One of the most remote places on earth, tiny EASTER ISLAND is home to 5000 or so people. Around half are indigenous (who generally refer to themselves as Rapa Nui; mainland Chileans call them pascuenses), with the rest being mainly continentales (mainland Chilean immigrants). The Rapa Nui have fine-boned Polynesian features and speak their own Polynesian-based language (also called Rapa Nui) in addition to Spanish. Virtually the entire population lives in the island’s single settlement, Hanga Roa, and most islanders make their living from tourism, which has been growing steadily ever since an airstrip was built here in 1968.
The key points of interest are found within Parque Nacional Rapa Nui, which comprises much of the island. Highlights include Rano Kau, a huge volcanic crater and site of the ceremonial village of Orongo; the Rano Raraku quarry, where almost all the moai were carved; and the largest ahu (platform) on the island, Ahu Tongariki, which boasts fifteen moai. Archeological treasures aside, Easter Island has much to offer outdoor enthusiasts, from diving in waters with arguably the best visibility in the world to surfing major waves off the island’s south coast.
Easter Island is two hours behind mainland Chile. The weather is fairly constant year-round, with an average temperature of 23°C (73°F) in January and February, and 18°C (64°F) in July and August. Late January and early February is the busiest time, as the islanders stage the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival.
Easter Island was “discovered” and named by Dutch naval commander Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday, 1722. In the absence of any written records left by the islanders, Roggeveen’s log is the earliest written account of the island. His party spent only a single day on land, long enough to observe the “particularly high erected stone images”. After their departure, it was another 48 years before Easter Island was revisited, this time by Spanish commander Felipe González, who mapped the island and claimed it for King Carlos III of Spain during a six-day stay.
Four years later, Captain Cook anchored here in the hope of restoring the health of his scurvy-ridden crew. He, too, observed with incredulity the “stupendous figures”, though he noted that some lay strewn on the ground, toppled from their platforms. Later visitors reported an increasing number of fallen statues, and by 1825 all of the moai on Hanga Roa bay had been destroyed.
The arrival of the slave traders
In 1805, the island was raided by the first of the slave traders, when an American schooner captured 22 men and women to be used as seal hunters on the Juan Fernández Islands. After three days at sea, the prisoners were allowed onto the deck, whereupon they promptly threw themselves overboard and drowned in a desperate attempt to swim back to the island. Between 1862 and 1864, Peruvian sailors captured over two thousand five hundred islanders, who were shipped off to work as slaves in the guano mines.
After many of the islanders had died from disease and the appalling conditions in the mines, the Bishop of Tahiti finally managed to persuade the Peruvian government to repatriate the remaining prisoners – most of whom died on the voyage home. Tragically, the sixteen who made it back infected the rest of the islanders with smallpox and TB, reducing the population to around one hundred. Critically, the loss of life was accompanied by the loss of a crucial part of the island’s culture and collective memory, for the last ariki henua (high chief), moari (keepers of sacred knowledge) and tangata rongo rongo (specialist readers) were among those who perished.
Missionaries and plantations
A certain degree of stability came when the first missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in 1864 and set to converting the islanders to Christianity, a mission fully accomplished by the time of his death, four years later. The peace was disrupted, however, when a French plantation owner, Jean-Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier, bought up large tracts of land and proceeded to run the island as his personal ranch, paying the islanders a pittance for their hard labour and resorting to violence when they wouldn’t cooperate. When the missionaries opposed Doutrou-Bornier’s exploitation, he attacked their missions, forcing them to flee the island. He dealt a further blow to the island’s slowly recovering population by sending all but a hundred islanders to Tahiti to work on his partner’s plantation, before finally being murdered in 1877 by the oppressed islanders.
The Chilean government acquired first Doutrou-Bornier’s lands, and then most of the remaining land on the island, leaving only the village of Hanga Roa in the possession of the islanders. Then, on September 9, 1888, the Chilean Navy – apparently with the islanders’ consent – officially annexed Easter Island, declaring it Chilean territory. Chile subsequently leased it to Williamson Balfour, a British wool-trading company, which virtually governed the island according to its own needs and interests.
In 1953, the company’s lease was revoked and the Chilean Navy stepped in to resume command, though the islanders were given no say in the running of the island. It was not until 1964, that they were allowed outside Hanga Roa (let alone off the island), and granted full citizenship and the right to vote.
The drive towards autonomy
Since the return to democracy, the management of some local affairs, including education, which is now bilingual, has been transferred to the islanders. However, many continue to call for greater autonomy and even secession, expressing concern over the pace of development, the impact of the growing tourist industry and the increasing numbers of mainland Chileans settling on the island. At the time of writing, legislation was set to be passed in the Chilean parliament to give the Easter Island authorities greater powers to regulate tourist numbers (and potentially levy a visitor charge).Read More
The fifteen colossal moai lined up on AHU TONGARIKI make a sensational sight. This was the largest number of moai ever erected on a single ahu, which, at 200m long, was the largest built on the island. It was totally destroyed in 1960 when a massive tsunami, triggered by an earthquake in Chile, swept across this corner of the island, dragging the platform blocks and the statues 90m inland – a remarkable distance, given that the statues weigh up to 30 tonnes each.
In November 1988, Sergio Rapu, a former Governor of Easter Island, was being interviewed for a Japanese television programme, and said that if they had a crane they could save the moai; a Japanese man watching the show decided to act and a committee was set up in Japan. The restoration of the ahu involved Chilean archeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas, a group of forty islanders, specialists from the Nara Institute of Japan and recognized international experts in stone conservation. The project took five years and was finally completed in 1995.
Rano Kau and Orongo
Rano Kau and Orongo
South of Hanga Roa, a dirt road climbs steeply past a mirador offering an excellent view of Hanga Roa up to one of the most awe-inspiring spots on the island – the giant crater of the extinct RANO KAU volcano, and the ceremonial village of ORONGO, perched high on its rim. The dull waters of the volcano’s reed-choked lake contrast sharply with the brilliant blue of the Pacific, stretching as far as the eye can see, visible where a great chunk of the crater wall is missing. Just before you reach Orongo, a path disappears into the lush vegetation around the crater’s edge; it is possible to follow this around the crater as a leisurely day’s walk, but bring plenty of water.
Orongo, just beyond the Conaf visitors’ centre (where national park entry permits are available), consists of the partially restored remains of some 48 low-lying, oval-shaped huts made of thin stone slabs, each with a tiny entrance just large enough to crawl through (don’t try). A few steps from the houses, on the face of some basalt outcrops looking out to sea, you’ll find a dense group of exquisitely carved petroglyphs depicting curled-up human figures with birds’ heads and long curved beaks. These images honour an important annual ceremony dedicated to the cult of the birdman. A great deal is known about this ceremony, as it was practised right up to 1878.
North of Tongariki, RANO RARAKU rises from the land in a hulking mass of volcanic stone. This crag is where almost all of the island’s statues were produced, carved directly from the “tuff” (compacted volcanic ash) of the crater’s outer slopes. The first surprise, on approaching the crater from the car park, are the dozens of giant heads sprouting from the ground. They are, in fact, finished moai brought down from the quarry, which were probably placed in shallow pits (that gradually built up) until they could be transported to their ahu. One of them bears an image on its chest of a three-masted sailing ship, suggesting that they were carved after European contact.
Among this mass of shapes, still attached to the rock face, is El Gigante, the biggest moai ever carved, stretching over 20m from top to bottom. Experts believe that it would have been impossible to transport, let alone erect.
The east end of the trail culminates in the kneeling, round-headed Moai Tukuturi, the only one of its kind, discovered by Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition in 1955. To the west, the trail winds its way up between wild guava trees into the crater itself, with several dirt paths running through knee-high shrubbery alongside the large reed-strewn, freshwater lake. If you follow the trails all the way up to the crater’s eastern rim (avoid treading on the toppled moai right at the top) you are rewarded with unparalleled views of the bay and Ahu Tongariki in the distance.
Easter Island festivals
Easter Island festivals
To witness the island’s culture at its best, time your visit to coincide with one of the festivals. Tapatai Rapa Nui is a ten-day cultural celebration held in late January or early February. Famous for celebrating Rapa Nui culture, tradition and history, the festival features dancing, body painting, statue carving, choral recitals, surfing displays, canoe races, re-enactments of old legends and huge curanto feasts. Semana Santa (Easter week) features lively celebrations at Hanga Roa’s church. The Ceremonia Culto al Sol is a feast that takes place on June 21 for the winter solstice, while Día de la Lengua Rapa Nui, a celebration of the Rapa Nui language, is held in late November.
The Birdman ceremony
The Birdman ceremony
The Birdman ceremony took place annually at the September equinox, when the chiefs of the various kin-groups assembled at Orongo to compete. The aim was to find the first egg laid by the sooty tern (a migratory bird) on Motu Nui, the largest of three islets sitting opposite Orongo, 2km out to sea. Each chief would choose a representative, or hopu, who would scale down the sheer cliff to the ocean and swim through shark-infested waters to the islet. It could take several weeks for the egg to be found; meanwhile, the chiefs would remain in Orongo, where they participated in ritual dances, songs and prayers.
Once the egg was finally found, its discoverer would bellow the name of his master, and then swim back to the island with the egg tucked into a headband. The victorious chief now became the new tangata manu, or birdman. The new birdman would first have all the hair shaved off his head; he would then live in strict seclusion for a whole year in a sacred house at the foot of Rano Raraku, eating only certain foods, and forbidden to bathe or cut his nails. His kin-group, meanwhile, was endowed with a special, high status, which was often taken as an excuse for members to dominate and bully their rival groups.
The moai of Easter Island
The moai of Easter Island
The enduring symbol of Easter Island always has been the moai. A Neolithic statue cult on this scale would impress in any location, but the fact that it developed in total isolation on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific almost defies belief. There are some four hundred finished statues scattered around the island, and almost as many in the quarry, in varying stages of completion. The moai range in height from 2m to about 20m, and though styles evolved over time, all are carved in a highly stylized manner. Their bellies are gently rounded, and their arms are held tightly by their sides, with their strange, long-fingered hands placed across their abdomens. Their heads are long and rectangular, with pointed chins; prominent, angular noses; and thin, tight lips.
Function and form
According to the islanders’ assertions, which are consistent with widespread Polynesian tradition, these figures represented important ancestors, and were erected on the ancestral land of their kin-groups, which they would watch over and protect with their mana (almost all the moai face inland). Archeologists have proposed tentative dates of around 1000 AD for the carving of the early statues, and around the fifteenth century for the bulk of the statues, when production peaked. Rano Raraku’s unfinished statues demonstrate how their forms were chiselled out of the rock face until they were attached to it by just a thin keel running down their spine. When all was completed but their eye sockets, they were freed from their keel and slid down the quarry’s slope, then temporarily erected in a pit until they were transported to their ahus.
The island’s oral histories offer no clues as to how the 20 to 25-tonne statues were moved, claiming the statues’ mana enabled them to walk short distances each day until they reached their platforms. Modern theories have included horizontal and vertical swivelling, but since it was established in the 1980s that the island was once densely covered by trees, it’s been assumed that they were dragged on wooden sledges or on top of rollers.
Raising the moai
How the statues were erected onto their platforms in the absence of any type of machinery is another enigma, though in 1955, Thor Heyerdahl challenged the island’s mayor to raise a fallen, 25-tonne statue at Anakena Beach and, under the mayor’s supervision, twelve islanders raised the statue in eighteen days, using two levers and slipping layer after layer of stones underneath the horizontal statue. Little by little, it was raised on the bed of stones until it was level with its platform; at this point, the layers of pebbles were placed only under its head, until the statue was nearly vertical and could be slipped into place. Archeologists agree this method is highly likely to have been used to raise the statues. In contrast, no one has been able to demonstrate how the large, heavy “topknots” were placed on the raised statues’ heads – a monumental feat, achieved only with a crane in modern times.
Easter Island society was based around independent clans, or kin-groups, each with its own high-ranking members. The statue-carvers were highly revered members of a privileged class who were exempt from food production and were supported by farmers and fishermen. Such a system must have involved a great deal of economic cooperation, which appears to have been successfully maintained for hundreds of years.
The beginning of the end
Then, in the later stages of the island’s prehistory, the system collapsed, and the island became engulfed by warfare. Archeological records reveal a sudden, dramatic proliferation of obsidian weapons during the eighteenth century, as well as the remains of violently beaten skulls, and evidence of the widespread use of caves as refuges. Archeologists have also found possible evidence of cannibalism – something featured prominently in the island’s oral traditions. The most dramatic testimony of this period, however, is provided by the hundreds of fallen statues littering the island, deliberately toppled as enemy groups set out to desecrate each other’s sacred sites.
So what went wrong on Easter Island?
It seems likely the seeds of social collapse lay in the extremes the statue cult was taken to by the islanders. As the impulse to produce moai required more and more hands, the delicate balance between food distribution and statue-carving was destroyed. This situation was profoundly aggravated by the growing scarcity of food brought about by overpopulation, and deforestation, following centuries of logging for boat-building, fuel consumption and statue-transportation. This must have had a catastrophic effect on the islanders’ ability to feed themselves: deep-sea fishing became increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, owing to the lack of wood available for new canoes, and even land cultivation was affected, as the deforestation caused soil erosion. In this climate of encroaching deprivation, the Easter Island civilization descended into anarchy, dragging its majestic monuments with it.
The myth of the “Long Ears” and the “Short Ears”
The myth of the “Long Ears” and the “Short Ears”
An oft-repeated oral tradition has it that the island’s population, in the time just before the toppling of the statues, was divided into two principal groups, the “Short Ears” and the “Long Ears”. In fact, the whole myth is based on a mistranslation. It seems the two clans were really the Hanau eepe (“short and stocky”) and the Hanau momoko (“tall and slim”); the strange mix-up came from mistranslating eepe – short and stocky – as “ear” (“epe” in Rapa Nui).
The “Long Ears”, who saw themselves as more aristocratic, were extremely domineering, and the “Short Ears” resented them intensely. The “Short Ears” rebelled when forced to clear rocks off the land, forcing the “Long Ears” to retreat to the Poike Peninsula. Here they dug deep ditches, and filled them with branches and grass, intending to force their enemies inside and set them alight. However, a “Short Ears” woman who was married to one of the “Long Ears” alerted her people, and allowed them to surround their enemies while they were sleeping. When they attacked, the “Long Ears” ran straight into their own ditch, which was set alight. Most of the “Long Ears” burned to death, but three escaped. Two of them were caught and executed, but one, Ororoina, was allowed to live, and went on to father many children – whose descendants, to this day, are proud of their Hanau momoko heritage.