What child has read and reread Thor Heyerdahl’s narratives and not imagined being on a raft in the middle of the ocean, landing on a mysterious island where giant stone statues (moai) gaze towards the skies? So it was for us. I have since discovered that sailing over the ocean is not something that I take to very well on a ship, let alone a raft. Fortunately, we didn’t have to travel across the bouncing waves to reach Easter Island or Rapa Nui, as it is known to local inhabitants. All it took was a long flight from Santiago, Chile over empty, blue water accented by the mounds of underwater volcanos.
Sitting out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the 15-mile long, 8-mile wide volcanic island is the most isolated in the world — over 2,000 miles from the closest continent and the country under whose jurisdiction the island falls – Chile. If you look at a map, the tiny speck of land looks like a belly button on the face of the earth. Perhaps this is why the local inhabitants call it “Te Pito o Te Henua” (the Navel of the World). Other names include “Mata Ki Te Rangui” (the eyes that speak to the sky). If you know it as Isla de Pascua or Easter Island, it is because this was the name given to it by the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who first sighted the land on Easter Sunday 1722.
From the moment you land on Rapa Nui/Easter Island, the iconic, mysterious stone statues staring vacantly towards the heavens, enchant you. No matter how many you see each seems to “speak” to you. They stand silently, a testament to the achievements of their creators who not only carved these massive blocks but then somehow moved them around the island.
We had always assumed that they faced outwards, towards the ocean. Imagine our surprise to find that, actually, they face inwards, towards the interior of the island. There are about 1,000 of them, averaging 20 feet in height and weighing 14 tons. Many stand in groups on ahu (platforms). Others stand singly.
It is one of the enduring enigmas of our times – who made them? Who moved them and how? What do they mean? Why did they make them? There are plenty of theories, but nobody knows for sure since there are no written records and almost no oral history on the island. Only tantalizing bits of information offer clues – the moai were often named after dead heroes (as recorded by an officer on Captain Cook’s expedition); some believe that they transmit power to the living family chief from the ancestors, or they represent the ancestors.
The statues (all carved from soft volcanic rock) are mostly men with heavy foreheads, pointed chins and either long or short ears (a reference to the two groups of inhabitants who lived on the island – the “long” ears and the “short” ears). The few statues of women, with their distinctive physical attributes, are about half the size. Some of the statues have red topknots called pukao. It is not clear whether these are supposed to represent hats or hair tied up in a bun, a style that can still be seen amongst the men on the island.
As for the vacant eye sockets, the current view is that the eyes were only fully sculpted when the statue was about to be raised, and they all once had eyes with the whites made from coral and the pupils from the black volcanic obsidian rock. The most striking example of this is the moai, Ahu Tahai, just outside the capital, Hanga Roa. You can also see examples of the eyes at the museum.
The moai were sculpted at a quarry at Rano Raraku, where over 397 statues sit in the grass on the flanks of a volcanic crater. They are in various stages of creation. Some were broken or damaged during the carving process and have been abandoned. Others simply stand and stare. It is unclear why they were abandoned.
Park rangers keep a watchful eye to ensure that the moai (which many believe are the figures of deceased chiefs or ancestors) are treated with the respect they deserve. It is an eerie feeling to wander through the empty, silent site. You almost expect the sculptors to suddenly appear and resume their work.
Some miles away, another quarry, the Puna Pau, is where the red topknots were carved. There are only about 100 topknots in existence. Each weighs about 11 tons. In spite of experiments undertaken by Heyderdahl, it is unclear how the sculptors were able to move the statues, raise them into position and then place the topknot on top.
We spend a week crisscrossing the island in a jeep, photographing the moai at all times of the day. They are particularly photogenic at sunset and sunrise. Although there are many single moai (and others that have not be raised) around the island, five groups merit a visit.
Located on the island’s north-east coast next to one of the island’s two beaches (the rest of the island has a rocky coastline) is Anakena, one of the most significant moai sites where two ahu stand. The first platform, Ahu-Ature, consists of a single moai while the second, Ahu Nao-Nao has seven, two of which are badly damaged. Three have topknots. According to legend, Polynesian settlers first landed here. This site is best photographed in the morning. Ahu-Ature was the first moai to be raised when Thor Heyerdahl wanted to test his theories about the origins of the sculptures.
On the rocky, southern shore of Easter Island, fifteen moai stand in a row. This is by far the most impressive site on the island, especially at sunrise when the sun sparkles through the statues. At sunset, a golden glow lights the faces, especially during the Summer Solstice when the statues face the setting sun.
Following a 9.5 earthquake in 1960 off the coast of Chile, a giant tsunami wave scattered the moai a considerable distance. A contribution from the Government of Japan made it possible for the University of Chile to reconstruct the site. Nevertheless, it was not possible to completely restore the statues. Several damaged topknots can be seen scattered around the site. There is also a moai lying in the middle of the site under the watchful gaze of the others. Since the eye sockets have not yet been carved, it was probably damaged before being raised and, consequently, abandoned.
Near the entrance of the site, a single moai gazes towards the distant quarry. This is known as the “traveling moai” since it was once sent to Japan as part of a trade show. This was another of the statues used by Heyerdahl to test his theories.
Herds of horses (a legacy of Spanish occupation) roam freely amongst the statues adding an interesting photographic element.
Whereas most of the moai are located along the coastline, Ahu Akivi is inland. Seven identical moai statues face the sunset at the spring equinox. The site is best photographed in the afternoon. According to tradition, they represent seven explorers sent to the island by a Polynesian king.
AHU HANGA KIO’E
Not far from the center of Hanga Roa (the capital), on the west side of the island, stands a single moai. It is supposedly the last one built, sometime in the 1600s. The site can be photographed in either the morning or at sunset.
Within walking distance of Hanga Roa are three restored platforms. Ahu Vai Uri has 5 statues, while Ahu Tahai and Ahu Ko Te Riku each have a single moai. The eyes on the Ahu Ko Te Riku have been restored, and the statue has a red topknot. If you want to photograph the faces of the moai, the best time is in the morning; at sunset you will get a dark silhouette against the setting sun. We watch the sunset here almost every night that we spend on Easter Island. It is magical.
Our visit to Rapa Nui/Easter Island was certainly the fulfillment of a childhood dream and more than exceeded our expectations. It also left us with many more questions than answers.
IF YOU GO
There are daily LAN flights from Santiago, Chile, to Rapa Nui/Easter Island.
Additional photographs of Rapa Nui are available at www.allegriaphotos.com.