One of the most remote islands on Earth in the middle of the South Pacific, half way between Chile and Tahiti, is Easter Island. I had a chance to visit this island last winter.
It is a paradise of hills and extinct volcanoes covered in grasslands and formed by massive volcanic eruptions. Naturally it was uninhabited for millions of years. This is not difficult to understand considering its location.
About 300 AD a small group of Polynesian seafarers settled here, and began carving hundreds of huge stone statues. Who these people were, why they disappeared, why they created the statues and how they moved them remains a mystery to this day. But people come to this island to gaze in wonder at these huge monoliths.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, lies 2,237 miles from the Chilean coast and over 2,000 miles the other direction to Tahiti. It measures about 14 mi. by 7 mi. and is the most isolated inhabited landmass on Earth. A mysterious place most notable for the ancient culture that once lived here, and the unique giant statues called moai (meaning “so that he can exist”) that remain. There are 887 statues that still dot the landscape, mostly made from compressed volcanic ash.
These strange looking statues were carved from 1400-1650 AD. People think they are only heads, as about 150 are buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano. However they all have full bodies buried under the heads. Archaeologists have known of the torsos since 1914 and are working on unearthing the bodies which have been buried for over 500 years. Complex carvings found on the bodies have been protected by their burial.
Almost all have overly large heads nearly half the size of the statue and are the living faces of deified ancestors. The eye sockets may have had coral eyes inserted for ceremonies. Tribespeople would probably carve a new statue each time an important tribal figure died, so the spirit could forever watch over and bring fortune to the tribe.
Dutch navigator, Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to land on the island, Easter Day 1722, reported all the statues were standing and gazing inland suggesting they were meant to honor people or deities and were revered until Europeans came. Moai construction seemed to stop after that. Statues fell, either pushed over or from neglect, and as years passed, and islander traditions changed radically. By the end of the 19th Century not a single moai was left standing.
We took a guided tour by a mini bus out to see different parts of the island. Our first stop was Rano Raraku, known as “the quarry.” This is a volcanic crater where the islanders sculpted the stone giants. It was chosen because it is mostly tuff, compressed volcanic ash that is easy to carve. They had no metal and used only simple handheld stone tools called toki found in great numbers in all the excavations. For about 500 years it was the main quarry supplying the stone for 95% of moai carved.
Nearly half the statues are in various stages of completion. It appears production was abruptly abandoned, leaving a frozen scene that shows how the moai were carved out of volcanic rocks. Some were never intended to be separated from the rock in which they were carved, while hundreds were transported from the quarry.
We saw Tukuturi, an unusual smaller moai made of red scoria. It has a beard, is kneeling and has a rounded head. It was made at Puna Pau and brought to the quarry where it now stands or rather kneels. Why? Nobody knows. However it was one of the last moai ever made.
According to legend the statues walked from the quarries to their stone platforms. Rocking them from side to side, actually made them appear to be walking. Naturally the farther from the Rano Raraku quarry and the higher their elevation, the smaller the statues were, since people had to either “walk” or drag them there. The production and transportation of these statues is considered a remarkable creative and physical feat.
Another stop was Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on Easter Island. It is the site of 15 restored moai, the most ever placed on a single ahu, including the heaviest one erected, a shorter, squatter one, weighing 86 tons, and one unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been about 69 feet tall and weighing about 270 tons.
We actually took a 21-day cruise across the South Pacific from Sydney, Australia to Santiago, Chile with a stop at Easter Island along the way. However, if you have an interest in visiting Easter Island, without taking a cruise, there are several flights a week to the island from Santiago, Chile. It is truly a place I will never forget.