Wednesday, April 05, 2017

If Only the Moais Could Talk

Greetings Everyone,
It's hard to imagine a place so remote that the nearest continental point is 2182 miles away! A place where stone giants line the seashore gazing out at open ocean that stretches forever. Rapa Nui is that place and on March 25 we set out to visit this almost mythical island known by most as Easter Island. The first European to set foot on the island was Jakob Roggeveen who landed on Easter Sunday, 1722 giving Rapa Nui its more common name, Easter Island. Today it's much easier to reach in a Boeing Dreamliner that flies daily from Santiago, Chile to this remote locale.

The Island looks a lot different today than in 700 to 1100 CE when the first Polynesians arrived in their outrigger canoes from the Gambier or Marquesas Islands. Back then the Island was forested with palm and Toromiro trees which are now extinct in the wild. Efforts to replant the Toromiro have failed as the soil and climate are no longer ideal for them.  Today the Island consists mainly of open grasslands with a few groves of introduced eucalyptus trees.

Easter Island Landscape

We were met by our tour guide, Josie, and checked into our hotel before making our first excursion to the ceremonial site of Ahu Tahai close to the only town, Hanga Roa. It's hard to describe one's feelings when you see these monoliths for the first time.  Wonder and awe come to mind.  How could ancient peoples carve and transport these massive stone statues with only primitive tools?

Moai Carving Tools

This site contains three stone platforms called Ahu which support the statues which are called moais. The largest platform, Ahu Tahai, contained 5 moais each carved from compacted volcanic ash called tuft.  The largest stands 30 feet tall and weighs 80 tons!  

Ahu Tahai

Nearby was a smaller Ahu with a single Moai, Ko Te Riku, with restored eyes made from white coral and red scoria.  This moai had what looked like a top hat also made of red scoria.  Josie explained that it is a top knot or putao and is thought to be hair fashioned in the style of the day.

Ko Te Riku

Josie took us to the nearby grave of Dr. William Mulloy, an American anthropologist, who was responsible for restoring this site in 1974. She added that Dr. Mulloy was her maternal grandfather! How wonderful to have Josie who has a very personal connection to the island, as our guide!

Josie at the Grave of Her Grandfather, Dr. William Mulloy

We visited a second site called Ahu Akivi, (which Dr. Mulloy also restored) an inland grouping of 7 moai all looking out to sea.  Legend has it that a priest, Hau-Maka, had a dream in which his spirit traveled far looking for a new land for his king, Hotu Matu'a. When he awoke he told the king about this new land and scouts were sent to locate it. Seven remained behind to await the arrival of King Hotu Matu'a and the statues at Ahu Akivi were erected in their honor.

Ahu Akivi

The next morning we visited Anakena, a white coral sand beach thought to be the first landing site on the island.

Horses at Anakena

Nearby was Ahu Nao-Nao with 7 moais, 4 with pukao.  At this time of the day it was a peaceful place and I wondered what the first Rapa Nui thought as they landed on the beach in their canoes after crossing thousands of miles of open ocean! How long had they been at sea and what hardships did they have to endure before arriving at this place?

Ahu Nao-Nao

Our next stop was Te Pito Kura, an unrestored site.  I was shocked to see a single moai that had been deliberately pushed over. The statue laid face down in two pieces on the ground.  It was the largest moai transported from the Rano Raraku volcanic quarry and successfully erected on an Ahu or platform.  Its height reached 10 meters or 33 feet and it's estimated weight exceeded 80 tons!  Who would have caused such vandalism to a once sacred site?

Te Pito Kura

Josie went on to explain that in fact all the erected moais on the island had been toppled between 1722 and 1868 by the progeny of those that created them. I had no idea.  What could have caused the people of Rapa Nui to destroy what was once believed to be the embodiment of their ancestors containing mana, a supernatural power meant to protect them?  Internal warfare is thought to be the answer.  As the population of Easter Island grew and natural resources depleted, the Rapa Nui began fighting among themselves with one clan toppling the moais of another to weaken them. The arrival of the first Europeans and the emergence of a new religion called the Birdman Cult probably contributed to the destruction of the moais.  

Nearby is a large ovoid-shaped rock purporting to have been brought to the island by Hotu Matu'a and like the moais contains supernatural power or mana. The name Te Pito Kura means "navel of light" and this stone is also referred to as Te Pito O Te Henua ("navel of the world").

Te Pito O Te Henua ("navel of the world").

Probably the most famous site on Easter Island is Ahu Tongariki with its impressive 15 standing moais!  

Ahu Tongariki

Restoring Ahu Tongariki was no easy feat.  The statues, some weighing up to 80 tons, were not simply toppled over but moved hundreds of feet inland by a massive tsunami that hit the island in 1960!  The 26-foot high tidal wave was caused by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded centered around Valdivia in Central Chile.  I talked about this earthquake in a previous post titled "The Many Surprises of ChiloĆ©!".  The impetus for restoration came from an unlikely source, Tadano, a Japanese company that makes trucks and cranes.  They demonstrated back in Japan that an 11-ton replica of a moai could be lifted by one of their cranes.  In June of 1992, a crane capable of lifting 15 tons arrived by ship all the way from Kobe, Japan!  A team of Chilean, Polish and American archaeologists was formed and restoration was completed in September, 1996. Today thousands of tourists travel to Easter Island to see this impressive site particularly at sunrise when rays of sunlight illuminate the resurrected figures.

Ahu Tongariki at Sunrise

If only the moais could talk they would tell us where and when they were created. We know from carbon dating that they were carved between 1100 and 1600 A.D.  Most of the moais were carved insitu at Rano Raraku Volcano, a seemingly inexhaustible source of volcanic tuft. There are around 400 statues still at the quarry, half of which were completed but never transported to an Ahu.

Moais at Rano Raraku Volcano

The Rupa Nui were in the process of carving the largest statue, a monstrous megalith called El Gigante (The Giant), which was almost 71 feet tall and weighed 175-200 tons!  He was never completely cut from the mountain maybe because the clans had already started warring or maybe because his creators realized he was just to big to transport and erect.

El Gigante (The Giant)

How on Earth did the Rupa Nui get the statues them from the quarry to an Ahu up to 12 km away? If the moais could speak maybe they would confirm one of the popular theories proposed over the years. Were they placed on logs and rolled to their destination?  This may help explain why the island was deforested. Or maybe the trees were felled to build sledges to pull the moais to their waiting platforms. Another theory suggests that the moais were made to "walk" through the use of ropes. We may never know the truth which adds to the mystic of the island and its stone giants.

Theories of Moai Movement

The next day Josie took us to the village of Orongo.  High above the Pacific, Orongo is the ceremonial centre of the Birdman Cult.  We passed a collection of low, sod-roofed, windowless stone houses which were used to provide refuge for meditating members of the Birdman Cult. Every September the cult members would eagerly await the arrival of Sooty Terns to a nearby islet marking the beginning of the annual egg hunt.  Whoever brought the first egg back undamaged would bring mana to his chief and clan.  To reach the islet meant a 300-foot climb down a barren cliff face to reach the ocean and a swim on a reed mat through a thundering surf.  Once on the islets the hunters had to wait for the birds to arrive and lay their eggs.  


Had the Birdman Cult ritual replaced the need for the moais to provide mana and ultimately led to their destruction?  Only the moais know for sure, if only they could speak.  However the power of Orongo also came to an end. In the 1860's most of the Rapa Nui had died of disease or were enslaved by Peruvian slave raiders. In 1862, 1500 men and women (half the island's population) were captured and taken to Peru.  Of the 3000 total Polynesians and Micronesians taken only 148 were repatriated and of these only 37 to their home island. Josie told us that her great-great grandfather was among the lucky few who were taken and later returned to Easter Island.  She lent me a book entitled "Slavers in Paradise" by H. E. Maude. On page 168 there was a photo of Josie's great-great grandfather Pakamio Maori taken on June 30, 1889!  

Pakamio Maori, from "Slavers in Paradise" by H.E. Maude

Josie's great-great grandmother was an equally colorful character. Josie told us that Angata was married to a cruel man who beat her so much that he broke her back.  The next day he mysteriously died. Angata married Josie's great-great grandfather Pakamio and lived for many years after his death. She was still alive when British anthropologist and archeologist Katherine Routledge arrived on Easter Island in 1914. Angata was described as a cathechist and visionary in Katherine's biography "Among Stone Giants" written by Jo Anne Van Tilburg.  Angata tried to get on Katherine's good side by bringing her chickens and other gifts but she had an ulterior motive.  She was hoping that Katherine would intervene on behalf of the natives against sheep farmers who had taken over the island.  Angata was respected but her spooky behavior led many to fear her as a witch. Although Routledge initiated the first true survey of Easter Island, she never published her scientific findings. After returning home she was plagued with mental illness and institutionalized by her family. Van Tilburg told Josie on one of her visits to Easter Island that Routledge believed Angata had put a curse on her! Josie's connection to Rapa Nui really brought the history and culture alive for us!  We treasured the intimate stories she told us.

Angata, from "Among Stone Giants" by Jo Anne Van Tilburg

After our visit to Orongo, Josie took us to Vinahu, another site her grandfather William Mulloy restored.  During the 1955 Norwegian Archaeological Expedition, Dr. Mulloy found one of only two female moai.

Dr. William Mulloy at Vinahu, from "1957 Thor Heyerdahl Expedition"

Today the statue looks a lot different.  With all the lichen growing it's difficult to see the breasts which define this statue as female.

Female Moai at Vinahu

The following day we visited another unrestored site called Ahu Akahanga.  It's still shocking to see the moais in a toppled state.  Ahu Akahanga is unusual in that one of the moais was felled face up.

Ahu Akahanga

Ahu Akahanga is also known as "The King's Platform".  Legend has it that the Island's first ruler, King Hotu Matu'a, had a spat with his wife and left Anakena Village to live out his final days in Akahanga where his sons buried him.  Archaeologists have yet to find his tomb.

We had lunch at La Kaleta Restaurant.  Located at the Hanga Roa Wharf we had a seaside seat where we could watch the surfers catch a wave.

Hanga Roa Surfer

Nearby, Green Sea Turtles glided around the docked boats looking for a handout from the local fishermen.

Green Sea Turtle

That night we were entertained by a Kari Kari Dance. With a Polynesian flare the women shook their hips with an unbelievable fast tempo while the men thrust their hips dressed in only a loin cloth. For a moment I thought I was at a Chippendales Show (not that I've been to one)!

Kari Kari Dance

During our final morning on Rapa Nui we took in one more sunrise at Ahu Tongariki. When we arrived a crescent moon hung over the forgotten ancestors as the first rays of sunlight illuminated their dark forms.  I couldn't help thinking of the commemoration on Dr. William Mulloy's grave, "By restoring the past of his beloved island, he also changed its future". While tourism certainly has provided the people of Rapa Nui jobs and secured an economic future, care must be taken to control the number of visitors so as to not overstress the limited resources on this remote island.

Moon Over Ahu Tongariki

Thanks to our wonderful guide, Josefina Nahoe Mulloy (Josie), whose intimate connection to the island gave us insights that most tourists aren't privy to.  You brought the past of Rapa Nui alive and are a shining example for the future!
We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

Our route map: