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A Land Time But Not Tourists Forgot

Easter Island moai
photo by G.Wilson

Easter Island - Land of Enigmas

"Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken."
Katherine Routledge,
The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919.

Easter Island
photo by G.Wilson

As our cruise ship approached Easter Island or Rapa Nui 'Great Island' as it is known to the inhabitants, it appeared out of the mist like a giant sperm whale. Called the most isolated place on the globe, this grass-covered island is 14 miles long and 7 miles wide and has an area of 66 square miles. It is composed of three main volcanic summits, Rano Kau, Poike and Terevaka. The oldest is Poike which erupted on two occasions: one 9-million years ago and the other 2.5-million years ago. Lava from Rano Kau is as old as 950,000 years and the youngest from Terevake is about 300,000 years old. The last volcanic eruptions on Rapa Nui occurred about 13,000 years ago. Its maximum elevation is 1670 feet. Chile is located 2300 miles to its east and Pitcairn Island 1300 miles to the west. The island was annexed to Chile in 1888 and today some 4000 people call it home, 2000 of whom are said to be able to trace their ancestry back to the original Polynesians.

Radiocarbon tests done on charcoal produced during forest clearing activities indicate that the island was probably settled by Polynesians around 300-400 AD. These people likely arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. They brought with them bananas, taro, sweet potato, sugarcane and paper mulberry as well as pigs, chickens and rats, which they ate. The island at one time supported a relatively advanced and complex civilization.

The first Europeans to see Rapa Nui came with a Dutch navigator named Admiral Jakob Roggeveen. His little flotilla of three small ships were thousands of miles from nowhere in the vastness of the world's largest ocean when they reached the shelter of an island not yet plotted on any map on April 5, 1722. "To the land the name Paasch Eyland was given because it was discovered by us on Easter Day." He noted that the land produced "bananas, potaotes, surgar-cane of remarkable thickness and many other kinds of the fruits of the earth, although destitute of large trees and domestic animals except poultry." At the time the population was about 2-3 thousand, but may have been as high as 10-15 thousand a century or two before.

At daybreak the Europeans witnessed what they considered a religious ceremony of sorts. The islanders, whose name for their island was Te-Pito-o-te-Henua or 'The Navel of the World', were moving about some giant images in the rising sun. Fires had been built in front of each huge statue before which they prostrated themsleves in the sun.

The island appeared to be well populated for as the sun rose higher the natives in great number swam out to the ships while hundreds more sat in groups on the cliffs about watching these strange vessels from another world. Since that first sighting of the huge statues, Easter Island's great tourist attractions are these awe-inspiring stone images called moai which number some 900 scattered across the island, half of which are in various stages of completion.

According to our guide, sometime after the arrival of the island's Polynesian settlers, they split into ten clans or tribes with each having its own well demarked part of the island. One hundred years before the arrival of the Europeans, the civilization began to collapse as a result of overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of an isolated island with limited natural resources. As a result this led to civil strife and cannabalism based on evidence found of human bones at cooking sites and in caves. The ultimate insult one could express was to say, "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."

The Rapa Nui built what they called, manavai, relatively small, ususally circular, rock enclosures, some standing six or more feet high, while some were only one foot or so high and others were underground.The rocks were stacked masonry-style or just in piles. These manavai facilitated the growth of crops by protecting the plants from winds, thus minimizing dehydration and optimizing use of the rare water. Within the manavai, the Rapa Nui scattered household waste and garbage, which when burned, enriched the soil with phosphorus and potassium - good nutrients. Observers visiting the island in 1786 noted, "the natives collect grass and other vegetables, which they heaped and burned for the sake of ashes as a manure."


Between the 11th and 17th centuries AD in an incredible burst of creative activity, which for some unknown reason, came to a halt around 1680, the Rapa Nui. using very primitive tools, carved the moai, their name for these immense statues. They may have represented incarnations of deified ancestors, either because they were important chiefs, or individuals who had made a significant contribution to the community. The statues - all men - faced inward to bestow their blessings and powers on the surviving clan members. Each face of the long-eared, legless human male torso is different and intended to represent in a stylized way the appearance of the person commemorated. Most are 15 to 20 feet tall, but the largest is 70 feet all (taller than the average 5-story building) and weigh from 10 up to 270 tons. The largest ones were thought to have been made in the 1600s.

The Carving Tool - A Piece of Basalt Rock
photo by G. Wilson

A Tool Called Toki - A Piece of Basalt Rock

Using basalt toki , an ancient word for the stone axe among the aboriginal people of North Chile. they carved the statues out of a yellowish-grey rock, volcanic tuff, a relatively easily carved material created from an explosive eruption that left behind compressed particles of ash and basalt stones. Called basaltic tuff, it was found in one large quarry, which all tribes shared. Hundreds of toki littered the surface and the quarry walls were covered with markings made during carving.

They held the toki in their hand and hacked away at the tough tuff and when their tool's point wore down, they simply chipped off pieces with another stone of the same kind. It was a long, painstakingly tedious process and required many sculptors working at the same time. The carving started with the face - nose, eyes, and mouth.The eyes were hollow and left 'blind' until the statue was transported to the sacred site. Room was allowed for the long ears and hands clinging around the stomach. Work continued with the ears, chin and neck, then moved on to the arms and the rest of the body. Many of the statues left in progress were standing vertically, but some were carved horizontally. . Once complete the moai were detached and polished. Four hundred partially completed statues remain in the vicinity of the quarry, some buried or partially buried and others still part of the rock face. The abrupt halt to the production of the statues hinted at some devastating occurrence, which ended the customary life and culture of the island.

The Quarry
photo by G. Wilson

Unique Crouched Basalt Figure Considered the Oldest moai and one of the most powerful of the ancient sculptures.
photo by G. Wilson

Statues Strewn About
photo by G. Wilson

An Early moai Statue - later moai had long ears and long fingers
photo by B. Wilson

moai Jay Jaw
photo by G. Wilson

A moai Named Nixon
photo by G. Wilson

Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding Easter Island was how the ancient islanders transported the multi-ton monsters from the quarry to their existiing locations across miles of the island's rugged, rocky terrain. How could this have been done given the lack of trees for timber and rope needed to make devices to move them. No visitors ever witnessed the transport and no records exist to explain how it was done. Folklore tells of chiefs and priests with mana (supernatural power) who simply ordered the statues to walk and they did each day until reaching the desired destination. Tradition referred to a spiritual power, mana, as the means by which the moai were 'walked' from the quarry.

Investigators worked to discover how, in fact, they were moved. A first clue came from discovery of moai roads leading from the quarry. A good deal of work went into making these roads in order to create flat paths over rolling, rocky terrain. Roads over hills were cut into the land and downslopes were built up to decrease the steepness.The obviously played an critical role in movement of the monstors.

Dotted moai Road from Quarry with arrows indicating fallen moai."They walked but some fell by the wayside."

Discovery of the roads solved the 'where', but the 'how' remained. Initially, it was thought that once the images were completely carved, the statues weighing many tons were 'walked' across the island using ropes, rocks and wooden logs, the latter the palm tree trunks. The use of many trees for this purpose was given as the reason why, when the island once supported forests of these palm trees,Jubaea chilensis, that it was deforested in the process of the islanders erecting their statues. Experimentation using these trunks to roll the statues along was subsequently thought to have been unlikely, since that type of tree could not bear the weight of these monsters.

It was noted that the statues were carved with a low centre of mass or gravity at about one-third their height duplicating the shape of a bowling pin. By experimentation, it was discovered it was possible to move the monsters using ropes, with one group pulling and tilting the statue, while a second group similtaneously pulled to twist it. By coordinating the pulls and twists, they were able to wriggle it forward as if it were walking. Initially there were fears of it falling, but the design of the moai was so ingenious, the giants would have had to tilt almost sixty degrees, before falling over. (Source: The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.

What an awesome sight it must have been with all the stone monsters standing in tall ranks at the foot of the quarry awaiting marching orders to an ahu where they received their eye sockets and inlaid eys.

The surprising reason for the disappearance of trees on the island had nothing to do with overuse of the trees as rolling devices to move the statues. The reason was rather, RATS! These creatures cascaded about the island, for one couple could result in a million or more in a year or two.The creatures were brought to the island by the Polynesians for food. The ravenous rats multiplied quickly, hungrily feeding on the nuts, seeds and new growth of trees. Before long they decimated the island's trees. Then lots of lunches by the locals and the loss of the food on which they fed led to fewer and fewer rats.

A Stunning Stone Giant

The destruction of their civilization is thought to have occurred largely from over-population, loss of natural resources and the ruination by rats of the island's trees. When Europeans arrived in the 17th century, no palm trees remained. The people wasted their energies and nature's reserves on useless statues, many of which were later destroyed and buried as the various tribes slaughtered each other out of hatred and hunger, which led eventually to cannibalism. Ultimately this resulted in the destruction and disappearance of their society, nothing of which remains today but these mute monsters, providing mindless memories of a failed civilization. .

The moai were located on platforms along the seashore always facing inward. Some wore what look like 'hats' called topknots, which were not hats at all, but hair representing the way chiefs plaited and coiled their hair on top of their heads. The folk on the island were intrigued by hats and their first foreign visitors discovered they would do anything to have a hat.

moai with A TopKnot
photo by G.Wilson

Islander with braided and looped topknot
photo by G. Wilson

Originally all the moai had eyes, which were created with a central disk of dark lava rock inlaid in a cavity on the inside of the almond-shaped eye of white coral, so that the pupil would not fall out and the whole piece fitted perfectly into the eye socket of the statue. None of the moai with eyes now exist. The coral was taken because of its value and because removal of the moai's eyes eliminated their spiritual power.

A Restored moai with Eyes
photo by G. Wilson

A Recovered Eye that exactly fitted the eye socket of one of the Middle Period statues lying nearby.

During the latter period, tribal wars led to the decline and fall of the society. The statues of the enemy tribes were toppled and broken to destroy their protecting spirits. The largest and most impressive platform on the island exhibits 15 moai that were once toppled as a result of these wars. In an attempt to ensure the moai broke when they fell, the distance from the neck - the thinnest and weakest part of the statue - to the bottom of the statue was measured and that distance was then measured on the ground and a rock was placed, so that when the neck hit the rock, it broke off the head. Much later a tsunami occurred that slid these behemoths across the ground like surf boards.

In modern times to restore these many-tonned statues to their platforms, large cranes were needed to lift and replace them onto the original platform. The statues and the platforms on which they stand are considered sacred and may not be touched or walked on.

Fifteen Restored moai On Platform
photo by G. Wilson

The Bird Man Cult at Orongo

(/14tj/15th CE - 18th Century CE)

The islands surviving population developed new tradions and learned to allot the remaining resources. Tourism is an important source of income.

The Bird Islands Matu Nui Sooty Island(furthest); Moto Iti Island (middle); Moto Kaa Kau Island (nearest)
photo by G.Wilson

Orongo is a restored ceremonial village, where there are 53 rebuilt houses and about a thousand petroglyps. The petroglyphs carved on a rock overlooking the three islands, depict various aspects of the Bird Man Cult which existed only in the Middle Period in the island's history. An important part of these ceremonies, which took place on the rim of the circular volcanic crater 600 yards in diameter, was to watch for the return of the first sooty terns to the three islands off the coast of Easter Island from their annual migration.

photo by G.Wilson

At Orongo stone houses were built to accommodate those taking part in the ceremony. These were the only buildings not destroyed in the tribal wars, because this little area or village was the only religious shrine on the island. The people gathered here to greet the sun at each vernal equinox and to participate in the annual birdman contest. These houses also allowed them to dig in against the wild weather, but they could not protect them against a greater threat - themseves.

Stone Houses at Orongo
photo by B. Wilson

The regular homes, according to the account by Captain James Cook when he visited the island, were "low, miserable huts, constructed by setting sticks upright in the ground at six or eight feet distance, then bending them towards each other and tying them together at the top, forming thereby a kind of Gothic arch. The longest sticks are in the middle and lower and narrower towards each side. The these are tied others horizontally and the whole thatched over with leaves of cane. The doorway is in the middle of one side formed like a porch and so low and narrow as just to admit a man to enter on all fours. "

Foundation of Easter Island Reed House

Dome Stone Houses

Some called a tupa were a kind of vaulted house built of stone and partly under ground ith a square entrance.

In the cult of the birdman Rapanui: kangata manu a competition took place annually when a champion was chosen by each clan to represent it. The starting signal for the bird-man contest was the arrival of the manutara ' sun bird,' the sooty tern on Moto Nui a nearby islet off the coast of Easter Island. These sacred migratory birds were called manu-tara meaning 'sun birds'. At a given signal after the first birds were sighted, the champions took off down the steep, very hazardess cliffs from where they plunged into the water and swam to the islands using their pora rafts made out of totora reed. Each man swam as quickly as possible to the island, where he checked the nest of a tern.

Totora Reed Poro Rafts

When he found an egg, he placed it in a leather pouch around his neck, then swam back to shore, scampered up the cliffs and raced to his chief. The first to place an egg in the hand of his tribe's chief made him the chief king of the island for the year with the extensive powers that included distribution of the island's resources for his clan for the year.

Re-enactment of Bird Man Competition

The islanders had a written language, which they incised with a rat's tooth on wooden boards in parallel lines. Alternate lines are written upside-down with the end of one line running into the beginning of the next. They inscribed their hieroglyphs on rongo rongo tablets, many of which were destroyed by early missionaries to the islands, who because they believed they contained heathen rites, burned thousands of them. Fortunately, the islanders had hidden in secret family caves some of these priceless treasurers, thus saving them for posterity. They have presented the world with one of the most baffling challenges in the history of written language for they have never been deciphered.

A rongo rongo tablet

We enjoyed a performance of folkloric songs and dances performed by descendants of the island's original Polynesians inhabitants.

Islanders Telling Stories About Their Ancient Ancestors in Song, Story and Dances
photo by G.Wilson

A Dancer Sings a tale about the Island's Past
photo by G.Wilson

Male Dancers Perform
photo by G.Wilson

photo by G. Wilson


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