Rapa Nui, a Pacific Ocean island of mystery

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Easter Island is the most isolated island on Earth and famous for its giant stone heads, yet surprisingly little is known about the culture that created them. Island artefacts reveal much, but conceal even more.

003 Easter Island maoi

Big Island, Big Heads, Big Mysteries

There is much that we do know about Easter Island, called Rapa Nui in the local language. Scientific theory has added some insight. So has an ancient oral history to some extent. What we know is mostly thanks to archaeological evidence and stories collected from voyagers and missionaries that form part of the island’s modern history. After all, they took notes. Despite all that, many questions remain about Rapa Nui’s strange cultural past. My biggest question, since I first saw a magazine picture of them when I was a child, is: “What are the colossal stone heads about?”.

"Sí, well," says my Spanish-speaking, Rapa Nui-native guide, who is unexpectedly tall, "they are called moai," (pronounced mo-eye), but he decides that I should hear the island's history in chronological order first. In short: Rapa Nui (meaning "big island" in French Polynesian) lies 3,500 kilometres (2,180 miles) off the coast of mainland Chile, and is a triangular, volcanic island with 173 square kilometres of hilly, rocky terrain, shrub and pasture that once was forested. Polynesians arrived in their "big canoes" on Rapa Nui around 400 CE, after more than 700 years of colonizing most of the Polynesian triangle. According to legend, King Hotu Matu's large party of hundreds arrived in two boats, with plants and animals; according to petroglyphs, the boats were double canoes.

Then came three major phases. The populating phase lasted roughly until 800 CE. The moai constructing phase followed until around 1680 — natural resources, including the trees and rich topsoil, were severely depleted during the 16th and 17th centuries. Lastly came the moai toppling and Birdman ritual phase until Catholic missionaries arrived in 1864. The island was further exploited throughout the 19th century by voyagers, slave traders and Chile, which annexed the island in 1888.

050 Easter Island maoi

My decades of wonder lie in phase two, and my guide finally takes me to see a moai. The scene is exactly what I had pictured: 15 towering busts facing inland line the coast like resolute soldiers on guard. Ocean waves roll in behind them, black cliffs coated with green grass flank them, and blue sky hangs above. It is a powerful sight. The moai's presence feels as noble as the deified ancestors they are thought to represent. The tallest figure here is maybe 12 metres with his red pukao (topknot), the supposed hairdo of the time. Or, it's a hat.

The field that the moai overlook is scattered with petroglyphs of legends and religious symbols like Make Make the god of creation, Tangata Namu the Birdman, a sea turtle to guide the way, and a fish, probably tuna, that was an important part of the Rapa Nui diet. The clan for whom the moai were carved would have lived in this field below the watchful eyes of their protective stone ancestors. They would have made good use of the abundant lava rocks too. There were greenhouses — circular walls to keep the wind off the potatoes and banana trees; there were chicken coops — thick walls containing pockets accessed from the side, with a fitted stone to cover each opening overnight so the hens could lay eggs in the pockets in safety; and there were canoe-shaped shelters to sleep in, the chief's being the biggest and closest to the ahu (moai platform).

141 Easter Island maoi

More Unanswered Questions

Not far beyond this settlement are the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano from where hundreds of moai were carved from the tuff and distributed to altars throughout the island. How they were moved remains a mystery. Two of the various theories seem most likely: after a moai was carved out of the volcano, it was either pulled along over log rollers, which might explain the disappearance of the island's trees, or it was wobbled along the ground like a penguin, which might explain the curved bottom. However they were moved along the various "statue routes", the figures were then given finishing touches, such as decorative carvings and body parts, the bases were reworked and they were mounted onto platforms. Somehow. Then red tuff topknots, weighing up to 11 tons, and eyes carved from white coral and red scoria were added.

Here in the quarry, almost 400 moai remain in various stages of completion. One that is still attached to the mountain is 22 metres long and would probably weigh about 300 tons. We walk on through the grassy slope past stoic heads sticking comically out of the ground at every angle. Yellow daffodils, purple thistles and unnamed orange blossoms freckle the mountain side. At the top of the volcano is a small lake — a source of sweet water for the ancients. Minnows swim between shocks of tall green bulrushes and the clay banks, and more moai dot the far bank. They are shorter and their long, snubbed noses and fine, joined lips suggest they were carved in an earlier part of the moai construction period. I ask my guide what brought the sudden halt to the moai's completion. No one knows for sure. Civil war is his guess.

005 Easter Island maoi

The next day I head to other sites. With nearly 900 moai throughout the island, there is no shortage. Although many have been re-erected, some complete with eyes, more lie in fields, face down, broken, eroded.

Erosion is a serious problem for the statues, and there is controversy on the island about how to deal with it. With museums in Europe offering to buy moai to display overseas, the community is torn between losing more pieces of its cultural heritage in order to raise money to preserve what's left, and watching the slow deterioration of the monuments. But this is not the first time they've faced a resource crisis.

"What were they thinking when they cut down the last tree?" I ask today's guide. He is Spanish-speaking from mainland Chile but his mother was Rapa Nui. He is unexpectedly blonde and blue-eyed.

"Maybe they didn't cut them down," he says. "Maybe it was a fire, a climate shift or a combination of things. We don't really know."

With so many unanswered questions, not even what is left of the Rongo Rongo samples have helped. Rongo Rongo is a script unique to the island that has been carved into wooden tablets and driftwood pieces, but it is a puzzle itself. As yet, no one has been able to decipher it. Rapa Nui's mysteries unfold in their own time.

061 Easter Island maoi

No Mystery Where to Stay

LAN Airlines has the monopoly on flying in and out of Rapa Nui, either from Santiago de Chile or from Tahiti. Both flights take about five hours.

I recommend booking accommodations with Explora's hotel Posada de Mike Rapu, which arranges for visitors' every need from arrival to departure in world class style. Explora, who hosted me for this visit, supports the local community through investment and employment, and has earned a LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificate for its high environmental standards.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at © 2010

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