Iorana! I’ve arrived on Rapanui, or Easter Island.
“Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are sea and boundless sky, infinite space and a great silence.” (Katherine Routledge)
The seed of my long held desire to come to Easter Island was sown when I was 18 or 19 and somehow, in a college class about languages of France, my utterly delightful and eccentric lecturer, Dr Veronica du Feu, managed to turn the conversation to a comparison to Rapa Nui, then in danger of extinction with only around 2000 native speakers. Over the next couple of years, however much I enjoyed linguistics class she was teaching (she also taught psycho linguistics and phonetics), it was her unrelenting enthusiasm and passion for Rapa Nui that I remember her for. Her ‘magnum opus’ Rapanui, A descriptive grammar was finally published in 1996.
Arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world (Tristan da Cunha also makes this claim), Easter Island or Rapa Nui was formed by three volcanic eruptions – the volcanoes are long dormant but today give it its triangular shape, its ragged, black volcanic rock base and terrain pimpled with small cones.
However, it is the famous moai (statues, and ‘big heads’) that most people come to see. Who built them and why? Why so many? Why so massive? And why, when explorers reached the island in the mid 1800s, had they been toppled?
Having arrived from New Zealand, I was immediately struck by the similarities between Rapa Nui and Maori – in both the word for ‘sea’ is moana, for food ‘kai’ and for people ‘tangata’. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the early settlers came from South America, it’s clear now that they must have originated from the same group of Polynesian islands as the Maori.
Arriving here in boats some time around 700 to 900AD, they would’ve found a richly palm forested island but with no mammals, and no fruits or vegetables as there were no bees to pollinate them. They would’ve had to live on whatever plants they brought, the animals they introduced and fishing. Resources must have been scarce. Settling in villages, usually next to a suitable bay, with caves created by lava tubes for extra shelter, boat shaped houses with tiny entrances were constructed to protect them at night or from rain, but it was otherwise an outdoor life. Typically, the houses were for the rich, the caves for the poor.
The carving of statues to honour your ancestors, so that their spirit continues to protect the tribe is known throughout Polynesia. Here on Easter Island that practice seemed to reach epic proportions as different tribes sought to show off their relative power, amidst increasingly constrained resources. When a chief died, statues were commissioned from the volcanic quarry at Rano Raraku, where hard basalt rock provided the tools, and softer compacted ash-volcanic rock the materials. The statues were then transported over land, probably upright, which is why the legend (and some people’s grandparents today!) says they walked, and many of them toppled and broke along the way – toppled moai are dotted all around the island. Arriving at the villages, the statues were erected on ceremonial ‘ahu’ or great stone platforms, with the tomb of the dead chief below. The final touches were added on-site, sometimes coral eyes and a red rock topknot representing hair (not a hat!), separately carved and transported from a completely different quarry at Puna Pau. Statues always faced into the village, to look over the people, and not out to sea, as some artists depicted. The whole process probably took a year to complete and carbon dating shows the statues becoming increasingly large and elaborate, with neck, stomach and back tattoos added to the designs.
It must’ve required huge amounts of human effort, the artists and carvers, people to transport and erect the statues. According to my Rapanui guide, resentment between the rich and poor of the island started to create conflict between tribes. Meanwhile, wood cut down for fire and transportation, and rats and sheep trampling on seedlings and eating the palm seeds started to delude the island, creating even more pressure for resources.
When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived in 1770, his reports say many of the moai were standing, but just four years later Captain James Cook’s expedition noted that quite a number had toppled. 1838 was the last time a visitor reported one standing. So, what happened? There were no significant earthquakes or tsunamis that can explain. Many believe that inter-tribal conflict saw them pushed over, most probably fuelled by the dwindling resources for survival. This theory is backed up by the fact that they are nearly all face down, suggesting a deliberate desecration. Or maybe the islanders just got frustrated that their ancestors were no longer providing for them.
Hundreds of unfinished statues, including one of 21m, are still lying half carved in the rock, or standing but buried up to their necks around the quarry at Rano Raraku, as Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental excavation of one (now filled in again to protect from the harsh elements) proved. Maybe, in a struggle for survival the tribes just ran out of resources to pay the artists and transport, and other priorities took over.
In 1862 the island was raided by Peru for slaves, over 1500 of fittest people were taken and only a handful returned, also bringing foreign diseases which further decimated the population. The island was in a dire situation. In 1888 chief Atamu Tekena signed a document agreeing to its annexation by Chile. Just as I discovered in the Maori Treaty of Waitangi, the translation into RapaNui leaves quite a bit to be desired in helping islanders understand what they were actually signing up to. The Rapanui were only given full Chilean citizenship in 1966.
However, 150 years later, the infamous moai have given this island a whole new lease of life. Life has changed here considerably in just a few decades – my guide told me his own grandmother grew up in a cave. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of moai have been restored upright to their platforms, with great examples at Tahai near the town Hanga Rao, at Tongariki on the south east coat (some of the largest here) and Anakena on the north coast (not as large but more ornate and better preserved). They are now bringing around 90-100,000 tourists to this island every year, to see the moai, to surf in the gloriously turquoise breakers, and dive in waters that are abundant with fish and turtles and some of the clearest anywhere in the world.
For an island with a population of just 7-8000 residents, the tourist boom is certainly providing employment, reducing its historic isolation, and supporting the continuation of the Rapanui culture. But it must also be creating new resource pressures to provide fuel, clean water and sewage for so many people. Despite the wind, I’ve seen no turbines here, and few solar panels in evidence – all electricity is diesel generated from imported oil. A government subsidy scheme for renewable energy could be a decent investment into longer term sustainability. It may even require some cap on the number of visitors, which is growing exponentially year on year.
Can people learn from the lessons of the past, and steward this island’s natural resources more carefully for future generation? I really hope so because this island, named after the day of Resurrection, with its toppled, buried and re-erected moai, and fascinating cultural story, is a jewel that deserves to keep shining in the Pacific blue skies for all eternity.
(PS. Apologies for this blog’s poor image quality – wifi on Easter Island is slow & limited so all pics are rather compressed and still took hours to load!)