The New Year brought us to Easter Island-a place that has fascinated me for many years. It is the most remote inhabited island in the world. And believe me, when I say remote, I mean REALLY remote. As it “what the hell is up with the internet?” remote.
A point of interest was the airport runway. This was expanded by NASA for possible space shuttle emergency landings. I think you could probably see this airstrip from space. Easter Island has two commercial flights a day that are pretty packed as it is a five hour flight from just about anywhere and it is REMOTE. As in there is only one gas station on the island.
We landed and headed to our hotel, which brands itself as an Eco Village and Spa. I have always wondered what eco-lodges are all about. It basically means “bring your own shampoo and soap” and “good luck with that toilet paper”.
We also learned quickly that these are a very relaxed people as our luggage took about an hour to fully arrive to our room as they came one at a time. Either that, or they ere unionized bag staff. Being from Chicago, I am thinking union.
On Tuesday we began our touring. First, some background:
-Easter Island was formed 780,000 to 300,000 years ago with the eruption of three
major volcanos. The Polynesians discovered and colonized the island AD 700-1000.
What I am about to describe to you centers around two distinct phases of the Rapa Nui, which is what the people of Easter Island call themselves, their island and their language. These are the era of ancestor cult worship as defined by moai carving (1000 to 1600) followed by the Birdman cult. (yes, you read that correctly. Birdman.)
– The island itself is 63 square miles and can be easily identified from space due to its massive airstrip. At least that is what I think. Without a reef to protect it, the island faces a daily battering of waves that are utterly majestic. As a result, there are few beaches..but those few are also spectacular.
– Easter Island is the easternmost point of Polynesia, with Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south. What you learn is that all of these Polynesian islands share very similar belief systems, which basically are central to their culture and their daily lives.
– Besides the large three volcanoes, there were hundreds of smaller cones that have created a rolling landscape and produced various forms of rocks that the islanders have used for various purposes. Like the Inca’s, there was a strong obsessive compulsive behavior around rocks, so this is an important fact.
-Easter Island gets its name from the day first European contact was made-Easter Sunday, 1722. Later I will give you the run down of what happened then, but let’s just say this did not go so well for Rapa Nui.
– Hanga Roa is the only town on Easter Island. The total island population is 5,000 people. At the height of the ancestor worship era it is estimated that 10,000 people were on the island.
-Joining our expedition in Hanga Roa was none other than the famous archaeologist Claudio Cristino, who led the reconstruction of several significant historical sites on the island, and is certainly happy to tell you all about it, even if he had just told you about it an hour earlier. Which I have picked up as a common amongst all these hippie, non-datable academics on this trip.
Our first stop was the archaeological site of Ahu Tahai. This is close to Hanga Roa, the village. Ahu means platform, and Tahai represents the name of the ceremonial site where the moai stand on the platform. Moai (which means image in Rapa Nui) are defined as huge stone statues that represent Rapa Nui ancestors. There are between 700 and 900 moai spread across the island, and some lie scattered in pieces. They are literally everywhere.
This is traditional moai we photographed at this site. The Rapa Nui believed that when a person died their spirit could be brought back to their people via a moai. These are typically quite large-the largest one currently standing weighs 90 tons. Typically moai’s were only created for tribal chiefs and those of noble birth. It is believed that there were as many as 13 tribes on the island. This meant, you guessed it, LOTS of moai candidates.
Briefly, the worship of ancestors as deities was central to the Rapa Nui belief system. The moai were erected upon platforms facing the tribes village with their back to the ocean. There are no moai’s facing the ocean. They face the village in order to protect it from all sorts of things…evil spirits, disease, bad weather as well as to bring blessings to the village through their presence.
The moai were carved utilizing basalt hammers (again, no iron or metals available at this time) at a collective quarry that all tribes used. These were carved out of the side of the volcanic mountain at a 45 degree angle. Important to note is that the moai was carved with closed eyes-it was only when they were erected at their final resting place that the Rapa Nui carved their eyes as open and placed coral shells within the sockets. This was done with great ceremony with priests inviting the ancestor into their new home within the moai. To them, the moia were then alive. Most reconstructions of the moai sites have not included the coral shells-which is a good idea because these are flat out creepy and, I believe, would devastate their tourism industry. As I said these guys are EVERYWHERE
Ahu Tongariki- the most famous moai’s. The large one in the middle stands 30 feet and weighs 90 tons.
Below is the quarry with abandoned moai-there are about 400 at this site in various stages of completion. The final is a pic of us at another significant site.
How the moia were transported is one of Easter Island’s greatest mysteries. Theories abound and our guides had many of their own. Scholars believe that like the Inca civilization they utilized a log rolling system. The moai were placed facedown on a wood sled with rolling logs and then pulled to the site. Erecting them is thought to have involved wooden pull levers slowing lifting the statue as another team piled stones under the huge figure until they had created a 45 degree ramp. The moai could then be pulled into place using manpower, poles and long ropes. Workers then carved out the eye sockets to release the statues sacred power. Some of the statues have the red topknot like the photo above. This was made from an entirely different type of volcanic rock- much lighter- and could be placed on separately. I personally think these are man buns as the Rapa Nui rocked that style big time in the stone drawings I saw.
As you can imagine with 13 tribes living on 63 square miles, a cult of moai making which was eating up lots of stone, timber and time, as well as the inability to really go anywhere else started to cause serious problems. Fighting among the tribes for resources became common. Tribes began toppling and destroying other tribe’s moai. Sensing things were not going well, the tribal kings ordered up bigger and bigger moai of ancestors thinking that their spiritual power would somehow bring back the depleted forests and fertility to the land for crops. They had basically consumed their own island in carrying out their spiritual beliefs, and were now in crisis.
The commoners- those doing all the work- decided that THIS IS NOT WORKING. The existing nobility were overthrown and the ancestor worship cult ended. In this destabilized environment the Rapa Nui warrior class introduced the Birdman Cult to restore order. This belief system selected its rulers not by heredity but by an annual Birdman competition that required physical strength, and included sacred rituals performed by the priests ( those guys were still around)
The purpose of the Birdman competition was to collect the first egg laid by the sooty term bird on an islet off the coast and return with it to the top of the Rano Kau volcano. I am not making this up. These birds came to nest every spring. Each tribe sent their designated warrior to the competition. These guys hung around in huts at the top of the volcano watching for the migratory birds to arrive and nest. Once they arrived they repelled down a massive cliff, swam five or so miles to the small island, climbed it, waited for the first egg, swam back, climbed back up, and presented it to the priests. He was then named the most powerful, his tribe was put in charge of island affairs for the next year, and he was promptly put in a hut in isolation for ONE YEAR. This is clearly taking one for the team. This went on for centuries. I think this might be an excellent blueprint for the 2020 elections. This form of governance appeared to be in place from 1600 to the early 1770’s.
During this time the giant moia were basically ignored. The platforms were many times used for burials which resulted in the weakening of the moia structures-many toppled. All of the standing moia you see today are the result of restoration efforts.
With all this as background we did several guided walks through the most significant sites. The island is full of ruins, with restorations of important areas such as ceremonial huts and examples of Rapa Nui households of the times. We visited one of the two gorgeous sand beaches.Chuck and I participated in a coastal walk where we traced the steps of the first Spaniards to land at Easter Island. Seeing nothing to loot and pillage,
they wandered around for a few days around 1770 and then left. For good.
The first European contact was in 1722 when the Dutch arrived. Things went downhill from there. The most significant were the taking of hundreds of Rapa Nui people as slaves by Peruvian slavers in 1862. Some escaped and returned bringing smallpox which killed most of the remaining population. Those that survived were saved by the arrival of missionaries. After all that, only 110 Rapa Nui remained.
Other significant historical events were the annexation of Easter Island by Chile in 1888. In an absolutely astounding display of incredible cruelty Chile leased the entire island out to a sheep farm enterprise and confined the Rapa Nui to their village. This goes on until 1966. It is not until then that they become citizens of Chile. Unbelievable.
We also were given several ceremonial demonstrations, one with young Rapa Nui dancers that was an amazing display of athleticism.I met a number of young descendants of the Rapa Nui who are doing much to re-establish their customs and to educate their children. Similar to Peru, I sense a generation realizing the richness of its own history, and a desire to protect their unique culture.
On our final day I walked with a small group partially around the largest crater on the island and the Birdman ceremonial grounds. It had an unbelievable vibe.
The first picture is the site of the Birdman competition. You can see why some guys did not make it given the cliff height and a dangerous swim. The second is the crater I hiked around.
Rapa Nui is an island of astonishing history, fascinating people, sacred grounds with interesting vibes, and yet to be solved mysteries. It was a short visit that we will never forget.
On to Samoa!!!