Easter Island, Chile

Many questions surround Easter Island: where did the people come from, what happened to them, what is the reason for the moais and how were they transported without wheels? How were the several-ton moais erected? How were the topknots, which also weigh several tons, placed on the tops of the moais?

Many of the completed moais on Rano Raraku are covered in dirt up to their shoulders or necks.

Rainwater creates a small lake inside the extinct volcano of Rano Raraku.

Another completed moai on Rano Raraku

A moai on Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku is an extinct volcano, where the moais – some say 1000 – were carved from the 5th to the 13th centuries. Completed moais and unfinished ones cover the outside of the mountain slope, as well as inside the crater.

To our simple eyes, the moais looked to have similar features, but archaeologists point out differences in each moai, which makes sense as they are supposed to be the likeness of the person buried in front of them (in the rock platform, which is called ahu).

The average size of a moai on the island away from Rano Raraku (the stone mountain where the moais were carved) was four meters high and 12.5 tons.

The magnitude of the moai is mind-boggling. The statues became larger and larger as one village tried to outdo the next by carving and then erecting the largest moai. Statues on the island range from two meters in height to just over 20 meters.

Ancient turtle figure carved into stone in front of Ahu Tongariki.

This enormous moai stands in front of Rano Raraku, the mountain where all of the moais were carved. Many speculate on how the moais were carved and then transported without wheels to villages scores of kilometers away – more than 1000 years ago. Many statues weighed 12 or more tons.

Ahu Tongariki is the largest ahu (platform where the dead were buried in front of their moai likeness) on the island. In 1960, a tsunami toppled these moais, which were later (1992-96) re-erected by the Japanese company, Tadano. Only one topknot was replaced upon a moai since the tsunami scattered and/or destroyed the remainder.

Two Catholic priests live on Easter Island in 2001. Newly built Catholic shrines have been erected near many of the ancient moai sites.

In the rear is the lone moai called Ahu Ature Huki – found and raised by Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl. The seven moai, called Ahu Nau Nau, were excavated and restored in 1979. Four wear topknots and two are only torso remains. The moais remain a mystery even though archeologists and Rapanui legends offer some hypotheses.

Easter Island, a volcanic formation, is home to three major extinct volcanoes.

More horses than people are found on Easter Island, which is 117 square kilometers. The small town of Hanga Roa is home to 3,000 people. Only a few Islanders live outside of town since electricity and running water are available solely at Hanga Roa.

These massive moais were transported from Rano Raraku (stone mountain where all the moais were carved), a mere 10-12 kilometers away. The Islanders did not have wheels at the time.

The moais at Ahu Akivi, restored in 1960, are the only ones on the island looking out to the sea.

Close-up of one of the seven moai at Ahu Akivi

Running water and electricity are available only in the main town of Hanga Roa, so almost all of the 3000 Rapanuis live in town. The open countryside of Easter Island is a combination of hills, valleys, plains and mountains covered with a few spots of Eucalyptus trees planted about 30 years ago, tall grass, brown weeds, horses, cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. And, of course, the moais.

Saturday morning at the market

The market offers homemade jewelry and moai replicas to tourists, as well as homegrown food to locals.

The Easter Island Post Office, where a horse is just as likely to be outside awaiting the owner as a car. There are more horses than people on the island.

30 June 2001 – Easter Island is a mystery. Our Rapanui guide Juan told us many stories, legends and ‘history’, but no one knows for certain the origin of the Easter Island people or the rationale for their tremendous stone carvings called moais.

Juan told us a little about the Rapanui people, who do not like to own things outright, instead preferring the communal type system. Foreigners cannot buy land and this includes mainland Chileans. I pointed out that the supermarket and our hotel are the two most successful businesses in town and ‘foreigners’ run them. He agreed, adding that the couple at the supermercado rent the building and own what is inside, and the hotel owner is married to a Rapanui, so he ‘officially’ owns the land and hotel. Juan also told us that if a foreigner and Rapanui produce a child, the offspring can be part of the communal ownership of island.

By the end of several hours, Juan made it clear that Rapanui people are complacent and content with their ‘poor-ness’, as Jim terms it. The Rapanuis have a real contempt for mainland Chile and after all, they did take over the island in 1888. Yet, the mainland heavily supports the tiny island with paved roads, a school, army, police, airport and airline, which shuttles in tourists that are the livelihood of 80 percent of the 3000 people living on Easter Island.