“That’s the travelling moai—he’s been to the Osaka expo,” says our guide, Tuhi. She’s referring to Marotiri, the statue that greets visitors at Ahu Tongariki, an archaeological site on Easter Island. Fifteen of his brethren stand apart from him, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean on the edge of this island, which is also known by its indigenous name, Rapa Nui.
Thought to have been carved between the 10th and 16th centuries, the statues lay toppled over until 1992, when a Japanese company offered support for their restoration. Now all 16 have been successfully raised, some weighing over 40 tonnes and many standing nine metres high. As Tuhi, my wife Yuko, and I walk across the tawny field, the wind whips off the ocean and clouds obscure the sun. It feels like the elements are conspiring, like some magic is afoot.
Directly behind us looms Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater that served as the quarry for most of the moai on Easter Island. A national park, the crater, which has a small lake in the middle, is essentially an outdoor museum. As we approach, we can see gigantic heads covering the area in various stages of completion. Some lean this way or that, while others lie horizontal—the island’s bloody civil war during the 17th or 18th century left them fallen or abandoned before being fully completed. Tuhi shepherds us through the site, pointing out anomalies like the only known moai with a beard, which crouches in a kneeling position. This moai was discovered by Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer who gained fame for his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947. He erroneously believed that Easter Island was settled by people who travelled there from South America, not Polynesia, as has since been confirmed.
Yuko and I arrived on the island the day before after a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Located in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific, Easter Island is one of those rare destinations that feels like an enchanted wilderness, tattooed with mysterious petroglyphs and stuffed with angular stone heads sprouting mid-thought from the ground. The next habitable island, Pitcairn, is 2,200 kilometres away. At 165 square kilometres, Easter Island is roughly the size of Salt Spring Island. At any one time, its population is approximately 5,000—half residents of Polynesian descent and half “continental” residents and tourists. There are plenty of hotels and B?&?Bs, ranging from luxurious suites to campsites, most in the vicinity of the village of Hanga Roa.
A native of the island, Tuhi speaks Rapa Nui, the local language, along with English, Spanish, and French. She’s in her late 20s, has a young son, and wants to remain on the island, but marriage to a New Zealander has complicated where they will eventually settle down. Schooled in France and with a master’s degree from a university in New Zealand, she supports independence for Easter Island from Chile, and she’s a passionate advocate for the island’s indigenous culture.
Legend has it that the settlement of Easter Island took place during the eighth century, when the first king, Hotu Matu’a, arrived from Polynesia. He arrived on the north of the island at Anakena and is said to have built a palace there. He then sent his servants back to the island of Hiva, his home, to fetch a moai.
The current theory is that the island’s statues were carved as guardians or protectors, but were also considered to be sacred, totemic figures. Most were carved in a horizontal position out of tuff rock before being raised and “walked” from Rano Raraku to their platforms, which are located in various places around the island. There are about 900 statues in total on the island—not all standing, and in a variety of conditions.
Cut off from the outside world for centuries, Easter Island saw its first European explorers when Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen arrived with his expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722, giving rise to the name. Rather than a tropical paradise, he found a civilization on the brink. The splendid isolation that gave rise to one of the world’s most mysterious cultures has also been blamed for its destruction. (In his 2005 bestseller Collapse, Jared Diamond discussed the environmental devastation and internecine conflict the islanders wrought upon themselves.)
Outside influence proved to be just as destructive. The population was almost completely wiped out after European contact led to smallpox, syphilis, and forced relocations to Peru’s Chincha Islands and later Tahiti.
In recent years, there has been an influx of tourists. Last year alone, 70,000 tourists visited the island, a fivefold increase from just a decade ago. It has become so bad that last summer a group of locals shut down the island’s only airport for three days in protest. Much of the inhabitants’ discontent has to do with what they feel is a lack of control over their own destiny and the “Chileanization” of Easter Island.
Calls for a system to control tourist numbers are gaining traction. In 2009, UNESCO and then Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced the creation of a sustainable-tourism program funded by the Japanese government to develop tourism strategies with respect to Rapa Nui National Park. But Tuhi worries that irreparable damage has already been done to the island’s precious cultural heritage. While we were there, we saw some careless tourists step on unfinished moai around the crater.
The next day, Yuko and I hike along the coastal cliffs outside Hanga Roa and ascend Rano Kau, a volcanic crater on the southern part of the island. It takes a few hours, but the stunning ocean views reward our effort. After the island’s civil war, a “birdman” (tangata manu) cult arose that was centred at the ceremonial village of Orongo, on our hiking path near the volcano. The cult worshipped a bearded god of fertility, Makemake, who inspired a gruelling race in which competitors had to swim out to a small islet (called Motu Nui) through shark-infested waters and bring back the unbroken egg of the nesting sooty tern. Special honours and privileges were bestowed upon the winner, including the birdman title.
Later that day, we attend a dance performance in town by the local group, Matato’a. As we settle into our seats, a group of young men and women bound onto the stage and begin an energy-packed celebration of Rapa Nui culture. Adorned with native costumes, it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t your typical tourist pap. Sweat pours off their bodies as they put on a visceral and at times sensual performance.
When it ends, we emerge into the cool evening under a shimmering sky and head to our hotel. Walking through Hanga Roa we pass by the village’s lone moai, which the night has transformed into a darkened silhouette. Even after days of exploring the island, its stony silence still beckons us with its mystery.
ACCESS: Easter Island is still open to individual travellers, but this could change. For more information on the island, see easterisland.southpacific.org/.