Early in my South America trip I entertained the idea of going to Easter Island as a birthday present to myself, which I thought I thoroughly deserved for god-knows-what reason. And since I was going to get as close to it as I ever would when visiting Chile, I convinced myself that I practically had to go and not think about the expense.
So I did.
I assume so many of you are as clueless as I was about this place, so I’ll ply you with some fun facts…
Easter Island got its name when it was “discovered” on Easter Day, 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, but the original name of the island, which is still used predominately by the locals, is Rapa Nui. It’s been a Chilean territory since its annexation in 1888; nonetheless, it has so little in common with Chile or anywhere else in South America, for that matter.
It is much more akin to Polynesia and is a part of the ‘Polynesian Triangle’ in the Pacific Ocean (Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand) and has Tahiti as a close neighbour. The locals all speak Spanish, but many also speak Rapa Nui as a first language. And while many of them ‘look’ Spanish, just as many are more Polynesian-looking – with beautiful, dark, striking features and a tranquility that I assume only island life can give you.
The history of the island and the famous stone faces are remarkable, so on my two-day tour I listened like the best of students and asked questions like the most annoying. Thankfully my guide was a wealth of knowledge and seemed to love his job because buddy sure worked for his money with me.
So here goes your fabulous yet abridged history lesson of the island and moai statues! Take notes…there will be a quiz later.
There were two waves of migration to the island from Polynesia between 800 AD to 1200 AD; however, some experts believe it was even earlier. The first group was known as the ‘long ears’ because they stretched their earlobes for aesthetic purposes while the second group did not. When the ‘short ears’ arrived, the long ears had already firmly established themselves on the island, so they only let the short ears stay if they worked the land for them, which was the beginning of class society on Rapa Nui.
It is believed somewhere between the 10th and 16th century, the long ears started to create the moai statues as a tribute to their ancestors and family clans. And because this work was not what we’d call ‘light duty’, who better to work their asses off to carve, erect, and move the almost 900 statues around the island but the lowly, subservient short ears.
Long ears: 1 | Short ears: 0.
The stone statues weighed an average of 20 tonnes with a height of 20 feet and were generally carved right out of the rock at the Rano Raraku quarry. Then once in the final stages, they would be sort of chiselled out and moved to their respective platform, called an ahu for the final touches.
There are various theories of how they were moved – some archaeologists believe they were put on stone rollers; others believe that they were hoisted on ramps and dragged by ropes, and there are even some crazy-ass mo fos that think aliens moved them around the island. Many experts, including my guide, feel that there was likely a combination (sans the alien intervention) since the statues were carved over a long period and changed in complexity and style – why not change the method of moving them as well?
Once at the ahu, they were positioned upright, given hair (which many people mistake for red hats) and then the eyes, which was a sign of prestige and mana. Mana was, and still is, believed to be the spiritual and powerful strength or force that drives the island and its people. So a big deal, basically.
There was so many fascinating things I learned about the various moai we saw; one of the most interesting is that of all the statues there is only one that is confirmed to be female because there is apparently an outline of breasts and a uvula. Can’t you see them? But more importantly, ain’t she beautiful?!
Another cool nugget of info is that all of the statues on their ahu were facing inward as if to look over their family lines with the exception of the seven moai at Panu Pao which face the sea. This is because these seven moai did not represent the long ear lineage, but rather guests that came from other islands who were positioned to face “home” …wherever home may have been.
Around the 17th century, the two groups started to have beef as aaaall class societies do, and the short ears started somewhat of a rebellion. So what better way to hit the long ears where it hurts than by toppling all of the statues off of their ahu and gouging all of the eyes out, thus destroying all of their mana in the process.
Short ears: 1 | Long ears: 1.
Therefore, the ones we see today that are back up on their platforms have been recreated, but many more are lying crumbled near or on their platforms in varying states of decay or are still at the quarry. Researchers believe that so many remain at the quarry because without the eyes or being on their ahu, the short ears never thought there was a purpose in destroying them.
Others believe that aside from the shit-storm of class warfare, major natural resource depletion on the island caused widespread starvation and disease which eventually led to a decline in both groups and quite possibly why the moai stopped being toppled or built.
And don’t forget the usual European colonization and settlement which occurred in the late 17th century where a bunch of entitled white guys came in and further reduced the once thriving population through commercial exploitation, slaving and good ol’ missionary settlements, which likely affected both the destruction and creation of these statues.
Fast forward and cut out a ton more interesting history that I could blab about for days, Easter Island today is touted as one of the world’s biggest outdoor museums. Sadly, experts believe that with growing tourism and the biggest threat, the weather, these magnificent historic relics will surely disappear someday. Even now archaeologists are moving away from restoration and focusing more on preservation with some of the rocks being covered in a protective solution to prevent the decay from humidity and lichens that inevitably form in the island climate.
For me the saddest part of the inevitable loss of these statues is what it will do to the local economy. An island of 6000 people, everything is tied to tourism. There may be no stoplight or post-secondary school. There may be one tiny hospital and a post office the size of my bedroom, but these locals proudly feed their families working directly or indirectly for tourism. For example, the service industry is topnotch and thriving, and the agricultural and fishing industries sustain the locals but also the 50,000+ visitors a year. Nothing is exported off island.
I had heard about protests on the island by some of the locals who had set up roadblocks at the various sites. However, as seems to be typical of these amazing people, we were permitted to cross the barriers everywhere we wanted to go. The locals I met had no issue with tourists coming and acknowledged the vital support of their livelihoods the industry garners, for I think their gripe is more with the Chilean government for not giving them more of the park revenue, owning most of the land outside the village of Hanga Rao and making a killing through the monopoly of LAN airlines, which is the only carrier that can fly there. They, however, work to get by.
And after my two-day tour I experienced just how welcoming the locals are, spending my birthday with a few musicians whom I met that showed me more Rapa Nui hospitality than I ever could have expected in the form of singing, dancing, eating, and of course copious amounts of alcohol. I remember thinking I hate to see what happens on their birthdays if they were celebrating mine in such a fashion.
And the following night, one of them even took me to watch the sun set at Tahai as his pride in the moai and Rapa Nui culture was as evident as was his kindness to me. As we sat together by the water, new friends acting like old friends, taking it the sunset and stars, I was struck at how he was equally as excited as the sun changed colours and said good night to this exquisite place.
As I got ready to leave the next day, I surprisingly felt really sad. I saw a good part of the island, the history and local life but I felt things were unfinished and wanted to stay longer somehow. My musician friend likened it to the mana of the island that he said was pulling me in, as it sometimes does.
If I hadn’t been there before, I would have thought that was ridiculous, but now that I have, it sounds perfectly logical to me.