This post is third in a series about Easter Island.
Today I plan to dive a little more into the mystery of Easter Island, focusing more on the island’s history since “outsiders” arrived. (Read my post on how the moai were built).
When the first Europeans arrived on Rapa Nui in 1722 – Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, who gave it the name Easter Island after its “discovery” date on the holiday – the moai built by the Rapanui were still standing on their traditional ahu (platforms).
The early explorers reported that the island contained farmland, but in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Pulitzer-prize winning anthropologist Jared Diamond notes that fossil records show that the biggest palm tree species were already extinct by the time Europeans arrived. While Roggeveen estimated the number of Rapanui at 2,000 to 3,000, archaeolgists estimat that the population had been as high as 15,000 just a few decades early. Rapanui civilization was already in decline.
By the time Capt. James Cook arrived in 1774, many of the moai had been toppled, victims of Rapanui clan fights and civil wars. By that point, the condition of the land was reported as “poor” and food sources had already deteroriated.
Reconstruction of the moai started in 1958, when Kon-Tiki author Thor Heyerdahl helped raise one, using traditional means, on one of the beaches. (On his voyage, Thor set out to prove that the Rapanui actually came from South America insteaed of Polynesia, a theory which has been disproved). Now about 50 moai on the island have been reconstructed and raised back on their ahu.
You can see the moai by visiting Rapa Nui National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. The admission is steep by our standards – $60 US to view the different locales – but what are you going to do, not pay it? You haven’t come all the way to the Navel of the World to cheap out now. The price is worth it, as each moai location has a slightly different flavor. This statue is at the 7 moai, which face the sea (so it’s clearly a reconstruction, as the Rapanui moai traditionally faced inland).
Our guides from Explora Rapa Nui took us out to the coast, where we could see the stone ruins of the Rapanui homes. There are no standing moai out here, but it’s worth it for the view: with nothing to break your gaze over the Pacific Coast horizon, you can see the slight curve of the Earth.
The coastal hills are also where you’ll find lava caves, where the Rapanui took refuge during times of conflict. If you go inside, be careful, as the roof is low in many areas. Our guide forgot her flashlight and one reporter hit her head fairly hard. (You really don’t want to have an injury out here, as the nearest hospital is nearly 5 hours away in Santiago, Chile).
There are signs at all of the ahu warning visitors not to walk on them. This is sacred ground for the Rapanui, and they take it seriously. More than once, our guide Gina warned away tourists who had become too close. While most Rapanui are Catholic now, the islanders still have a healthy respect for their ancestors. Gina said that modern Rapanui know which ahu belonged to their respective families and often one person in the family with a more spiritual bent “communes” with the ancestors.
Only one moai on the island has “eyes” (a replica), but at one point, several of the moai did have eyes made from white coral. In Diamond’s book, he notes that they may have been used only during ceremonies, due to the fact that they were removable. It’s unclear what the “topknots” on their heads mean, although Gina told us that it signifies the long hair that most Rapanui, male and female, still wear.
The most well-known moai ahu has 15 reconstructed moai on it, all facing the volcanic quarry where they were created. This is one of Easter Island’s most photographed views (I would have loved to stay until sunset but our schedule didn’t allow it). Speaking of time, it took some adjustment to get used to the island’s long days and late sunsets. Usually the sun didn’t go down until 9 p.m.
As you stare at the moai all in a row, you begin to see the differences between them. It’s believed that moai carvers were considered elites in Rapanui society, and up close, you can see the work that was put into the statues, even through the erosion and bird droppings.
Of course, there’s still a lot that’s not known about Easter Island’s mysterious moai. My big question: Didn’t the Rapanui realize that creating the statues was using up a frightening amount of resources? And I would have loved to have learned more about the questions that the Rapanui still ask their ancestors (we queried Gina, but she made her answers vague). With good reason, I’m sure. There are some secrets that the moai still keep – and the Rapanui like it that way.
Thanks to LAN Airlines for sponsoring my trip.