Capital: Hanga Roa
I was just a kid when I first saw pictures of the mysterious "Moai" of Easter Island in the National Geographic Magazine that my father collected. By the way, it's probably in that collection that I caught the travel virus long before I learned to read. Anyway, I always dreamed of seeing and touching these silent witnesses of a long disappeared civilization. Well, now it's done, I've seen, I've touched and I have allowed myself to dream about the Rapa Nui people who erected these monuments with only stone-age tools! We know very little about the Rapa Nui except that they probably arrived here are around 300 AD from the Marquesas Islands, north of French Polynesia.
Completely isolated from their neighbors, (3700k from America and 4000k from Tahiti), they developed an original form of writing called Rongo Rongo which we have not yet been able to decipher as well as their own religion. Beginning around the 10th century, they expressed the cult of their ancestors by erecting these giant "moai" on sacred platforms called "ahu". This mysterious civilisation reached its zenith at the beginning of the 17th century when the island small supported a huge population of 15 000 people. Then, probably because of this heavy demographic pressure, it fell into a series of intertribal wars at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, during which all the moai were toppled and the island's social organization destroyed. What was left of the ancient Rapa Nui culture completely disappeared following assaults by Peruvian slave traders and French Catholic missionaries in the 19th century.
Chile, boosted by its victory over Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific, seized the island in 1888 but it did not really bother with it before 1953. Now, more than a third of the 3600 islanders are "continentales" working for the Chilean government and the remainder are highly interbred. There are no more pure Rapa Nui and their culture has disappeared under the steam roller of the globalisation of the media, of the Internet and of the markets.
Some still dream of independence but they know that it is not possible because the island survives thanks to the Chilean government and to tourism when it is healthy, which is not the case presently.
Thor Heyderdahl's theory according to which the Rapa Nui would have come from South America is now completely discredited and the aura of mystery around their ancient region, their writing and the moai remains intact
That mystery, the pleasant climate and the friendly people of the island make it a choice destination for tourists
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There were only a few tourists getting off at the Mataveri Airport this winter because of the sharp reduction in air travel following the September 11th event. After going through customs we were outnumbered by a hotel representatives and taxi drivers offering to help us find accommodations in the nearby capital, Hanga Roa (Hanga means bay)
Times were hard for the island's only revenues come from tourism and salaries paid to employees of the Chilean government
The island is rather bare but it does have some great views along the shoreline. The green roofed pavilions on the left are part of the fancy Hanga Roa Hotel and the red roofed buildings house the Coast Guard Headquarters.
The island was once covered with great forests of "toromiro" trees that were cut down by the Rapa Nui to make the scaffolding and rollers they needed to move their moai at the peak of their building frenzy in the early 17th century.
The Hanga Roa Hotel was too expensive so I settled for the Ana Rapu Inn where I rented the unit on the left for 14 $US.
Here's a view of the coast from the road next to the Ana Rapu Inn.
The Ana Rapu was OK but it was somewhat isolated so I moved to the Tekena guesthouse right in the center of Hanga Roa (11 $US). It was run by a friendly Rapa Nui family who lived on the right and rented the units on the left.
Hanga Roa is a quiet little town where most of the Islanders live. The building with the Chilean flag is the seat of the regional government.
The prevailing religion is Catholic and this is the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Here is the Sebastián Englebert Museum in the "Tahai" area just north of Hanga Roa.
The three holy platforms or "Ahus", Ahu Taha, Ahu Vai Uri and Ahu Kote Riku of the Tahai site have been extensively restored to show what their moai must have looked like before their destruction more than two centuries ago.
This "Hare Paenga" cave house for priests on the Tahai site has also been rebuilt.
The archeological site Ahu Akivi, in the center of the island, was restored in 1960. They are said to represent the first seven explorers who discovered the island following the orders of the legendary king Hotu Matu'a.
The particular beliefs of the Rapa Nui religion have evolved out of the ancient Polynesian religions the same way that the Muslim and Christian religions evolved from the Hebraic religion whose unique God Yaveh was probably inspired by the Egyptian monotheist cult to the sun god Aton. (Monotheism was imposed on Egyptians in the 14th century BC by the 4th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Ankh-en-Aton, shortly before the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt. Monotheism remained the state religion for only a short time in Egypt because it was contrary to the interests of the powerful priestly class that promoted the earlier multitude of gods).
The moai represented the dead kings, chiefs and warriors of the tribe that erected them on their village ahu. These ancestral figures were supposed to preserve the "mana" (spiritual life force) of all the past great heroes of the tribe. They were erected mostly on the coastline looking inwards over the villages that they were supposed to protect. The Rapa Nui believed that the tribes that had the biggest and the most moai would accumulate the most mana and thereby dominate the other tribes on the island (there were 12 competing tribes).
Several other Polynesian societies also carved ancestral figures called "Tiki" but only here in Easter Island did this practice become so overwhelmingly important. The concept of "mana" can also be traced back to Polynesian religions.
The volcanic stone from which all the moai were carved came from this volcano Rano Raraku.
Below, a relatively small moai on the left and several others erected on the slopes of Rano Raraku, on the right.
More moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. One must not forget that all the standing moai have been erected relatively recently for all of the island's moai had been toppled over before the 18th-century.
The haphazard positioning of the moai on Rano Raraku indicates that they were probably in the process of being moved to some village ahu and abandoned because of warfare.
Here is a nice big one abandoned on the way to its destined ahu.
No one knows exactly what happened and when but the most plausible story is that the competition between the 12 tribes was relatively peaceful as long as the lumber needed to transport and erect moai was plentiful.
The Ahu Hanga Tee site is located on the southeast coast of the island. The 8 Moai that once stood on the platform (Ahu) near Tee Bay (Hanga) were left where they fell more than 200 years ago.
When the erection of bigger moai became increasingly difficult because of the shortage of timber, an easy way for a village to gain predominance was to steal the neighbor's mana by toppling their moai while protecting their own.
The large red stone cylinders on the right were originally on the heads of some of these moai before they were toppled. They might look like hats but in fact they were supposed to represent hair topknots called pukao which only the noble born were allowed to wear.
Some of the platforms show remarkably fine mortarless masonry whose resemblance to Inca stonework might have inspired Thor Heyderdahl's theory of oceanic migrations originating in South America.
The implied affiliation is however obviously false for the earliest ahu were built several centuries before Inca times. Furthermore, the concept of a low stone platform serving as a holy place can be related to the Polynesian "marae" but it has no equivalent in Inca architecture.
The dark gray volcanic rock of moai came from Rano Raraku and the red stone used to fashion pukao came from this quarry on Puna Pau.
Here is a close-up view of a pukao showing the slot designed to fit on the head of some noble moai.
Ahu Akahanga, on the southeast coast, is of great significance for this is where the island's first legendary king Hotu Matu'a is supposed to be buried.
This ahu, 18 metres long by 3.25 wide held 13 moai which have all been toppled, some of which being deliberately damaged.
This view from the seaward side shows that the ahu masonry did not all meet the same exacting standards.
This site is on the north shore of the island. The fallen 11 metre moai weighs an estimated 80 tons. It is the largest that has been successfully transported and erected.
The Tongariki Ahu, not far from Rano Raraku, was completely restored between 1955 and 1996 by Chilean archeologists thanks to financial support from Japan. It is the largest on the island with its 15 moai along on the two hundred metre platform.
Finally, here is the Nau Nau Ahu, located on Anakena beach, that was restored in 1980 by the Rapa Nui archeologist Sergio Rapu Haoa.
According to the verbal history of the Rapa Nui, it is here, on Anakena beach, that the first humans disembarked after their long sea voyage from the Marquesas Islands around 400 AD.
Other aspects of Rapa Nui that are worth investigating include the Rongo Rongo script which has not yet been deciphered, the cult of yearly bird-men that followed that of the moai and the myths around the "Te Pito Te Henua", this big, perfectly round stone that the Rapa Nui believed to be the navel of the earth, or, in other words, the centre of the universe.
My 2002 winter escapade was over and it was time to head back to the familiar environment of home and my friends in Montreal.
The peaceful Anakena beach was the perfect image to bring back with me to remember the beautiful, distant Pacific Islands.