One of the most remote places in the world, Easter Island, also called Rapa Nui, contains natural beauty and archaeological sites that seem both magical and mysterious.
The small volcanic island in the mid-Pacific Ocean, a territory of Chile since 1888, lies 2,300 miles west of the coast of Chile, on the east edge of the Polynesian Triangle. It’s renowned for its enormous monolithic (formed from a single block of stone) human figures called moai, carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island, between the 13th and 16th centuries.
The statues, carved mostly out of compressed volcanic ash, range in size from 4.9 feet to around 33 feet tall. The 900 statues on average stand 13 feet high and weigh 14 tons.
Oversize heads with broad noses and powerful chins and rectangle-shaped ears and deep eyes are the moais’ characteristic features. The bodies, without legs, are mostly squatting, with arms in various positions. The later moai had huge pukao headdresses on their heads, representing the topknot of the chieftains. They were made from red scoria, a light rock.
Many of the moai sit on stone platforms called ahu. There are 313 known ahu, the biggest being Ahu Tongariki that is 720 feet long with 15 massive moai.
Archaeologists believe that moai represented the ancient Polynesians’ ancestors and were symbols of authority and power. The people who erected them thought of the moai as repositories of sacred spirit.
Most of the statues face away from the ocean as if to watch over the people. The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, a particularly sacred place, face the ocean as if to help travelers find the island.
Nearly half of the moai are still at Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry, but hundreds were transported and placed on ahu around the perimeter of the island.
Around 11 moai were removed from the island to locations around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The biggest mystery is how the moai were moved across the island, which measures 14 miles long and 7 miles wide. Researchers have several theories. The process almost certainly required human muscle, ropes and possibly wooden sleds or rollers and leveled tracks. Another theory is that the moai were placed on top of logs and rolled to their destination. One guide we met seemed to believe the oral history account that the people used divine power to command the statues to walk.
Scholars today support the theory that the main method could have been that the moai were “walked” upright in a rocking process.
Easter Island’s beauty extends beyond the moai. The best beach is Anakena, with turquoise calm waves and lovely white sand, near the island’s only town, Hanga Roa (population 3,500). A hidden gem is the area of Ahu Vaihu with enormous cliffs overlooking a beach. Away from the sea are caves near Ana Kakenga that are interesting to explore.
My favorite site on Rapa Nui is Rano Kau, one of the three volcanic cones on the island. It’s an impressive natural setting with a huge crater and inner lagoon, overlooking the ocean.
Bordering on the south rim of the crater is the ceremonial village of Orongo, with its 50 stone houses. It was inhabited only in the days before the ceremony of the Bird Man, when the different clans of the island competed to obtain the first egg of the manutara bird and thus get control over the governance of the island for a year. The ceremony was held until the end of the 19th century.
For more about Rapa Nui, see page C2.