Easter Island, May 2006

Rapa Nui is known as Isla de Pascua to the Chileans, and Easter Island to the rest of the world. Islanders also call their home Te Pito O Te Henua, which means "the navel of the world."

The best way to appreciate this name is to hike up to the top of the Rano Kau volcano at the SW corner of the island. Along the way, and at the summit, one has many opportunities to notice how small the island is, and how vast the ocean looks on all sides. From this knob of volcanic rock, if one's imagination were to sprout wings and a jet engine, it would still need 5 hours to reach Chile to the East, or Tahiti to the West.

These petroglyphs are at the ceremonial village of Orongo. Once a year, the chiefs of various clans on the island gathered here to see who will be leader for the following year. The contest involves climbing down these cliffs, swimming out to the islets (Motu Kao Kao, Motu Iti, and Motu Nui,) retrieving an egg from the Manutara (sooty tern, sterna fuscata,) and bringing it back unbroken, possibly avoiding sharks along the way.
Easter Island is of course better known for the statues called moai. When Europeans first arrived on the scene, most of the moais, and their foundation platforms called ahu, were in ruins, apparently toppled in tribal warfare. Here is a typical ruin at Ahu Tepeu. Most ahus are an easy stroll from the shore, and most moais look inland. Ahu Akivi is the opposite on both counts. Ahu Tepeu is kind of in between; it is on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.
The arrival of non-Polynesians was the beginning of a long decline for Easter Island. In 1862, Peruvians raided the island for slaves to work the guano deposits in Peru's Chincha Islands. Most of the kidnapped islanders died overseas. Among them are the learned who knew the Rongo-Rongo written language, so the language died along with them. The population of Easter Island dwindled to a few hundred. In 1888, Chile formally annexed the island. Before and after annexation, Easter Island was exploited by foreign sheep grazing enterprises. During those times most of the island was off limits to the islanders.
Ahu Vinapu. The stones in this ahu are joined more precisely than typical. There is a passing resemblance to Inca stonework in Peru. (Here is an example of the latter, from Cusco.) This has led some people to speculate that Easter Islanders were descended from the ancient Peruvians.
Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist and adventurer, was the prime proponent of the Peruvian connection. In 1956 he led an expedition to Easter Island. To test their theories on the construction techniques of antiquity, the Norwegians, with help from islanders, carved and raised a moai without any modern tools. This is the result of their work. Note the size and relative crudeness of features...
...compared to the real thing (albeit restored with modern machinery.) This is Ahu Nau Nau, and it is just a few hundred yards away from the modern replica. The difference is dramatic.
Ahu Tongariki. Each moai represents a notable ancestor. There is a conceptual parallel with the marae of French Polynesia, which also have stone platforms called ahu, and ensembles of upright stones. For example, here is a marae in good condition at Taputapuatea on the island of Raiatea.
Visitors are requested, in multiple languages, to stay off the platforms. Apparently some people cannot read.
Ahu Tongariki at sunrise. There are many wild horses on Easter Island. It is quite a challenge to steer clear of their detritus in the pre-dawn darkness. The horses themselves have much bigger problems.
Ahu Kote Riku at dusk. If you go here, be sure to say "hola" to our friend. Like many of her compatriots, she survives on her wits and the kindness of strangers. Yet in spite of the hard living, the ones we came across showed nothing but charm and grace.
Produce in the Hanga Roa market. There is a good chance they got here in the back of a battered 4x4 like this one.
The harbor near Ahu Kai Tangata at late afternoon. Because of the rocky shoreline, there are no ports suitable for large ships. However, Easter Island does have an airport runway that is big enough for the space shuttle!
Driftwood and tidepools at Ahu Tahai. On Easter Island, one has to wonder about the origins of any log this size. When the Routledge expedition arrived on March 29th, 1914, their cook, Mr Bailey, despaired out loud, "I don't know how I am to make a fire on that island, there is no wood!" Many of the bigger trees there now are fast-growing eucalyptus, which are native to Australia.
The locals definitely self-identify with Polynesian culture. Here is the "hello" wave that should be familiar to anyone who has visited Hawaii. On the other hand, this mode of transportation, and some others, are decidedly more endemic to Chilean Polynesia.

More information
  • Easter Island Foundation, a non-profit to promote the "conservation and protection of the fragile cultural heritage of Easter Island and other Polynesian islands." Lots of good information, from scholarly conference proceedings to tourist FAQs.
  • rongorongo.org, great site on the rongorongo language, including a dictionary, pictures of all the characters, and lots of good references.
  • Museo Antropológico P. Sebastián Englert, website of the museum on Easter Island, named after a German missionary who studied the Rapanui language and culture. (Spanish only)
  • Wikipedia entry

  Home Updated: 27 Nov 2006  

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