This post is second in a series about Easter Island.
A trip to Easter Island is inconceivable without diving into Rapa Nui history. Otherwise, you can’t begin to understand the origins of the stone statues, or moai, that give the island its fame.
Before I left on my trip, I picked up “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail” by Pulitzer-Prize winning anthropologist Jared Diamond. True to its title, the book examines lost civilizations such as the Mayans and the Norse in Greenland, and outlines why their civilizations fell while others nearby (such as the Inuit in Greenland, for example) didn’t. The book has a whole chapter on Easter Island, and outlines how the Rapanui (pronounced Rappa New-ee) people almost became extinct.
(In case you’re confused, Rapa Nui is the name of the island and Rapanui is the name of the native islanders. They are pronounced the same, but spelled different).
Unlike other islands in Polynesia, Easter Island is windswept and dry. The landscape seems like it could go up in flames with one lit match. According to Diamond, though, this wasn’t always the case. Scientists examining Easter Island have found seeds of giant palm trees, as well as other vegetation and animal species that could have sustained a society. The thesis that Diamond promotes, based on research from archaeologists, anthropologists and others who have studied Rapa Nui history, is that the islanders were so caught up with building moai (pronounced moe-i) - stone statues representing deified ancestors – that they destroyed the landscape and exploited their natural resources to the point where they couldn’t survive.
The lodge that sponsored me, the posh Explora Rapa Nui (also known as Posada de Mike Rapu), leads a series of hikes to places on the island that are important in Rapa Nui history. My favorite hike took us to the basin of Rano Ranaku, a dead volcano that served as the quarry where Rapa Nui built their moai.
As we hiked, we ran straight into a pack of wild horses. Rapa Nui is full of horses, which seem to have the run of the island. Our Rapanui guide Gina told us that the horses belong to nowhere – and everyone – at the same time. During the early days of Chilean occupation in the late 1880s, when the Rapanui people were confined to Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, the roaming horses were used as an excuse to keep officials from the mainland from occupying and developing the far reaches of the island. So the Rapanui consider them an important part of their heritage, as well as useful for transportation; I saw several long-haired Rapanui men riding bareback through the windswept pastures.
There’s a lake inside the quarry, one of the few sources of fresh water on the island. This lake is also the setting for the odd Birdman competition, a contest of physical and spiritual prowess which the Rapanui hold every year to determine who will be their leader. Scientists have determined that the rushes growing by the crater lake, the oldest vegetation on the island, were used for roofing on the Rapanui stone homes.
The Rano Raraku volcano basin holds more than 350 partially built moai. The Rapanui built the moai to honor their ancestors, transporting the finished statues to their family ahu, or platforms. It’s believed that the moai building started around 1250 and lasted until 1500, when dwindling natural resources and limited diet made it harder to fuel the efforts. Many of the moai at the quarry are only partially completed and still others are completed but mostly buried, leading to some surreal views where the stone heads are sticking out of the ground.
Erosion has done its part to bury the moai, and excavations show how big and intricate some of the statues were. This piece shows how much of the moai had been concealed underground, as well as the intricate carvings that the Rapanui placed on the back. Our Rapanui guide Gina told us that a professional class of stone carvers did most of the statues, with each family having a portion of the quarry.
One unanswered question of Rapa Nui history is how the islanders transported these monster 12-ton statues to their home ahus. In Diamond’s book, he supports the theory that the islanders built transport systems out of wooden logs, similar to canoe ladders seen on other Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, and pulled them prone on sleds to their final destination.
Moving the moai took a lot of manpower, obviously – and calories. Research shows that while the Rapanui started out with a rich food supply that included wild porpoises, fish and birds,they were eating rats and deceased humans by the time that Europeans arrived in the 1700s, as they no longer had timber to build canoes to go out and get better food. In “Collapse,” Diamond is quick to point out that the Rapanui certainly didn’t mean to destroy the forests that gave them sustenance. They just didn’t realize that the island – which is farther north than the other Polynesian islands where the Rapanui came from – couldn’t replenish itself as easily as more tropical climates.
It’s all very interesting, particularly as we face today’s issues of global warming and climate change. At some point, will the man-made landmarks of our civilization look as eerie and deserted as the moais, remembered only as monuments to hubris?
The sheer number of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry is mind-blowing, and you can understand why some people have dreamed up more fanciful theories for their existence. My favorite? That “ancient aliens” came and taught the Rapanui to build the moai. Understandably, the Rapanui I talked to on my trip thought this theory was downright disrespectful.
Still, you can’t blame people for coming up with crazy theories, as the mysterious moai do inspire flights of fancy. Case in point: Tukuturi, or the Kneeling Moai. He’s the only one that has been discovered with legs, which are tucked up underneath him, and he’s made of a different stone than that found in the quarry. Gina said that her people believed that he was possibly an overseer of the quarry work, sort of a foreman. Others have speculated that he’s one of the last moai made. Who knows? On this mysterious island, the answer may never be found.
Thanks to LAN Airlines for sponsoring my trip.