoned in place.
At the quarry,
we could see an unfinished moai, which Claudio estimates would have been about 50 feet tall and weigh 90 tons. This was apparently a “moai too far,” one that probably should never have been attempted in the first place since it would have been extremely difficult to transport.
Here, too, is another moai that never made it out of the womb
Sculptors were not “professionals” and Rano Raraku was not a professional moai “factory.” Those producing a statue usually came from a village clan and worked on site to produce their clan’s newest moai (like humans, the older ones, representing distant ancestors, tended to die away in power). They would carve the statue out of the tuff, leaving a “keel” underneath to keep it in place until they were ready to cut the keel and start the moai on its journey. This behemoth, keel in place, never made it out of the womb.
Walking back down the hill we sighted a male red tailed tropic bird in a niche, taking his turn on the egg (while his wife was presumably out shopping).
From the hill, within eyesight from Rano Raruku we could see Ahu Tongariki.
This lineup of fifteen moai facing the volcano and with their backs to the sea is one of the wonders of the world and alone merits a visit to Easter.
Some of these moai had been toppled in the clan wars that marked the end of the great period of Easter Island religion and building (the mid-sixteenth century). The rest were scattered and leveled by a thirty-foot high tsunami in 1961. Claudio told us how, as a young archeologist, he received a call early one morning from the Chilean ambassador in Japan who told him that a Japanese industrial corporation was willing to donate a 55-ton crane for the restoration of the site. Thus began a five-year effort led by Claudio, and involving up to fifty people, for which we are all indebted.
After a barbecue lunch on Anakena beach around the north side of the Island (yes the water here is that blue),
Patricia Vargas, Claudio’s ex-wife (the two came to Easter just out of graduate school in Chile and raised their family here) took a part of our group on a walking tour of Ovahe beach on the north coast. For over two miles, we picked our way across fields littered with small volcanic stones to get a real glimpse into the domestic life of the early islanders. Things we might have passed by or stepped over of great archeological significance were brought to light by Patricia’s skilled commentary. Here is Patricia pointing out a stone oven that, in the absence of wood, used grass or twigs to cook the family’s meals
And here is a Rapa Nui chicken coop. Chickens, the only domesticated animal on the island, were a family’s treasures. At night the chickens were stuffed into the chicken house, and a stone was used to conceal the entrance. In this way, island families tried to reduce chicken rustling, although we learned that it sometimes happened and could lead to violence.
As we walked, herds of wild horses galloped past. Several thousand of these beautiful animals live free on the island. Some are “owned” by teenagers, who occasionally tame, ride, or race their favorites.
The rocky shore of the island is also littered with the bones of horses who perished from sickness or age, or who could not survive a bad growing season.
Sunday evening began with brief remarks by the three archeologist/guides for our visit, Eduardo Martinez, Claudio Christin, and Patricia Vargas. (Eduardo has just published the fruit of his lifetime of work on the island as When the Universe Was an Island and Claudio and Christin have just published Easter Island: Silent Sentinels. Both books should be available on Amazon). In her remarks, Patricia touched on her belief that Easter represents the best and the worst of the human condition. The worst because of the environmental disaster and fratricidal wars that ultimately decimated much of the population; the best because of the islanders’ marvelous cultural creations and the spirit that produced them, which still lives on.
The archeologists were followed by an example of that spirit: a lively and vigorous company of native female and male dancers.
For a moment, one had the sense that in its heyday, Easter was not all ritual and wars, but maybe, too, a fun place to be.