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THE ANCIENT WATCHMEN OF EASTER ISLAND

by Irene Butler

A tiny triangular island in the South Pacific is the dwelling place of 887 gigantic stone statues, called moai. Historic journals describe the tremendous impact these anthropomorphic giants had on Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to set foot on these shores on Easter Sunday in 1722. Gazing up at the prominent noses, determined jaws and elongated ears of these strange monoliths, my husband Rick and I found ourselves as fascinated and baffled as the Admiral. Why the ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name) became obsessed with carving and erecting increasingly larger statues remains an enigma.

After settling into a cozy guesthouse in Hanga Roa (the island's only town), we made our way to a 'bike, scooter, jeep' rental shop. The tropical sun beating down on the nearly treeless terrain persuaded us to opt for a covered version of the latter. Our map led us to the sites of the imposing relics varying in size; the average being 12 ft in height and weighing as many tons. Although Roggeveen reported "hundreds lined the coast", by the mid-1800s all were toppled from their ahu (ceremonial platforms). Today fifty have been magnificently re-erected.

I stood riveted at the sight of fifteen moai towering side-by-side on the largest platform ever built at Ahu Tongariki. The moai at Ahu Nau Nau stand with their pukao (topknots) replaced. A small number were found to have once been adorned with this reddish cylindrical "hat" of scoria (a softer volcanic rock), weighing as much as two elephants. Most intriguing were the few with eyes 'reopened' (restored as they originally were) with piercing obsidian pupils imbedded in white coral.

The volcanic mountain of Rano Raraku is the huge quarry of hard tuff from which the statues were cut. Entranced, we followed the trails past numerous moai scattered about in various stages of completion. Some are still laying prone half carved out of the hillside, including the largest, a 71 foot titan, that if completed would have weighed 165 tons. Many left upright on the slopes are now buried up to their shoulders by wind drifts over the centuries.

The Polynesian ancestors of these Neolithic carvers ventured out in large sailing canoes (circa 300 AD) when their homeland 'Hiva' was sinking into the sea. Finding this island, situated nearly 4,000 km from the nearest land masses (Chile and Tahiti), they must have thought they were the only people on earth for a millennium. The moai, related to their belief system, embodied the supernatural powers of past chiefs bringing protection and prosperity to the clans. And prosper they did; an advanced society developed surmised to have reached a population of over ten thousand at its zenith.

The statue building ceased mid-16th century, which archaeologists deduce coincided with deforestation. Massive amounts of tree-trunk rollers for statue moving, plus timber for firewood and construction exhausted the abundant palm forests that once existed (based on pollen analysis). Adam, our museum guide, explained, "This began a downward spiral of soil erosion, crop failure, depletion of wildlife, and a scarcity of plant material for fishing nets. The starving Rapa Nui were trapped in their remote home with no large timber left for escape canoes." He further related, "This famine of apocalyptic proportions led to bloody clan wars and cannibalism for control over the diminishing resources, slashing the population in half."

The survivors developed the birdman cult. We climbed the winding paths to the stone houses at Orongo Ceremonial Village where chiefs and dignitaries came each spring for the birdman competition. With trepidation, I peered over the edge of a jagged vertical cliff. It was from this very spot the most athletic representative from each clan descended at break-neck speed, and then swam a kilometre through shark infested waters to one of three islands where Manutara birds nested. The first to return with an intact egg was the victor; his chief was declared 'birdman'- ruler for the following year.

Much of the history of this ancient culture is speculative and controversial. The ancient rongo-rongo script found on wooden tablets has never been deciphered. The characters are thought to be a combination of phonetic and pictographic cues to guide oral recitations. A Peruvian slave raid in 1862 forcibly removed most of the males from the island, including the chiefs and priests who were the readers of the script. Missionary records show the introduction of small pox and tuberculosis during the same time period further reduced the native population to a mere 110.

Easter Island was annexed by Chile in the late 1800's. Since it was opened to tourism in 1967 an endless stream of moai seekers, like ourselves, have been welcomed with warmth and cordiality by the townspeople.

We spent our last day lulled by turquoise seas lapping the shores at Anakena Beach. From the soft white sand we peered up at halogen haloes of sunlight encompassing the dark shadowy forms of moai on the nearby grassy mounds. It was a perfect setting to ponder the mysteries of Rapa Nui and the grandeur of its eternal sentinels.

Pics - by Rick Butler

Moai 1 - Eternal Sentinels
2 - Eyes opened
3 - Half buried in Quarry
4 - Top Notches
5 - Stone Dwellings at Orongo Village

Sidebar:

Lan Air for flights schedules/prices: www.lan.com

Accommodations range from budget to top end.
-hotel/guesthouse personnel meet visitors at airport to entice visitors to their establishment.
- reservations ahead may be necessary at peak times - Aug & Jan to Feb.

Good source for currant information: Easter Island Foundation & Easter Island Guidebook www.islandheritage.org

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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