Published: July 9th 2008June 25th 2008
After 4,000km of little but ocean beneath the plane, I was excited to finally see a small island out of the window. Easter Island's human history is short, in all likelihood less than 1,500 years, however that history has generated enormous debate in circles ranging from the purely academic to the best-seller lists. The bare bones of the story are that a society arose in which the carving of enormous moai (stone sculptures) had a central role. Over a period of time, the society broke down and the moai were toppled from their ahus (stone pedestals), leaving the island's appearance pretty much the same as it is today. "All" that's missing is a consensus on the whys and wherefores of the detail.
DNA evidence has shown that Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui aka Isla de Pascua, was colonised from Polynesia rather than, as proposed by Thor Heyerdahl among others, from South America. Europeans first visited the island in 1722, on the day that gave it its European name, though it had been sighted by ships before this. The islanders were naturally surprised at the appearance of visitors, having not encountered other humans in their entire history. The island was originally
divided up into tribal territories, between which there was some degree of cooperation. Subsequent European visits were hardly frequent, but happened often enough to log an ongoing tale of a society in collapse and, by 1868, no moai were still standing on the island. All the erect moai that visitors today can see have been raised by archaeologists. The pollen record shows a wholesale deforestation of the island, leading to soil erosion and making agriculture less productive. Trash middens show a change in their percentage bone content from a marine and bird-based diet to a more land-based one and possibly even cannibalism.
There are two main theories as to what happened on the island. One was popularised by Jared Diamond in his book "Collapse". His version (though calling it "his" is a little misleading as, like much of his work, it's a synthesis of research carried out by others in many disparate fields, brought together by his own genius and highly readable writing style) has the island first being populated around 500AD. Over the next millenium or so, as the moai culture takes hold and becomes an accelerating contest of oneupmanship to build bigger and better moai, more and
more trees are cut down for the transportation of the moai, leading to the deforestation mentioned before, and eventually insufficient food to sustain the population.
The second theory, a more recent one, was proposed by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii. This one has Easter Island being populated much later on, in about 1200AD. He contends that the rats that the Polynesians brought with them then proceeded to play a major part in the deforestation, as palm seeds to them are like Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Milanos to John McCabe (JD mentions the rats as a minor contributing factor in the process). Hunt also suggests that the quality of the soil was so poor that it made sense to remove the trees anyway and replace them with rock gardens for agriculture.
I'm a big fan of JD's writing (and have not read Hunt's paper), even if he does insist on sporting the facial hair of a garden gnome, but I don't have enough of a background in carbon-dating, dendrochronology, palynology, glottochronology, etc (damned British education), to know which theory is correct however, whichever way you look at it, there was an ecological disaster.
The moai themselves
were an integral part of a system of ancestor worship. The vast majority were carved from the volcanic tuff in the quarry in the crater Rano Raraku, though a small percentage were carved from basalt or other rocks. Of the nearly 900 moai on the island, only 10 are female. Once carved, they were transported to the appropriate point on the island where they were to be erected. An ahu was built, then the moai positioned on it and a red pukao (top-knot) to round it off. The final act was to carve eye sockets in the sculpture and insert a pair of coral eye whites with a red scoria or black obsidian pupil (though there is currently only one moai on the island in this state).
Once the eyes were inserted, the moai was deemed to be imbued with mana (power), and it would then have been able to watch over and protect its village. The only way the moai could then lose its power was if its neck was broken.
The process of how the moai were moved around the island and then erected will never be known conclusively, though theories have been successfully tested using
the technology of the time. This is a subject of interest as the average moai is 4m long and weighs 12.5 metric tons hence requires some effort to be moved. Mounting the moai on a wooden sled and then using wooden rollers to trundle it along is one of the likelier suggestions - an exhibit in the island's museum stated that tests had shown a moai could be transported 500m in just 2 minutes using this method. The moai could have been raised using ropes and gradually piling stones under its face to lever it to an erect position. It has been suggested that the top-knot was lashed to the moai during this process, so that both would be raised at the same time.
Which means that the one true mystery of Easter Island, of which there are no likely theories, is one whose evidence is now all outside of the island. That mystery is the Rongorongo script, an as yet undeciphered writing system whose extant examples are all now overseas. The script was only known by select individuals in Rapa Nui society, and unfortunately they were among those taken by Peruvian slave traders, who carted a third of
the island's population back to Peru in the mid-19th century - the small number who returned brought with them smallpox, which reduced the island's population to about 100. It is still unknown whether Rongorongo qualifies to be a member of the (very) short list of writing systems that developed independently of any prior knowledge of writing.
I spent 4.5 days on the island, with the first 2.5 being warm and sunny, the next gusty, showery, and cloudy, and on my last day it rained pretty much constantly. I hired a scooter for the sunny days, zipping round the island on a route that linked the major sites. I was surprised at how poor the roads and signage were - this has probably helped limit damage to the sites (most of which are totally unsupervised), but is more likely down to the región
that Easter Island is part of (i.e. Valparaiso) siphoning off the island's profits. Apparently there's a movement to make Easter Island its own separate región
. With it being lowish season, there weren't many other tourists around and I was in more danger of crashing into a roving cow or wild horse than a tour group.
Hanga Roa harbour
countryside was surprisingly English, with rolling green hills dotted with cows. A dramatic coastline marked the boundary with the Pacific Ocean, with surf pounding on the rocky shore. My accommodation was close to the sea, and sunsets were reflected and refracted by the spray thrown up by the collision of water and stone.
I was most impressed by Ahu Tongariki, which has 15 moai all in a row on their ahu. The tsunami from the 1960 mega-earthquake in Chile had scattered them inland but a project finishing in 1992 gathered up their constituent parts and then raised them. Seeing such a large number standing gives a glimpse of what it must've been like when all the island's moai were erect.
Ahu Anakena had the most appealing setting, being on a beach in a sheltered cove. The ahu here has 5 moai, sufficiently well-preserved by the location that you can even see some carvings on their backs. A palm-shaded swathe of sand provides the most insistent of invitations to bring a picnic.
Rano Raraku, or the quarry, is the volcanic crater in which most of the moai were carved. There are moai both outside and inside the crater,
with the ones inside in various stages of carving. It took 5 or 6 men one year to sculpt a moai. A little-used path meanders through the unfinished moai, reaching a point from where there is a view across the plain to Ahu Tongariki.
My favourite crater was Orongo, near the main settlement of Hanga Roa. This is filled with a freshwater stew that acts as a giant hydroponic garden. At one point along its rim is a village associated with the birdman cult which centred on the god Make-Make - it is thought this cult came to prominence as the moai culture was in decline. The most prestigious post in this religion was determined by a race to retrieve the first egg of a sooty tern from an island nearby. This involved climbing down the steep cliffs to the sea (many fell), swimming through not-shark-free waters to the island, searching for an egg, then doing the path in reverse. For this strenuous and risky undertaking, the winner won the right to live in seclusion for a year, disallowed from washing himself or cutting his hair, and being attended by only a priest or a special virgin who'd been
kept in a cave for a few months to whiten her skin. I'm not sure I'd have been busting a gut to win this one.
The Ahu Tahai complex is also close to Hanga Roa, and consists of an ahu bearing 5 moai in poor condition, a singleton moai in poor condition, and the only standing moai on the island with its eyes in place. Through having seen numerous images in my life of moai with no eyes, this one looked wrong and almost lacking in gravity, but that's how they would all have looked in the society's prime.
Most ahus are on the coast so, if they were guarding a village, they would obviously be facing inland. The one major exception to this is the inland ahu of Akivi, however even though this is facing the sea it is thought that there may well be an unexcavated village in front of it.
There were also several sites where the toppled moai had been left as they were, their necks broken in an act of violence. These had their own atmosphere, the many months of work to carve and transport them now in vain.
The similarity of this building precision to that of mainland South American sites such as Macchu Picchu was one of the pieces of evidence cited by proponents of the theory that Easter Island was first populated from South America rather than Polynesia.
to the island is not cheap. I spoke with various people who were staying for the same period as me and they had paid anywhere between $500 and $900 for their return flights from Santiago. I've hired cars in the US for less than it cost me to hire the scooter. The dorm I stayed in was actually a decent price and cheaper than several places I'd stayed on the mainland, though we were only given one toilet roll and then told we had to provide our own. Food was expensive whether you cooked for yourself or ate out. However, if the startling uniqueness of the moai themselves wasn't enough, there is a compactness to the island and its story that merits a visit. That story may not have been fully spelled out yet, but the words for it will only come from this 63 square mile scrap of land.
There are more photos below