Discovering Easter Island's Mysteries

By Marilyn Jones


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Master carvers chiseled faces and bodies from volcanic rock between 1100 and 1680 AD. Many experts believe themoai were created to mark the graves of chiefs and other important people on the island. Photos: Marilyn Jones

Tourists are drawn to Easter Island for a lot of reasons: its famous moai; its remoteness; and its mystery. Me too. I read about it, watched documentaries and searched the internet for interesting facts. When the plane touches down, I am excited and ready to witness its magic.

What I know, so far, is the island is located in the South Pacific between Chile and Tahiti, and is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. When the Europeans arrived Easter morning in 1722 (which is how it got its name), the island's population was between 2,000 and 3,000. Today, there are about 5,800 residents; 60 per cent are descendants of the Rapa Nui and many serve as tour guides. There are 877 moai on the island.

I am met by explora Rapa Nui personnel with other guests and we all ride to the remote resort in a small van. The resort’s architecture blends in with the surroundings, and I immediately feel right at home. After settling into my room overlooking the ocean, I go on my first excursion. I am excited to see my first moai; some as tall as 10 metres and weighing up to 73 tonnes!

Rano Raraku Quarry
Along well-maintained paths, we pass standing moai, a kneeling moai, fallen moai and others half carved. Here, the island’s statues were designed and created. Master carvers chiseled faces and bodies from volcanic rock between 1100 and 1680 AD. Many experts believe the moai were created to mark the graves of chiefs and other important people on the island.

I am just as amazed at their determination to create these statues and move them as I am that they actually did. What an undertaking. The most popular theory is the moai were “walked” to their final destination by putting rocks under one side and then the other to make a pivoting motion possible.

Our guide, a young man in his 20s, explains that production ceased when civil war broke out in the late 18th century. Moai were toppled by warring factions. When the British ship HMS Blossom arrived in 1825, its crew reported seeing no standing moai.

What visitors see today are moai re-erected in modern times, most by using a crane.

The Birdman Cult
After breakfast the next day, I am driven to a cliff overlooking the ocean where “men made their way to a small island in the ocean as part of the annual Birdman competition,” says my guide for the day, Roberto. “The competition started around 1760 after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in the late 1800s.” Competitors scaled down the vertical cliff, swam out to one of the small islands in shark-infested waters to bring back the unbroken egg of the nesting sooty tern.  

The wind whips past me as I look out over the boiling sea crashing against tiny islands jutting up through the sapphire water. Roberto explains that the island originally had a strong class system. The high chief ruled over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. As the island became overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power making way for the new cult. At this time, the island was a wasteland, the eroded soil just barely producing enough food for the population to survive.

This new cult maintained that although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, their ability to contact the dead was no longer status and that the chief should be chosen through a competition.

The man who successfully achieved the mission was considered the Birdman of the year. Under this new leadership, the islanders began to rebuild their shattered environment.

Other Excursions
explora Rapa Nui offers 20 different excursions on foot, bicycle or boat. I am so interested in the Birdman cult and the unimaginable feat of the competitors that Roberto suggests I take a boat out to the islands to see the cliff from the water.

The next day, we head for the waterfront where colourful fishing boats are lined up along the dock. A rugged middle-aged man greets us, helps us into his boat, and we head out into the choppy ocean.

When we arrive at the islands, it seems even more of a miracle that a man could climb down the cliff face, swim to an island, and search for an egg on these craggy giant island-rocks, and then swim back to the mainland and climb back up the cliff with the egg unbroken. But they did.

On my final day, we walk into the interior of the island where Roberto shows me caves and explains how early Rapa Nui lived in the caves and established a trading system within their community. We explore the dark caverns and he shows me centuries-old carvings in the rocks.

We later visit several areas where moai have been re-erected, the quarry where the reddish topknot that appears on some of the statues was quarried, and a beach; the only one on the island.

I arrived on Easter Island with the desire to see the moai. I come away after four days of exploration with an understanding of a civilization fighting to keep its history and heritage alive. My advice? Go to see the moai, but stay a few extra days to learn about the people and their culture, and enjoy the island’s rugged beauty and the relaxation of this peaceful place.

If you go:
explora Rapa Nui is a resort located away from the village with views of the vast open landscape and the ocean beyond. The resort employs local guides with an understanding of the island and knowledge to lead guests to known and little-known areas. www.explora.com/rapa-nui-chile

For additional island information, visit: http://chile.travel/en

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