Massive Statues On Easter Island Are Clues to the Past

The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island in Chile.
A closeup view of one of the massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island in Chile.
Massive Statues On Easter Island Are Clues to the Past
The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki seem imperious, an uncompromising guard against the gluttonous sea crashing at its flank on Easter Island...

The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island in Chile.

A closeup view of one of the massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island in Chile.

The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki seem imperious, an uncompromising guard against the gluttonous sea crashing at its flank on Easter Island...

Even in the murk of a sullen, gray afternoon, the massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki seem imperious, an uncompromising guard against the gluttonous sea crashing at its flank.
The shimmer of late afternoon darts through the cloudy drape in a last heady dash before the earth edges darkward. A herd of tawny horses, branded but untamed, gallops into the valley for a late-day graze. For this golden instant, the glory days of the earth's most remote island return.
How bizarre and otherworldly this rocky outcrop must have seemed to Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived here on Easter day 1722. Many of the massive stone statues - called moai - might have been strewn on their backs and bellies across the rugged surface. Treeless and barren, the plot he dubbed Easter Island was - by some accounts - a ruin, more than halfway to dead.
Today, dozens of 12-ton moai have been resurrected with the help of modern technology. But the romance remains, drawing explorers, scientists and tourists to ponder the mysteries of the gargantuan statues and the sophisticated civilization that built them - and all but disappeared.
Even if you've read the books and seen the films, visiting Easter Island is stepping into a new dimension.
About 28,000 visitors per year hop the five-hour flight from either Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti, to the "navel of the world," as locals call it. Easter Island - Rapa Nui to locals, who call themselves Rapanui - lies farthest from land of any island on Earth: 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and 1,240 miles from Pitcairn Island, its closest inhabited neighbor. It measures 66 square miles.
Despite explorer Thor Hyerdahl's famed 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition suggesting Rapa Nui and other Pacific islands were settled by Latin Americans, scientists now generally agree with local legend, that Rapa Nui was established by seagoing Polynesians sometime between 400 and 800 A.D.
Scientists still debate what followed - the how and why of statue creation, tribal conflict, deforestation, disease. Some researchers, including Collapse author Jared Diamond, see Easter's demise as "ecological suicide" by a competition-focused culture burdened by population growth and naturally limited supplies of trees and food. Others argue that rats - brought by settlers as a food source - were the primary cause of deforestation.
Regardless of the details, it's a somber story. By the late 19th century, the local population had plummeted from a one-time swell as high as 15,000 - some say even 30,000 - to a mere 111, says China Pakarati, an island-born guide.
Yes, island-born.
Easter Island facts
Given its sad history, you might expect Easter Island to be a remnant-turned-tourist attraction: the Pompeii of the Pacific, Stonehenge of Polynesia, an island Acropolis. But come here, and you'll find a place decidely alive, if not always thriving.
About 3,800 people live here - among them most of Pakarati's 78 first cousins. The town of Hanga Roa bustles with school children, soda stands, tourist shops, low-key guest houses and hotels, an ATM.
Still, isolation, far-flung government, paltry natural resources and the aftermath of European ravages - a 19th century slave raid, disease, over-grazing - mean life isn't easy. Alcoholism, a disintegrating family structure, education limits and abuse are all issues, Pakarati says.
Still, as she shows you her island, she points to progress. Since a British sheep farming company pulled out in the mid-1900s, the land has rebounded. Once locals thought the earth sustained only sweet potatoes and sugar cane, but thanks to new methods, she says, they're now farming tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce - a surge toward self-sufficiency.
But it's the statues most visitors come to see: the red-capped moai with the gleaming white eye at Tahai; the seven sea-facing statues of Akivi; the six carved guards at the beach of Anakena; the 12 elders of Tongariki.
The statues represent not gods, as some early Europeans believed, but elders, judges, ancestral wise men. The platforms - called ahu - are sacred burial grounds; standing on them is sacrilege.
The seven statues of Ahu Akivi are the only ones to face the sea, you learn, because they represent the seven explorers sent by Polynesian king Hotu Matua "into the sun" to find Rapa Nui - an island he'd seen in a dream. The gleaming white eyes - seen today only at Tahai, but likely to have existed elsewhere - are thought to activate the power, or mana - that will bring the ancestor and its protective force back to the village.
Pakarati takes visitors to Orongo, where petroglyphs mark 150 years of competition to capture the season's first Sooty Tern egg and to the craters whose volcanic explosions formed the island hundreds of thousands of years ago. She stops at Ahu Vaihu to show a clearly-toppled moai and at Puna Pau, quarry for the porous red stone pukao - topknots or hats that appear on some later statues. At the round stone dubbed "navel of the world," visitors drop to their knees and hug the rock, said to have mystic power.
Almost half of the 887 moai cataloged are still in the quarry. Half-shaped heads protrude above the ground, their finished bodies stretching a dozen feet beneath. Partly-carved statues stagger about the slope like drunkards at an out-of-control bash. Others lie still in the rocky womb, weeks shy of final formation. Stone tools found tossed aside bear witness to sudden cultural cardiac arrest.
What happened, say researchers, is something like this: The original settlers developed into a dozen tribes, each competing to carve bigger and more impressive moai, each vying for increasingly rare resources. Once-plentiful seabirds all but disappeared. Huge trees required for fishing canoes became extinct. Farming on the rocky, windswept land became inadequate or was forgotten in the rush to build bigger, bolder moai. Hunger set in; civil war erupted; the religious and social structure failed. The chiefs lost power; statues were toppled. Cannibalism exploded.
For many, it's a cautionary tale of consequences. And one still clouded with questions - especially when it comes to the grand moai.
How did the islanders move the hulking statues from their nursery to their stations miles away, then push them into place?
Theories abound. But as with so much on Easter Island, Pakarati says, "it's still a mystery."
If You Go:
GETTING THERE: Lan airlines ( or 866-435-9526) runs several flights weekly from Santiago, Chile, and Tahiti, to Easter Island.
WHERE TO STAY: Easter Island's lodgings are small-scale hotels and guest houses. Clean and comfortable is the rule. For more options, see
Explora: The company that runs first-rate adventure lodges in Patagonia and Chile's Atecama Desert has opened its newest program in Easter Island. Programs are sold as three, four, five or seven-night packages including gourmet meals, bar and guided small-group explorations. Three-day programs from US$1,230 per person, double occupancy.; (011-56-2) 206-6060.
Hotel Otai: This friendly, small-scale hotel offers clean, comfortable rooms set in a tropical garden within walking distance of shops, restaurants and services; meals offered. Doubles from US$120. (011-56-32) 210-0250;
WHERE TO DINE: Most hotels have dining rooms; a number of restaurants dot the main town of Hanga Roa. Worth a visit:
Te Moana: Reasonably priced Indian and Polynesian dishes (around US$12) plus killer cocktails in a chic tropical setting on Hanga Roa's main street. (011-56-32) 551-578.
La Taverne du Pecheur: Casual upscale restaurant near the dive shops in Hanga Roa offers both French and Polynesian specialties (think razed barnacles and escargot.) While some dishes won raves, others were uneven. Expect to pay at least US$40 per person. (011-56-32) 210-0619.
MAJOR SITES: Almost 900 moai are scattered around the island, though only a few dozen have been restored onto platforms. You can easily rent a car (about US$75 per day) and tour the island on your own - which means you can visit popular sites virtually alone. But a good guide is highly recommended for at least part of your visit. Don't-miss sites include:
Ahu Tongariki: The famed phalanx of a dozen elders tossed about by the 1960 tsunami, resurrected by a Japanese effort in the 1980s. At the far eastern end of the island, not far from the quarry at Rano Raraku.
Rano Raruku: Factory of the moai, located near Ahu Tongariki.
Tahai: Former religious center near the town of Hanga Roa, with three platforms - and the only site where a moai has been restored with its eye in place.
Ahu Akivi: Platform of the seven explorers facing the sea.
Ahu Nau Nau: Six statues on a platform overlooking Anakena Beach, likely the landing spot of the first settlers.
Orongo: Home of the birdman culture, Orongo has no moai but spectacular petroglyphs and views of restored houses.
Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert, near Hanga Roa, should be your first stop.
Catholic Church, Hanga Roa: Visit any time to see the simple interior with wood carvings that represent both Catholic and local traditions. Locals dress in traditional clothing for Sunday services; visitors welcome.
Get your passport stamped: For US$1, the Hanga Roa post office will stamp your passport with an Isla de Pascua stamp depicting a moai.
Catch a traditional musical show: The one at the Hotel Hanga Roa is highly recommended.
Two crafts markets sell locally-made jewelry, carvings and clothing. One is near the church; the other is on the main street. Bargain.
Sports: Diving, horse riding and surfing are offered; check shops in town.
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Updated : 2021-04-17 02:13 GMT+08:00