Shielding my eyes from the tropical sun, I looked up from Ahu Tongariki on the southeast coast of Easter Island, at 15 moai, the gigantic stone statues that are the defining feature of this outcropping of volcanic rock. Craning my neck to see the top of these megaliths standing against a cloud-dotted azure sky, the tallest over 21 feet high and weighing almost 90 tons, I stood mesmerized. As I gazed at these impassive faces with their ski-slope noses and pursed lips eerily familiar after the dozens of photos I had seen over the years, I kept thinking about those long-dead people who had devoted months, even years, of their lives to create them – and who then brought them here from their open-air atelier some six miles away and somehow, with only the most primitive of tools, stood them up like skyscrapers in human form.
Who were the people who erected these massive sculptures between about 1000 and 1700 A.D.? Where did they come from? Why did the sculptors put forth the tremendous effort to make these figures? Why did all work stop abruptly, leaving statues in all stages of creation, obsidian and basalt picks and chisels lying where they were dropped hundreds of years ago? On whom did they model their facial features? Most puzzling of all: How did those workers, who didn’t have wheels or complex tools, move the stone titans, some of which were, at over 30 feet high, as tall as a two-story house, and weighing up to 80 tons, had the heft of about 40 Ford Explorers?
In 1955 Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer of Kon-Tiki fame, assembled a team of scientists to come to Easter Island to solve the riddles that lay scattered about in the form of hundreds of immense stone figures that had lain untouched for centuries. Since then, a steady stream of investigators have excavated, examined, restored and tried to answer questions that may never be completely resolved.
These riddles from the past now inform both the present and the future of the island, still home not only to numerous scientific expeditions but also to an increasing number of tourists, a few of whom come by cruise ship, but most by plane. On arrival you are immediately plunged into a land of contrasts. You face Easter Island’s Stone Age past in the form of the moai erected just outside the terminal of Mataveri Airport, and its present and future Space Age in its runway, the longest in Chile. Completed in 1988 with U.S. funds, the strip, which extends the width of the island, was built to serve as an emergency landing site for NASA space shuttles.
I had never dreamed that I would ever set foot on this isolated dot on the world map. Its Polynesian settlers originally called it Te Pito o Te Hanua (“Navel of the World”). You can see why. The most remote inhabited scrap of land in the world, it lies in the South Pacific, more than 1,000 miles from the closest populated land, tiny Pitcairn Island (settled in 1790 by the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty), and it sits just about halfway between Chile and Tahiti, some 2,300 to 2,500 miles from each.
Also, tropical islands usually aren’t my thing. But Easter Island is not just another island paradise. In fact, it’s not an island paradise at all. It doesn’t offer miles of beaches, luxuriant flora or exotic birds. Whatever trees are there have been planted over the past century—mostly eucalyptus and a few palms. Other than cockroaches and lizards, all its animals—horses, cows, sheep, pigs and rats—were imported by Europeans. And its landscape holds petrified lava, grassy plains and planted fields rather than lush jungle. But what it does have are those compelling statues, after hundreds of years still keeping their secrets. Its lure is as an open-air museum and puzzle, holding in its volcanic soil the elusive keys to an enigma that has challenged archeologists, anthropologists and historians for centuries.
Since my husband, Mark, and I were planning a trip to Chile, and since LanChile now stops at Easter Island on its twice-weekly flights between Santiago and Tahiti, this land of the baffling monoliths was suddenly accessible—and irresistible.
A triangular-shaped mound of lava thrown up by three underwater volcanoes, Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish, which, along with Rapa Nui, is one of the island’s two official languages) measures only about 15 miles long and 8 miles at its widest point. It received its name from the Dutch ship captain Jacob Roggeveen after he discovered it on Easter Sunday, 1722. The local people, however, call it by its Polynesian name, Rapa Nui (“Big Place”—to distinguish it from the smaller Marquesas island now known as Rapa Iti).
Over the next 150 years a number of European and American ships landed on the island, often with disastrous results to the native population, which at one time may have numbered up to 20,000 and was then decimated by famine, internecine warfare and foreign attacks. The worst depredation occurred in 1862 when Peruvian sailors kidnapped 1,000 islanders, including the king and the learned men, to labor as slaves in guano mines off the coast of Peru. Only 15 of those were still alive some months later, and after the Bishop of Tahiti demanded they be returned home, they brought smallpox and tuberculosis to those still on the island. By 1877, only 110 islanders remained alive. In 1888 the Chilean government annexed the island, and today the population numbers about 3,000—some 2,000 Rapa Nui, 700 Chileans and the rest a mix from around the world, with the local population showing its diverse ancestry.
On our first afternoon on the island, Mark and I set out with our 20-year-old guide, Merahi Papu Merino, the blonde, green-eyed Rapa Nui granddaughter of the Norwegian captain of Heyerdahl’s ship and of the island grandmother who passed on local history and legends. Although you can navigate the island yourself by jeep or mountain bike using maps that show the archeological sites, we appreciated the explanations we received on our one full-day and two half-day tours with Merahi. She had learned English in Santiago and gleaned much of her knowledge of the island from study and from Kari-Kari, the traditional local group she dances with.
Merahi and “Twinky,” who drove the Aku-Aku tour company’s minibus, took us and ten others first to the ruins of Orongo village, on the crest of the volcanic crater of Rano Kau on the southwest point of the triangle. I had wondered who else would show up on the island, expecting mostly academics, but our group was diverse, with young honeymooners from Italy; a retired businesswoman from Florida; an elevator repairwoman from California; a couple of physicians from Johns Hopkins; and four others from Australia, Chile and Argentina, demonstrating the island’s worldwide appeal.
At Orongo, from the top of the crater we looked down at the sea where high waves battered three minuscule craggy islands, Motu Nui, Motu Itu and Motu Kao Kao. “This was the site of the Tangata Manu ceremony,” Merahi told us, punctuating her narrative with the graceful gestures of a dancer. “It was celebrated for 200 years [before Christian missionaries put an end to it in the nineteenth century]. Every July, men came up here to prepare for the contest. They would make up teams for different sponsors. The priests did rituals, and the competitors danced, and painted their bodies and made mahute body rafts [from the reeds that grow deep in the marshy base of the crater]. Then in September [spring in the Southern Hemisphere], when the manutara birds [the sooty tern] came to Motu Nui to lay their eggs, the men swam out to find the first egg of the season. Many would die, either from sharks or from fighting with each other.”
The winner would swim back with the first egg, strapped to his forehead with a cloth band, and would present it to his sponsor, who would then become the Tangata Manu (bird-man) for the year. He would submit to having his head shaved and painted red and black, and for the next year he would live alone in a cave with a priest. At the end of the year, Merahi said with a dimpled smile, he would be given a virgin who had lived for six months in a cave to make her skin white.
After Merahi told the story of the Tangata Manu (depicted in local carvings and paintings as a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bird), she pointed out a gallery of petroglyphs (incised drawings) on the surrounding rocks, several of which emphasize the fertility aspects of the tale implicit in the symbolism of egg and virgin. We saw incised portraits of vulvas next to a phallic-shaped boulder. And I noticed that the delicate tattoo on Merahi’s ankle, which she unself-consciously showed us, was the same design as one of the petroglyphs.
Orongo, the largest architectural complex on the island, was a ceremonial village, inhabited only by priests and Tangata Manu competitors. The stone foundations for several of its 53 houses, some oval-shaped and some boat-shaped, are still in place, and some of the houses have been restored so you can see construction details like the square doorways facing the sea, so small you would have to crawl through them to enter the house.
We were not permitted to crawl through them, however. In 1995 UNESCO named the Rapa Nui National Park, which covers 40 percent of the island, as a World Heritage site. CONAF, Chile’s forestry organization, oversees its use, with an eye to preserving its caves, statues, ancient houses and other archeological treasures. CONAF warns that stone is deceptively fragile and asks visitors not to walk on or mark the petroglyphs, not to climb on or enter the old houses, not to touch the moai or ahus, the platforms that hold the moai, and to stay on the paths.
Even as the sun blazed down, a tropical cloudburst drenched us, and we were glad we had brought rain jackets, as well as sunscreen, both necessities here, where ocean breezes often disguise the fierce heat of the sun. We dashed back to the minibus and headed for a hilltop where we could look down at the little village of Hanga Roa, the location of restaurants, shops, guest houses and hotels—and three Internet cafés. And then we went to look closely at what we had all come for—the ahu and the moai.
The island holds about 300 ahu, masonry structures of different sizes, ranging from just a few yards up to 500 feet long and up to 10 feet high, on which the moai were erected. Each ahu has a central platform which may or may not hold moai, a plaza around it, a sloped ramp and often a burial site and crematorium. Some at the edge of the sea have ramps for launching canoes. The ahu were probably sacred ceremonial sites honoring ancestors, represented by the moai, almost all of whom are male. Some 1,000 moai in various stages of construction have been found, but most have not been restored or erected.
At Ahu Vinapu, built about 1200, six moai have fallen from their original standing position. Near them stands a wall with perfectly fitted large square stones that bring to mind the mortarless constructs of Incan and pre-Incan walls in Machu Picchu and other Andean sites. Those who join Heyerdahl in the belief that the island was settled by South Americans, cite this wall as evidence. They also point to the thin lips and narrow noses of the statues, which resemble Incan profiles more than Polynesian ones; the bird-man cult in Peru, which echoes aspects of the Tangata Manu; and vegetation more characteristic of South America than of Pacifica.
Firmly in the other camp is Rapa Nui archeologist Sergio Rapu Haoa of the Instituto de Estudio del Pacifico (and former governor of the island). As he told Mark and me over a lunch of tuna ceviche in Hanga Roa, many scientists now believe that the original settlers, who probably did have some contact with South Americans, were almost certainly Polynesian. Instead of coming west from South America, he said, those early travelers arrived in their double canoes from the west, probably most directly from the Marquesas Islands. This view is supported by DNA analysis of skeletons on the island and genetic sequences from living Polynesians. However, according to Dr. John Loret, director of the Science Museum of Long Island (New York) and editor of a collection of scientific papers about Rapa Nui, the issue is far from settled.
My favorite site on the island was the quarry where almost all the moai were carved from the volcanic tuff of the Rano Raraku crater. Here, we could walk around the hillside and closely approach moai abandoned in all phases of creation. Almost 400 still sit here, some still attached to the crater rock, waiting to be freed and transported. Here lies the island’s largest moai, 70 feet long and weighing 300 tons. This captive colossus was probably not intended to be moved, but what about all those other daunting behemoths? Somehow they arrived at their destinations miles from their site of creation over rocky volcanic terrain, often without damaging the statues’ finely wrought facial features. How did the workers manage it?
Theories abound, including wooden runners, levers and Y-shaped sledges made from tree trunks pulled with ropes made from tree bark. Then there are the more bizarre theories, including bouncing the statues over mounds of sweet potatoes—and the intervention of extraterrestrials.
When Heyerdahl asked islanders how the statues were moved, he kept getting the answers “they moved themselves” or “they moved by mana” (supernatural ability held by priests). Archeologist Sergio Rapu suggests that after raising the statues erect on platforms of stones, teams of hundreds might have worked together, chanting to keep in rhythm, to move them corner by corner, “the way you would move a refrigerator,” thus making it look as if the statues walked by themselves.
After what seemed like centuries of frenetic work carving, moving and erecting the statues, what happened? European explorers reported seeing them upright in 1770, but 100 years later none were standing. One explanation was the dependence on wood to move them, which might explain the complete deforestation of the island—and also the eventual abandonment of carving when the island’s supply of wood ran out and the statues could not be moved. Other explanations for the sudden end to the work included destruction by earthquakes and tsunamis. Another likely cause was demolition by warring clans.
Two of these clans have been called the “long-ears” and the “short-ears.” Early European visitors found many islanders wearing ornaments in their elongated earlobes, and the story (as told by Heyerdahl—and many contemporary guides, including our Merahi) has it that “long ears” and “short ears” fought fiercely for control of the island, even resorting to fiery massacres and cannibalism. Although the warfare and the cannibalism seem to have existed, Sergio Rapu asserts that errors in translation obscured the true names of the two groups, one of which consisted of heavy people and the other of slender ones, with the former representing the aristocracy.
Some answers may exist in the hieroglyphs incised on old pieces of wood called rongo rongo tablets. Twenty-one tablets have been found, covered with symbols that look like animals, humans or geometric designs. But after the abduction in 1790 of the priests and scholars, no one has ever been able to decipher these glyphs. The mysteries remain.
Thinking about the mysteries of Easter Island makes almost everyone on these shores an amateur archeologist—when you’re not enjoying some of the other enticements of the island, like the two beautiful beaches that it does have. We spent a sybaritic afternoon at the palm-fringed Anakena Beach, with its golden sands and warm, calm waters, and drove a rented jeep to picnic at the more secluded cove of Ovahe Beach, sunny in the mornings but shaded by rocky cliffs in the afternoon. After watching fishermen haul in their morning catch, we ate our tuna dinner at Restaurant Pea where the dinner show consisted of a Turner-like sunset that cast an Olympian light on the moai guarding the shore and then showed us the southern stars and a clear crescent moon. One evening we went to the Hanga Roa Hotel to see Merahi and her energetic and colorfully tattooed fellow dancers in Kari Kari recount local legends in song to throbbing island rhythms. You can also hire horses, motorcycles and dive equipment, and all the businesspeople who dealt with tourists speak English.
Still, in spite of the intellectual challenge of the island’s unknown past and the tourist delights, you can’t help facing the sober realization that Easter Island is a laboratory case of how human beings can demolish the natural resources around them. How a society depleted its fertile soil, dense forests, rich bird and sea life to leave a virtual wasteland that still needs regeneration is a lesson for our own time.
IF YOU GO:
When to Go: Easter Island’s climate is subtropical all year, with the most rain in May, June and July, although sudden showers can come any time. Average temperature during high season, January and February, is 73¼ F. In March, when we went, there was no problem getting accommodations and often off-season rates. Whenever you go, you need sunblock and rain gear.
Getting There: LanChile (800-735-5526; www.lan.com) flies twice a week to and from Santiago, Chile and to and from Tahiti. Because of flight schedules, you need to stay either 4 or 5 nights.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the 3-star Manutara Hotel, with a pool. Service was gracious, especially with the help of Mito Montera Paoa, whose Rapa Nui mother owns the hotel (her father, being non-Rapa Nui, cannot own property on the island). The hotel’s main problem is its location: close to the airport but a 15-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride to Hanga Roa village (On Easter Island phone 56-32-100297, fax 56-32-100768. In Santiago, phone 56-2-6328173, fax 56-2-6332491, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. )
A fellow tourist was happy at Vai Moana, with thatched roof duplexes (reserve at email@example.com. Many people stay at “residenciales” or with private families. One that was recommended is Mahina Taka-Taka Georgia (fax 56-32-100-282; email firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you speak Spanish phone 56-32-100-452).
Where to Eat: Breakfast is always included with room rates. For lunch or dinner we liked the asada (grilled meat & chicken kebabs) and the tuna ceviche at Tumu Ahi on the main street in Hanga Roa, the fresh fish and chicken at Restaurant Pea on the waterfront and the sandwiches and ice cream at La Caleta.
Seeing the Sights: We used the tour operator Aku-Aku. Kia Koe was also highly recommended. Hiring a private guide/driver is also possible. Taxis are plentiful and cheap. A good plan is to go with a guide, private or group, for two days and then rent a jeep and revisit sites or find new ones. The little museum in town is worth a visit.
What to Read: The Insight Guide to Chile and Lonely Planet’s Chile & Easter Island both give good accounts of the island’s history and archeology. Lonely Planet offers good practical advice. Rapa Nui Guide/Easter Island published by CONAF is available at the museum in Hanga Roa and has a good map. Aku-Aku by Thor Heyerdahl is an absorbing read, describing the 1955 expedition, discoveries and interactions with the islanders, but condescending in tone toward them. A beautiful big book published in 2000, Easter Island, Rapa Nui, a Land of Rocky Dreams by Carlos Huber Schulz with color photos by José Miguel Ramirez shows virtually every aspect of the island, both past and present.
Money: Everyone on Rapa Nui is happy to take U.S. dollars, and prices are often given in both pesos and dollars. The more upscale hotels and tour companies take credit cards, but restaurants do not. The bank’s ATM machine accepts only Chilean plastic and charges 10 percent commission to change U.S. cash and traveler’s checks. Tipping is 10 percent.
To Learn More: A wealth of information is available on the Internet. One especially helpful site is https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/715/, which will answer questions you didn’t know you had.
Sally Wendkos Olds has written extensively about child development, family life, human relationship and health, and has won national awards for both her book and magazine writing. She is the author or co-author of eleven books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.