The Mythology of Easter Island

Mention Easter Island and most people immediately think of the enigmatic giant stone faces placed along the coastline that stare stoically, either out to sea or inland at the inhabitants. Being part of the Polynesian triangle in the Pacific there are many myths and legends attached to this remote and mysterious island, with many of the ‘facts’ being barely indistinguishable from fanciful conjecture.

However, what is indisputable is that the island has witnessed trauma and tribulation in almost equal measures over the last few centuries; including overcoming the threat of human extinction more than once. The local population have survived epidemics, famines, civil wars, slavery, hostile occupation and the near-collapse of their ecosystem, but are now thriving by promoting their incredible heritage and history to inquisitive visitors from all over the world.

In addition, the natural beauty of the island also provides stunning white sand beaches suitable for snorkelling and scuba diving, fishing and even surfing. An incredible caves network near Ana Kakenga – that was naturally created through the volcanic rock from which the island is derived – proves a big draw for many visitors. There are also opportunities to partake in horseback riding or bicycling, and to visit plenty of local crafts shops selling fantastic wood carvings.

Undeniably, the big attraction for most visitors to Easter Island is the giant heads – the vast majority of these remarkable monoliths are carved from compacted volcanic ash. Known as moai, they are dotted all over Easter Island and are actually enlarged heads attached to tiny torsos, with the latter regularly buried leaving only the face visible. Almost all the 887 moai were toppled during tribal wars in the 18th and 19th centuries and it wasn’t until the 1950s that a concerted effort to stand them upright began, following extensive excavations by explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

 

How Were These Enormous Statues Sculpted and Why?

Easter Island belongs to Chile. It is located in the area of the Polynesia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This island of 163.6 km² has become an important tourism attraction, especially due to the mysteries that surround the ancestral culture that inhabited it, the Rapa Nui ethnic group. This etymology also gives the traditional name to the island, Rapa Nui, which means “Great Island” in the language of the ancient sailors from Tahiti.

Although this great islet is practically an outdoor museum due to its ceremonial places and petroglyphs, the moai, the giant heads sculpted in stone, are undoubtedly the main attractions.

 

The Construction of the Moai

We know that the giant effigies or moai were sculpted, probably during the 12th to 17th century, in volcanic rock from the inactive volcano of Rano Raraku. Around 300 statues were made within the walls of the crater and were later transported through the slope.

In the crater there were also another 400 unfinished statues found. Some had just been started, while others were almost ready to be transported. Near them there were also chisels and axes made of obsidian. These tools show that the craftsmen intended to return and finish the monoliths, but for some unknown reason they never could.

Along the path descending from the volcano there were also dozens of these statues found, already finished, that were scattered for 40 or 50 meters. Most of them weighted 30 tons and were around 4 meters long, but one piece was discovered, still unfinished, that reached 30 meters and weighted 50 tons.

 

The Mysterious Transportation System

The exact way in which the giant and heavy moai of Easter Island were transported is still unknown. The hypothesis that they used tree logs as rollers has been discarded. However, some scientists consider that the disappearance of the palm tree woods was caused by indiscriminate felling by natives who used them to transport the statues. It was proven that no tree in the island has the necessary magnitude to transport the statues.

The theory of dragging or swinging them with ropes has also some gaps. In 1986, the Czech engineer Pavel Pavel, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki Museum proved that 20 people and some ropes were enough to transport a statue of 9 tons. Nonetheless, most statues far exceed this weight.

The most recent study conducted in the year 2000 by a U.S. archaeological team suggests that the natives used complex machines manufactured in the island centuries ago. The construction of this heavy machinery may have partly caused the current deforestation of the island.

 

What Happened to the Rapa Nui?

According to all signs from ancient colonization, in its origin, Easter Island was inhabited by several thousands of people. From the drawings found in the island we can deduct that many social strata existed among them. The people with great ears represented in sculptures may have been the rulers, who managed to prolong their lobes with weights. Another theory states that the moai represent deceased ancestors. The population growth and the shortage of food may have caused the destruction of several ceremonial altars and the abandonment of the quarries where the moai were sculpted.

The key to all these enigmas is possibly related to a Peruvian dealer from the 19th century, whose name remains unknown. Apparently, he captured more than 1,000 natives, among them the last king and the sorcerer of Rapa Nui. The fate of the captives remains unknown, although it is possible that some of them returned to their island carrying some type of disease, which may have caused the extinction of the rest of the population.

With them, the last possibility to discover how this primitive people raised a whole army of giant monoliths with human faces has disappeared.

 

There is much to see relating to the moai, starting with the quarry where they were all extracted and carved at Rano Raraku. Here is clear evidence of the tools used to carve the heads – simple stone chisels – and also a vast number of moai that never left the quarry. In fact, only one quarter of those carved ever made it to installation and it is estimated that it took six men a year to carve each monument.

Discovered and named on Easter Sunday 1722 – by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen – Easter Island is a territory of Chile, even though it is situated some 2,300 miles west of South America. The most remote inhabited island in the world measuring a mere 15 by 10 miles, its nearest neighbour – a mere 1,260 miles away – is the even smaller inhabited island of Pitcairn. And because it is so remote, there is no other viable option but to take flights to Easter Island if you wish to visit this remarkable island.

And, if you do wish to travel to Easter Island then make sure that you allow enough time to see everything, as despite its small size the island is literally stuffed with attractions.

 

Easter Island Tourist Information

Easter Island also known as “Rapa Nui” or “Isla de Pascua” is a mysterious open air museum with massive stone statutes (Moai) dotting the coastline around the island. Officially the Island is a territory of Chile and one of the worlds most isolated places, situated on a triangle of volcanic rock in the South Pacific over 2,000 miles from the nearest population centers of Tahiti and Chile.

The island is known as one of the world’s most sacred sites, famous for its giant stone busts, built centuries ago, they reflect the history of the dramatic rise and fall of an isolated Polynesian culture.

Early settlers called the island “Te Pito O Te Henua” (Navel of The World). It was named Easter Island by a European, Admiral Roggeveen who arrived on the island on Easter Sunday 1722. Locally today it is known as Rapa Nui.

There has been much confusion and controversy as to the origin of the Easter Islanders. Some think Peruvians built the statues, some feel the Island is a piece of a lost continent. DNA has proven that Polynesians were the first settlers arriving around 400 AD from the west in large boats. This is seen as remarkable given that Easter Island is such a great distance from other land. Legend has it they were looking for other land as their own island was being swallowed by the sea.

The island was a paradise and the islanders prospered — archaeological evidence shows that the island was covered with a variety of numerous trees, including the largest palm tree species in the world. The natives used the bark and wood for cloth, rope, and canoes. Birds were plentiful and provided food. The climate was mild and the water provided an abundance of fish and oysters.

Their religion developed with its centerpiece the giant moai, or heads, that are the island’s most distinctive feature today. The moai, are scattered around the island and supposedly depicted their ancestors. This was likely considered a blessing or a watchful eye over each small village. The ruins of the Rano Raraku crater, the stone quarry where hundreds of moai sit today, show how these figures were important. The birdman culture (as seen in the petroglyphs) was obviously the islanders’ fascination with their ability to travel to distant lands.

In addition to the statues, petroglyphs (rock carvings), traditional wood carvings, tapa (barkcloth), crafts, tattooing, string figures, dance and music, the islanders possessed the Rongorongo script, the only written language in Oceania. As time went on confidence in their religion was lost as disagreements broke out. This is reflected in the ruins of the moai statues which were deliberately toppled by human hands.

At its peak the island had more than 10,000 population, straining the capability of it’s ecosystem. As a result lush palm forests were destroyed for agriculture and the massive statues, and resources became scarce. The once thriving advanced social society descended into a bloody civil war, and apparently cannibalism as they ran out of food sources. The islanders tore down the statues, that today have been re erected by archaeological efforts.

Through contact with western civilization, slavery and disease the island population by around 1800 had dropped to approximately 110. Around 1888 following the annexation of Chile the population rose to more than 2,000. Despite the Chilean presence there is still a strong Polynesian identity.

The Rapanui people are extremely friendly and the landscape is amazing with its volcanic craters, lava formations, beaches, brilliant blue water, and archaeological sites.

Access is from Chile and Tahiti, tourism on the island is run by the Rapanui themselves. There are many package tours and various hotels and guesthouses on the Island. There are opportunities to stay in a private home, a great way to experience the island and local culture. In late January to early February the islanders celebrate Tapati, a festival honoring the Polynesian cultural heritage of the island

There are a series of ongoing excavations, conservation and preservation projects.All but one of the 22 standing statues in Rano Raraku Quarry interior have been previously exposed through unscientific and undocumented digging.

The Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) has a 20 year history of an archaeological survey, the objective of which is the creation of a complete, full, island-wide monolithic and portable statue inventory and the compilation of an historical image record for each.

In 1982 the EISP team started a 5 year Easter Island Statue Project, mapping the interior of Rano Raraku, the volcanic quarry from which 95 percent of the statues were created. Over one thousand statues were documented throughout the entire island and created the world’s largest archaeological archive

Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater on the island’s eastern plain, was the source of the sideromelane (basaltic) from which 95% of the statues were carved. This source is irrefutable as there are 397 in situ statues, of which 141 in various stages of completion have recently been mapped by EISP in the interior quarries. Much rarer statue lithologies are basalt (hawaiite lavas) from three named regions.

There are only 20 statues which were carved of basalt. Of these, 7 are in museum collections. The British Museum holds two basalt statues.

The Island is extremely small, so it is possible to get around fairly easily. There are rental cars, usually jeeps, as well as dirt bikes. With a car, you can see most of the sites on the island in a few hours.

The biggest tourist attractions are, of course, the Moai. All of the sites, are free and are mostly found along the coastline of the island. Two exceptions are the volcanic craters of Rano Kau and Rano Raraku. “Rano Raraku” is where the moai carvings were created by hundreds of laborers out of the volcanic rock. A visitor can see various stages of the carving and partially finished statues in this 300 foot remnant of a volcano. Rano Kau, the remains of a volcanic cinder cone, has a spectacular mottled unearthly appearance. Both craters are filled with fresh rainwater. There is a combined entry fee currently at $60 US. Make sure to keep your ticket.

Easter Island features two white sand beaches. Anakena, on the north side of the island, has an excellent bodysurfing location. The second is Ovahe, along the southern shore of the island near Ahu Vaihu, this beautiful beach is much larger than Anakena and is surrounded by breathtaking cliffs. Scuba diving and snorkeling is popular near the islets Motu Nui and Motu Iti (well known for “The bird man culture”).

There is an extensive cave system with a couple of “official” caves and numerous unofficial caves on the island. Many of the openings to the caves are small but open up into large, deep and extensive cave systems. These are not to be explored on your own and can be damp, slippery and dangerous.

Most of the commerce on the island occurs in the port town of Hanga Roa. There are a number of small shops, an open air market and approximately 25 restaurants with limited menus, although fish is plentiful.

All in all Easter Island is part of the few splendid and remote spectacular holiday destinations offering a unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

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