Moai of Easter Island –
This story is now on the new dynamic Maptia Web Site –
Piercing black obsidian pupils encased in white coral gazed back at us from beneath the thick brows on its massive head. The eyes were not “opened”, or put into the empty sockets until the being had been erected on the ahu (ceremonial platform). Centuries later, only a few remain with orbs intact. The crowning glory was the pukao, a reddish cylindrical “hat” weighing as much as two elephants. Of the 887 anthropomorphic statues called moai on this 117 sq km island, sixty were found to have this top-notch adornment made of scoria, a softer volcanic rock, believed to be a later fashionable trend. Scanning down the mesmerizing face and torso of volcanic tuff; the prominent nose, determined jaw, elongated ears, arms hanging stiffly with lengthy fingers extending across the abdomen completed the austere demeanor. The time, energy and resources expended to carve, then move these megaliths from the quarry is mind-boggling; their history is riddled in mystery and intrigue.
Only days before, my partner Rick and I disembarked Lan Chile’s 707, the only airline to fly to Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island. Tepid rain swirled in light gusts of wind as we sought out petite, soft-spoken Teresa. Treating us to a brief tour of Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, this gentle Rapa Nuian lady made her way to the small boarding house she owns and operates. A delicious breakfast awaited us each morning, and a cozy room each night after our day’s adventure.
We thought of mountain bikes or scooters to find the island’s treasures, but seeing others lobster-red from the relentless sun on the nearly tree-less terrain swayed us to rent a jeep for a few days to view the furthest moai from the townsite. Our first stop was the volcanic mountain, Rano Raraku; the huge quarry from which the statues were hewn. In various stages of completion, 397 moai are scattered about. Some, including the largest – a 21 meter giant, are still laying prone half carved out of the hillside. Others are buried up to their shoulders as centuries of soil drifted around where they were, for reasons unknown, left standing on the slopes. Re-erected moai breathtakingly tower along the coasts, the tallest reaching 10 meters and weighing 74 metric tons.
The history of the culture is not clear as the ancient rongo-rongo script on tablets has not yet been deciphered. With 700 characters, it is thought to be part phonetics and part pictographic cues to guide oral readings. A slave raid of the island in 1862 forced 2000 of the 6000 inhabitants off to Peru, including the chiefs and priests who were the readers of the script; therefore, little is known about the ceremonies connected to the moai. The introduction of small pox and tuberculosis further reduced the native population to 111 by 1877.
The first inhabitants were of Polynesian descent. When their homeland of “Hiva” was sinking into the sea around 300 AD their quest for new land brought them to the small island of Rapa Nui. Situated 3,800 km from Galapagos Islands to the north, 4000 km from Tahiti to the west, 5000 km from the Antarctic to the south, and 3,800 km from Chile to the east, they must have thought they were the only people on earth for the next 1000 years. The moai, tied to their belief system of ancestor worship, embodied the supernatural powers of the line of Ariki (chiefs) of a clan, bringing protection and prosperity to the clan’s members.
As the descendants of the first chief assigned new clans to all male heirs over the centuries, the system became too complex to follow and was given up for the Birdman Ideology. We climbed the winding paths to Orongo Ceremonial Village where clan chiefs and dignitaries once swarmed the 53 stone houses at the edge of a crater lake to await the results of a most important event; the birdman competition. With trepidation, I peered over the edge of the jagged vertical cliff imagining the most athletic representative from each clan descending at break-neck speed, followed by a kilometer swim through shark infested waters to one of three islands where Manutara birds nested each spring. The first to return with an intact egg was the victor; his chief was declared the “birdman” and ruling clan for a year. The petroglyphs on surrounding boulders immortalize the ritual. But all did not remain well in paradise. The peoples divided into two confederations of clans. Two hundred years of civil war ensued as the stronger league, continually winning the competition, used their power to reduce the losers to slave status under starvation conditions, intensified by the fact that the island was beyond carrying capacity at between six and ten thousand inhabitants. The last birdman ceremony was held in 1867.
Chile was involved in the affairs of Rapa Nui in various capacities since the mid-eighteen hundreds but was only officially annexed to the Chilean barrio of Valpariso in 1933. It was opened to tourism in 1967 with the first commercial flight landing on a dirt runway constructed by the islanders. In 1986 the landing strip was brought up to code by the U.S. for space shuttle landings. The 3,800 inhabitants host 20,000 visitors annually.
This dot of tranquility, with soft rolling grassy hills, and rugged coasts rising in isolation from turquoise seas left us much to ponder. I need only to close my eyes to be carried on gentle tropical breezes back to the beautiful people of Rapa Nui and the indelible grandeur of the moai – eternal sentinels.