Easter Island - Rapa Nui


Native Flag of Easter Island - Reimiro


Easter Island is the world's most isolated inhabited island. It is also one of the most mysterious. Easter Island is roughly midway between Chile and Tahiti. The triangular shaped island is made mostly of volcanic rock. Small coral formations exist along the shoreline, but the lack of a coral reef has allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island. The coastline has many lava tubes and volcanic caves. The only sandy beaches are on the northeast coast.

Ovahe Beach, North Shore

The inhabitants of this charming and mysterious place called their land: Te Pito o TeHenua, 'the navel of the world.'

It sits in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away - tiny Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.

Archaeological evidence indicates discovery of the island by Polynesians at about 400 AD.

In 1722, a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, sighted and visited the island. This happened to be on a Sunday, Easter Sunday to be precise, and the name stuck: Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish).

What he discovered on Easter Island were three distinct groups of people, Dark skinned, Red skinned, and very Pale skinned People with red hair".

The Polynesian name of the island is Rapanui, which is a name given by a Tahitian visitor in the 19th century who says that the island looked like the Tahitian island of 'Rapa,' but bigger, 'Nui.'

Inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, but for decades anthropologists have argued the true origins of these people, some claiming that ancient South-American mariners settled the island first.

What many early explorers who visited the island found, was a scattered population with almost no culture they could remember and without any links to the outside world.

The Easter islanders were easy prey for 19th century slave traders which depreciated even more their precarious culture, knowledge of the past, and skills of the ancestors.




THE MOAI

When we think of Eastern Island we think of of huge stone carved figures -monoliths- that dot the coastline.

They are called Moai and are carved from island rock.

The Moai are seen all over the island, and in different shapes, sizes, and stages of completion. Many Moaiare left unfinished at the quarry site. No one is sure yet as to what purposes did the Moai served, but outside scholarly research together with accumulated local knowledge, shows evidence that the Moai were carved by the ancestors of the present inhabitants.

Ron Fisher in his work Easter Island Brooding Sentinels of Stone, mentions as one explanation for the statues that "two classes of people, the-so-called Long Ears and Short Ears, lived on the island. The Short Ears were enslaved by the Long Ears, who forced the Short Ears to carve the Moai. After many generations and during a rebellion, the Short Ears surprised the Long Ears killing them all, which explains the abrupt end of the statue-carving.

Long Ears

Some of the Moai face the sea -

most face inland to watch over the villlages.

Many of the were buried up to their shoulders and thereby appearing as disembodied heads.

All of the Moai were toppled in tribal wars about 250 years ago.

Many have recently been rebuilt - starting in the 1950's.

They sit on rocky lava strewn about telling a story of fallen monuments of a long lost civilization who created them. The Moai were depictions of their ancestors. The Rapa Nui were ancestor worshipers and only had one diety - Make Make.

The Moai were excavated for the first time by Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950's and were photographed at that time.

AHU

Moai sit on platforms - ceremonial shrines called Ahu.

Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place.

Ahu Akivi is a sanctuary and celestial observatory built about 1500 AD which was the subject of the first serious restoration accomplished on Easter Island by archaeologists William Mulloy and Gonzalo Figueroa, with excellent results. As in the case of many religious structures on Easter Island, it has been situated with astronomical precision: it's seven statues look towards the point where the sun sets during the equinox.

It is also aligned to the moon.

Ahu Akivi is an unusual site in several respects. A low ahu supports 7 statues all very similar in height and style. The site is odd in that it is located far inland and the statues were erected to face the ocean. The only site where this was done. Like other Easter Island sites the statues were found knocked off the ahu, lying face down in the ground. In 1960, Archeologist William Mulloy's team spent several months raising the statues to their original positions.

During the excavation and restoration of this site many cremation pits were uncovered behind the ahu. The pits contained fragments of bone, shells, fishing implements, and obsidian flakes. Whether sites like these were used regularly for cremations and or burials is not certain. At other sites skeletons have been found buried within the ahu structure, but these burials are believed to have occurred after the statues were toppled.

Folklore holds that its seven moai represent the seven young explorers that legend says the Polynesian King Hotu Matu'a dispatched from across the seas, probably from the Marquesas Islands, to find this new homeland for him and his people. They are among the few moai that face the sea.

These seven stone giants may well symbolize those seven explorers, but no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows what any of the moai really represent or why only a few of them face the sea.

The generally accepted theory is that these majestic stone statues were built to honor Polynesian gods and deified ancestors such as chiefs and other figures important in the island's history. Most of them are attributed to the 14th and 15th centuries, although some were erected as long ago as the 10th Century.

Their function, it is believed, was to look out over a village or gravesite as a protector. They may also have been status symbols for villages or clans.

The seven at Ahu Akivi each stand about 16 feet high and weigh about 18 tons. The tallest moai on the island exceed 30 feet. Moai in the range of 12 to 20 feet are common. Even the occasional tiny moai that you come across are at least 6 feet high.

The ahu of Easter Island vary in length - the longest one is 300 feet, while some that hold one moai are only several feet long. Each ahu has a stone masonry base that slopes upward to a high terrace upon which the moai rest. Some terraces are as high as 15 feet above ground level. All are fairly wide - the bases of the moai that stand upon them measure as much as 10 feet long by 8 or 9 feet wide.

The island's volcanic rock from which they were carved is softer and lighter than most other rock, but even the smallest moai weighs several tons. Some of the moai have been estimated to weigh as much as 80 to 90 tons.

Many of the moai - there are hundreds of them - are erected at sites miles from the quarry at which they were carved. How could so few people move them even a couple of feet, let alone several miles, and without breaking them?

And once they did move them, how did they erect them? Even today, using powerful cranes, it would be no simple task.


Theories on how the Moai were moved

Many Rapa Nui people believe that the statues were moved and erected by 'mana' a magical force. Great kings of a long-gone era simply used their mana to command the moai to move to the distant sites and stand there. Mana is a word and concept you hear frequently in South Seas lore. The people of Rapa Nui believed that the moai also possessed mana, which was instilled at the time their white coral eyes were put in place, and that the moai used their mana to protect the people of the island. Today none of the moai have genuine coral eyes - and thus the mana is no more.

The intervention of Extraterrestrials - the most infamous of these writers is Erich Von Daniken who suggests that a small group of 'intelligent beings' were stranded there and taught the natives to make 'robot-like' statues. His main thrust is that the stone from which the statues are made is not found on the island- a complete fabrication. This links with theories that Easter island was once part of the lost civilization of flying machines.

Other theories include - men sliding the moai along on layers of yams and sweet potatoes.

The generally accepted belief is that they were transported on sledges or log rollers and then levered erect using piles of stones and long logs.

"Thor Heyerdahl, whose books Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku stirred great interest in Easter Island, conducted an experiment showing that an upright stone statue could be moved using ropes, tilting and swiveling it along. But the experiment was conducted on a flat surface for only a short distance, and this theory, like Heyerdahl's theory that the islands of the South Pacific were settled from east to west from South America rather than from west to east from Southeast Asia, is not considered plausible.

All but a few of the moai of Easter Island were carved at Rano Raraku, a volcanic cone that contains a crater lake. It is an eerie spot. Scattered all around Rano Raraku are 394 moai in every stage of evolution. Some are fallen - a common sight around the island - and some appear to have only heads, although they are really full figures that have been nearly buried by soil over the centuries. For reasons that remain a mystery, it appears that the workers at Rano Raraku set down their tools in the middle of a multitude of projects - and the moai-building abruptly ceased.


RONGORONGO

Rongo-rongo is the hieroglyphic script of Easter Island. It has remained a mystery since its discovery. For over a hundred years, controversy has raged over the meaning and source of these enigmatic characters.

Rongo-rongo Tablet

There are only 21 known tablets in existence - scattered in museums and private collections. Tiny, remarkably regular glyphs, about one centimeter high, highly stylized and formalized, are carved in shallow grooves running the length of the tablets. Oral tradition has it that scribes used obsidian flakes or shark teeth to cut the glyphs and that writing was brought by the first colonists led by Hotu Matua. Last but not least, of the twenty–one surviving tablets three bear the same text in slightly different "spellings", a fact discovered by three schoolboys of St Petersburg (then Leningrad), just before World War II.

In 1868 newly converted Easter Islanders send to Tepano Jaussen, Bishop of Tahiti, as a token of respect, a long twine of human hair, wound around an ancient piece of wood. Tepano Jaussen examines the gift, and, lifting the twine, discovers that the small board is covered in hieroglyphs.

The bishop, elated at the discovery, writes to Father Hippolyte Roussel on Easter Island, exhorting him to gather all the tablets he can and to seek out natives able to translate them. But only a handful remain of the hundreds of tablets mentioned by Brother Eyraud only a few years earlier in a report to the Father Superior of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.

Some say they were burnt to please the missionaries who saw in them evil relics of pagan times. Some say they were hidden to save them from destruction. Which side should we believe? Brother Eyraud had died in 1868 without having ever mentioned the tablets to anyone else, not even to his friend Father Zumbohm, who is astounded at the bishop's discovery. Monsignor Jaussen soon locates in Tahiti a laborer from Easter Island, Metoro, who claims to be able to read the tablets. He describes in his notes how Metoro turns each tablet around and around to find its beginning, then starts chanting its contents.

The direction of writing is unique. Starting from the left–hand bottom corner, you proceed from left to right and, at the end of the line, you turn the tablet around before you start reading the next line. Indeed, the orientation of the hieroglyphs is reversed every other line. Imagine a book in which every other line is printed back–to–front and upside–down. That is how the tablets are written! Jaussen was not able to decipher the tablets.

There are also many zoomorphic figures, birds especially, fish and lizards less often. The most frequent figure looks very much like the frigate bird, which happens to have been the object of a cult, as it was associated with Make–Make, the supreme god.

When you compare the tablets which bear the same text, when you analyze repeated groups of signs, you realize that writing must have followed rules. The scribe could choose to link a sign to the next, but not in any old way. You could either carve a mannikin standing, arms dangling, followed by some other sign, or the same mannikin holding that sign with one hand. You could either carve a simple sign (a leg, a crescent) separate from the next, or rotate it 90 degrees counterclockwise and carve the next sign on top of it.

All we can reasonably hope to decipher some day is some two to three lines of the tablet commonly called Mamari. You can clearly see that they have to do with the moon. There are several versions of the ancient lunar calendar of Easter Island.


PETROGLYPHS

On Easter Island, petroglyphs are located in every sector of the island where there are suitable surfaces. Favored locations are smooth areas of lava flow (called "papa" in Rapanui), or on smooth basalt boulders. Most of these surfaces occur along coastal areas and often are associated with major ceremonial centers. Some important ahu have, as part of their structure, elegantly carved basalt stones (pa'enga), with petroglyphs on them. Paintings survive in caves or in some of the stone houses at 'Orongo where they are protected against the weathering process.

Thousands of petroglyphs - rock carvings - can be found on Easter Island. Many represent animals, notably birds or anthropomorphic birdmen.

One of the most famous motifs on Easter Island is that of birdman - a half-man, half bird image that was connected to cult events at the sacred site of 'Orongo. A bit of background on the culture is necessary to explain this unusual cult.

After the demise of the statue building, in the last days before the invasion by Peruvian slave traders, there arose a cult of the Birdman (Tangata Manu). The birdman was seen as the representative on earth of the creator god Makemake, and eventually, this cult surpassed the traditional power of the king ariki.

Once a year, representatives from each clan would gather at the ceremonial village of Orongo and swim to Motu Nui, a nearby Islet to search for the egg of the Sooty Tern. On his return, the competitor presented the egg to his representative who was then invested with the title of Tangata Manu. He then went down to Mataveri and from there was led in procession to the southwest exterior slope of Rano Raraku, where he remained in seclusion for a year. The Birdman ritual was still in existence when Europeans arrived on Easter Island - therefore historically documented. It was also featured quite prominently in Kevin Costner's film "Rapa Nui".

In Hanga Roa -a sprawling and pleasant community where the island's 2,775 residents live because it's the only area on the island with electricity and running water. The most interesting souvenirs are miniature wood and stone carvings of moais, though some stone samples up to 6 feet tall are available.

Moai Kavakava

A bearded emaciated man whose ribs and vertebrae are grotesquely extended.
It is said to represent the spirits of dead ancestors.

According to the local tradition, as Chief Tuu-ko-ihu was returning home, he saw two such spirits who had protruding ribs and hollow bellies. These Aku Aku later appeared to him in a dream.

Other Rapa Nui wood carvings include: statues of female figures (moai pa'a pa'a), paddles (rapa), clubs (ua), staffs ('ao), lizards and birdman images (tangata manu).

Today, most of the original wood sculptures reside in museums around the world - estranged from their ancestral home. The islanders still carve these statues; continuing a tradition which, to this day, commands respect and admiration from visitors.

M.H. de Young Memorial Museum


TATOO

Wearing a tatoo in various parts of the body is a popular custom.


CANNIBALISM

Every Easter Islander knows that his ancestors were kai-tangata, 'man-eaters'. Some make jokes about it, others take offense at any allusion to this custom which has become in their eyes barbarous and shameful.

According to Father Roussel, cannibalism did not disappear until after the introduction of Christianity. Shortly before this, the natives are said to have eaten a number of men, including two Peruvian traders. Cannibal feasts were held in secluded spots, and women and children were rarely admitted. The natives told Father Zumbohm that the fingers and toes were the choicest morsels.

The captives destined to be eaten were shut up in huts in front of the sanctuaries. There they were kept until the moment when they were sacrificed to the gods.

The Easter Islanders' cannibalism was not exclusively a religious rite or the expression of an urge for revenge: it was also induced by a simple liking for human flesh that could impel a man to kill for no other reason than his desire for fresh meat. (Man was the only large mammal whose flesh was available) Women and children were the principal victims of these inveterate cannibals. The reprisals that followed such crimes were all the more violent because an act of cannibalism committed against the member of a family was a terrible insult to the whole family. As among the ancient Maoris, those who had taken part in the meal were entitled to show their teeth to the relatives of the victim and say, 'Your flesh has stuck between my teeth'. Such remarks were capable of rousing those to whom they were addressed to a murderous rage not very different from the Maly amok.

- Easter Island - A Stone-Age Civilization of the Pacific



TRAVELING TO EASTER ISLAND

Easter Island may be remote, but it's very easy to get to.

LanChile, the national airline of Chile, flies jet airplanes here twice weekly from Santiago, Chile's capital, and twice weekly from Tahiti. The island has been a part of Chile since 1852.

Many locals who operate hotels and guesthouses arrive at Mataveri Airportto greet the tourists.

The landing strip there is first rate because the U.S. space agency NASA upgraded the existing one to serve as an emergency landing facility for the space shuttle.






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