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The allure of rugged, remote Easter Island is in the mystery

Each of the stone faces of the 'moai,' or statues, is different in size and character. There are 887 known moai on the island. Each of the stone faces of the "moai," or statues, is different in size and character. There are 887 known moai on the island. (CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS/FILE)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Swanson
Globe Correspondent / July 22, 2007

EASTER ISLAND -- Travel to the ends of the earth and one discovers there are still mysteries to be solved.

Deep in the South Pacific, 2,500 miles west of continental South America, lies Easter Island, a remote Chilean outpost dotted with stone statues. I landed here with a vague comprehension of the island's mysteries.

How were its enigmatic sculptures, weighing as much as 82 tons, transported from a volcanic quarry to their sacred ceremonial platforms miles away? Who were the statues meant to represent, and what's with the round red hats -- decidedly un-Polynesian -- some statues wore? And why, between the first European contact on Easter Sunday in 1722 and Captain James Cook's visit 52 years later, were most of the stone heads toppled?

The "moai ," or statues, have been provoking theories for centuries. But for every conjecture made by a well-meaning archeologist, it seems another falls. In 1955, Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian voyager and explorer, famously proposed that the Polynesians originated in the Andes, traveling by boats made of totora reeds growing in Lake Titicaca. The same reeds sprout from a crater lake on Easter Island -- perhaps they were imported by Andean settlers? Heyerdahl made important discoveries here, but his South American connection did not hold up under scrutiny.

For starters, DNA indicates the island was probably originally settled from the Marquesas Islands to the northwest sometime between 400 and 600 AD.

Plunged into the world of the Rapanui (people and culture of the island are a one-word term), I learned a lot. But four days later I left with more unanswered questions than I arrived with -- and a desire to return.

The islanders today refer to their home as Rapa Nui, not Easter Island (as Jacob Roggeveen, that first Dutch explorer, named it) nor Isla de Pascua (as its protectorate, Chile, calls it). The island is commonly referred to as the most isolated place on earth, a notion that only adds to its allure.

It was the iconic statues that I came to see, and it didn't take long for a face-to-face meeting. After a traditional lei greeting at the airport -- the garland made from maroon-colored bracts of bougainvillea -- and checking into my hotel in Hanga Roa , the island's one town, it was hard to hold back from a half-mile sprint to Tahai . Here, three "ahu," or ceremonial altars, support a series of moai, lined up with their backs to the sea.

To my surprise, every one of the stone faces was different in size and character. Stolid, stoic, cheerful, mournful, each possesses its own personality, some of it instilled by the original artist, some by the slow ravage s of erosion, some through "tattoos" of lichen and moss.

The next morning, China Pakarati , my guide with Kia Koe Tour , explained how the moai were like "portraits" of sacred Rapanui leaders, but that today they are missing one crucial element: their eyes, which gave the statues "mana ," or power. Made from white coral with a pupil of red scoria , only one set of eyes exists today, behind Plexiglas in the local museum.

"The eyes were what brought them to life," said Pakarati. "It's thought that during the conflicts the eyes were stolen, as a way to take their spirit away."

The conflicts, Pakarati explained, were the result of overpopulation. "They spent their energy carving the moai instead of devoting their time to growing food. They cut down all the trees for building, for burning, and the society collapsed." When the island was first settled, it was thick with palm trees; without them there was nothing to carve canoes for fishing, and the top soil eroded, making agriculture difficult. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the population reached its zenith, all of the moai were toppled and fierce tribal wars and food shortages consumed the small island, leading to cannibalism.

"They ate their enemies," said Pakarati. "They prepared them just like chicken, wrapped in banana leaf."

Life was increasingly brutal for the Rapanui. In the 1860s Peruvian slavers captured 1,400 islanders and sold them for manual labor in Peru. A few survivors who made it back to Easter Island brought smallpox with them. Missionaries arrived in 1866 and induced the Rapanui to leave for plantation work on other islands. By 1913, the population had dwindled to fewer than 100.

Today Easter Island has about 4,000 residents, a quarter of whom are of Chilean mainland origin, and it is becoming more self-sufficient, growing most of its own agriculture. The economy is based almost entirely on tourism, about 40,000 visitors a year, arriving at the airstrip that was built in 1967.

During the last half-century a few dozen of the 887 known moai have been re erected at sites like Tahai. But even the ahu with toppled moai come alive with an enthusiastic guide like Pakarati. At Ahu Vinapu all of the statues lie face down, but sprinkled around the site are "pukao ," the round red stone cylinders weighing several tons each that somehow were mounted on top of the moai.

"Some say the pukao are more mysterious than the transportation of the moai," said Pakarati. "Were they rolled downhill from that quarry? The red scoria is very soft -- they probably wouldn't have made it, intact. There is also a theory they were transported by boat, but how did they get the pukao out of the boat?" And then there's the question of what the pukao represent: Were they a kind of top knot, a hair style to represent someone important? Or were they a hat? Another hypothesis, popular among local Rapanui (and suppressed by missionaries): that the moai were a phallic symbol and that the pukao represented the female vulva.

Each of the ahu occupies a unique setting along the island's turbulent coastline.

Ahu Nau Nau is a set of seven moai, four with pukao, which have their backs to Anakena , the island's largest white-sand beach. Next to it is Ahu Ature Huki , the lone moai that Heyerdahl raised during his visit. It took his crew 20 days to accomplish the task using only the materials that existed on the island. The largest ahu is Tongariki, a stunning line of 15 moai restored in 1995 that can be spotted from more than a mile away.

Ahu Akivi , a set of seven moai located a mile from shore, stare out toward the sea rather than inland like all the others, and, at the equinoxes, they face the setting sun. Pakarati told me they represent the seven explorers who first found the island.

I visited all of these sites with Pakarati, and again at another time of day when the shadows illuminated different aspects.

The island's most magnificent site is the volcano of Rano Raraku , also known as the quarry , and best explored after seeing the ahu. Here, the stone giants were sculpted from both the outer and inner slopes of the crater, and the suddenness of Rapa Nui's demise is evident: Although dozens of moai appear complete, buried up to their neck s at haphazard angles and ready for transport to an ahu, many more are in various stages of carving within the cliffs, the back s of their heads still firmly attached. On one, an etching on its chest represents the three-masted outline of a European ship. Another, unfinished, is the largest moai discovered -- 270 tons and more than 65 feet in height -- which hints at another theory: Was rebellion fomented when the moai were conceived in a size that could no longer be transported?

The quarry was where the moai were born, but it also represents Rapa Nui's ruin, the society's decadence and eventual collapse. It is an emotional experience that transcends that of any other archeological site I have visited.

Four days is sufficient to cover all the important sites, but I wished for one or two more. The afternoon I departed there was a small cruise ship calling on the island for little more than 24 hours. I imagined how such a stop would only hint at Easter Island's mysterious beauty. Perhaps my fascination was unique. I wondered if this place is too long a trek for someone only mildly curious.

Then I met Bonnie Dill and Wendy Lynn Parlier, from Charleston, S.C. They were on a three-week tour of exotic corners of the South Pacific. Their enthusiasm mirrored mine.

"I didn't expect to like it all that much," said Dill. "It looked so rugged. But it's been absolutely wonderful, inspiring. We took a couple tours but then we rented a car and we've been out from sunrise to sunset every day."

A visit to Easter Island isn't all about the moai. There are horseback rides, hiking, and biking around the island, much of which is not accessible by road. The diving, through gin-clear water, is said to be excellent, and surfers ply the harbor at Hanga Roa, a town with a decidedly laid-back vibe and a handful of good restaurants and Internet cafes. Several nights a week there are revues of local music and dance with colorful costumes worn by hard-bodied guys and softly curved girls.

And there is the awesome crater of Rano Kau , which has the ceremonial village of Orongo perched at its lip, strewn with petroglyphs. It was here that the birdman cult was centered, a religious ceremony that took over when the statue sculpting ended.

And yet another mystery was born.

David Swanson, a freelance writer in San Diego, can be reached at dswanswan@aol.com.

If You Go

How to get there

LAN Airlines offers up to five flights a week from Santiago, Chile, to Easter Island in high season, plus two from Tahiti in French Polynesia. Both ways are five-hour flights. Check in early; my flights were overbooked in both directions. Round-trip fares from Santiago commonly start at about $700, but last October I found three-night air/hotel packages going for $799 from LAN tour offices in Santiago.

When to go

Located just south of the tropics, Easter Island's weather is acceptable year-round, though during winter nights (our summer months) temperatures can reach the 50s. January-February is peak season, with temperatures in the 80s. Water temperature averages 65. The annual Tapati festival (Tapati Rapa Nui, Feb. 1-18, 2008) features cultural events, song and dance, and sporting competitions.

Where to stay

There are at least a dozen hotels on the island, and many guest houses. All are located in and around Hanga Roa. Although accommodations can be tight in high season, most places had rooms in October, including at guest houses that were sold at the airport for $20- $40 per person, including breakfast.

Hotel Otai
011-56-32-100-250
E-mail: otairapanui@entelchile.net
Straightforward accommodations, a pool and restaurant, doubles $115-$145, including breakfast and airport transfer.

What to do

An orientation to the island with a local guide is strongly recommended for at least your first day.

Kia Koe Tour
56-32-100-282
kiakoetour.co.cl
China Pakarati works with this group. Shared tours range from $30 for a half-day to $50 for a full day with picnic, but a seven-hour private tour with guide and car is a better deal at $160 for up to three people. Equally recommended is spending at least a day touring the sites independently, when you may have the moai all to yourself. The 66-square-mile island is easy to get around -- 18 miles across at its widest -- and you could circumnavigate it by car in under two hours, without stops. Most of the sites are accessible by roads, which are good, usually paved. Car rentals start at $60 a day; bike and horse rentals are also available.

The sites to see

Ahu Tongariki
The biggest and most precisely reconstructed of the ahu, with 15 moai gazing toward the quarry.

Ahu Tahai
A collection of three ahu located at the edge of Hanga Roa, the island's only town. Many people come for sunset, while one moai has his eyes painted in to show what the statues would have looked like with their coral eyepieces . There's also a reconstructed canoe ramp.

Ahu Akivi
The one big ahu located inland, Akivi was restored in 1960 and has seven moai staring across fields toward the sea. Ahu Nau Nau and Anakena Two reconstructed ahu -- one with four moai adorned in pukao -- and lots of palm trees, replanted in the last century. Anakena, the larger of two white-sand beaches here, is probably where the Polynesians first landed.

Puna Pau quarry
Where red scoria (lava fragments) was carved to create the pukao (headdress) found on many of the moai.

Rano Kau and Orongo
Rano Kau, a volcanic crater even bigger and more striking than Rano Raraku , was the site of Orongo, a ceremonial village for the birdman cult, which took over as the island's statue- building ended. Orongo's boat-shaped houses are made of stone, and there are well-preserved petroglyphs and spectacular views.

Rano Raraku quarry
The volcanic crater where almost all the moai were carved is a breathtaking climax, best appreciated after visiting the big ahu. An easy trail leads past dozens of moai up to the lip of the crater, which contains a lake and more moai being consumed by vegetation.

Information

islandheritage.org
Archeological and historical details from the Easter Island Foundation and tourism information.

"The Complete Guide to Easter Island" is the most thorough guidebook, sold on the EIF website, while Lonely Planet "Chile & Easter Island" devotes a 19-page chapter to the island. Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" has a lengthy section on Easter Island's demise.

Spanish is the official language of Easter Island, but most residents speak English. Note that a surcharge is added for all credit card transactions on the island.

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