Monday, May 9, 2016

Rapa Nui!!!

8 May 2016

Wow wow wow wow WOW!  Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island, is absolutely amazing!  Fascinating!  Gorgeous!  Exceeding our expectations!  Just an incredible place to be, and I’m so glad we finally did this!!!!  So much is going on, I almost don’t know where to begin!

This is going to be LONG!  Some people like all the details.  Others like all the pictures.  I do this for a record of our travels.  So enjoy whatever part you like.

Someone from our hotel met us at the airport, complete with flower leis for the two of us!  I’ve never had a lei before!  Mine had bright magenta bougainvillea with white ribbony things from the inside of a plant, and Richard’s had red-orange bougainvillea with both green and white ribbony things.  (Imagine thin strips of plant leaf turned into a birthday present ribbon, that’s what they were like.)

We settled into our hotel, the Taura’a, which is really nice.  We have a spacious room that is basically one quarter of a cabin with a huge bed, big picture windows looking out onto the garden, and everything needed in a hotel room.  (Okay, there’s no TV.  They don’t get many channels way out here in the mid-Pacific.)  But the rooms are great, the breakfast absolutely wonderful, and everyone is friendly and helpful.  Plus there's a resident puppy who naps at my feet.  Great place to stay!

Our hotel is located in Hanga Roa, pretty much the only town on Rapa Nui.  (Pronounced hang-ah ROE-ah, and rah-pa NEW-ee.  The ng sounds like the ng in “sing” – but don’t add a hard G sound when there’s a second syllable.)  So we walked down to the coast and had lunch, watching the waves rolling in and the surfers.  Rapa Nui doesn’t have many beaches, most of the coastline is very rocky.  So the surfers tend to jump off or lie down to ride in the shallow water, in order to avoid crashing into the rocks.

Rapa Nui is 2300+ miles (3700 km) from the South American coast.  The nearest island is Pitcairn, another 2000+ or so miles away (and inhabited by only about 40 people).  This is a volcanic island, originally two islands formed by two volcanoes; then a third volcano rose up in the middle, the lava flowed outward, and joined the bodies of land into one island about 100 square km (or 38 square miles) – similar in size to Manhattan Island.  Or St. Thomas.  Or three times the size of Mercer Island, for my WA state friends. 
The current island of Rapa Nui is shaped somewhat like a right triangle, with the square corner almost at the top and two equal sides angling off to the left and right, with the third side of the island at the bottom.  

The Rapa Nui people arrived on this island most likely from the Marquesas Islands, to the west, roughly in 600 Common Era (give or take a century).  The people are Polynesian, and this was part of the great migration of Polynesian people throughout the Pacific islands.  The Rapa people flourished as did their culture, then there were clan wars that turned into class warfare between the leaders and the workers.  And then the Europeans arrived, Peru enslaved numerous Rapas, brought them to Peru and two years later sent them back on a ship.  Along with smallpox.  Most of the freed slaves died en route back to the island.  Those that returned brought the disease with them.  So this once flourishing population of several thousand people dwindled to 111 individuals.

Being so far from other islands, the people of Rapa Nui developed their own unique take on Polynesian culture.  But I’ll talk more about that later.
We spent our second day again wandering around Hanga Roa, because it was grey and rainy and we didn’t want to go traipsing around in the mud too much.  There’s plenty to do in town, including the all-important visit to the post office for the decorative tourist stamp in the passport.  When one arrives on Rapa Nui, it’s mandatory to purchase a national parks ticket because most of the island is part of the Chilean National Parks system (and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site).  There isn’t any Customs inspection, so no passport stamp.  Instead, the post office has the giant head statue stamp.  And certain of the sites around the island stamp that park ticket, but will also stamp your passport if you ask nicely (which of course I do, and I have some extra stamps – tourist stamps, but still worth it).

In town by the fishing boat area are a few old moai (pronounced MOE-eye), the large head statues for which this island is best known.  “Moai” means “statue” in Polynesian, and it would work as well for Michelangelo’s “David” as it does for these distinctive statues.  But the Rapa Nui statues are now referred to as moai, even though the Rapa people probably called them something else.

Anyway, the moai in town are impressive, and this was our first glimpse of these works of art.  The faces are stern and implacable, stylized but ancient and modern at the same time.  Most of the moai are close to the coast, and ring the island in dots and dashes.  Plus most moai face inland, although one moai by the boats was facing seaward.  Turns out all the moai had either fallen over or had been pushed over during the various wars and rebellions as well as natural disasters; by the 1900s none were found standing.  The moai facing the sea was stood up in 1938; our waitress explained why he was facing the wrong way, but we didn’t understand all the Spanish so we really don’t know what was going on.  Just that he’s facing out to sea instead of inland, protecting his people.

The moai are carved from tuff (sometimes called tufa), which is a volcanic stone.  Actually, it’s also kind of a metamorphic rock.  Tuff is basically volcanic ash which is then compressed under extreme pressure with so much force so that, over a period of time, it actually compresses into a rather porous rock.  Not as soft and light as pumice, but much more porous and soft than obsidian.  This made it easier to carve, but also makes the moai prone to erosion from the elements.  And some moai have other kinds of rock embedded in the tuff from when the whole rock was forming, which is pretty interesting from a geological perspective.

We also found several interesting mosaics.  The turtles all seem to be the exact same shape and outline – we even saw these at the airport.  They’re all different in the tiling, but same turtle design.  The sailfish or marlin was very cool, especially surrounded by all the circles – maybe bubbles or eddies of water?

For our third day, we booked a tour around the island with Bill, one of our hotel owners.  We set out in the morning and had a long adventurous day!  We were lucky that it turned out to be a gorgeous day – warm and sunny, but with enough breeze to keep the day from becoming unpleasantly hot.  

Here’s a map of our trip around the sites – Hanga Roa is marked with the large pinkish star, and the other sites are marked with a red-orange star and a number in the middle so you can see where we went in sequence.  And Bill explained as we went along.  

Before I start, I should say that much of what we believe about Rapa Nui may be totally wrong.  What we think we know about the people, the moai, etc. is based on archaeological finds and then conjecture, mixed in with writings by various explorers who happened upon this island.  So we have pirates and buccaneers trying to make themselves look either fierce and heroic, or virtuous and helpful.  Plus people who base their understanding of a culture on artifacts left behind which are then interpreted by comparing what is found to what we know about other cultures.  There are all kinds of opposing ideas about Rapa Nui.  Both sides might make sense, but they can’t both be right.  So what I’m going to write is conjecture.  There’s hard fact based on physical evidence, but the rest is supposition.  (I’m discounting the schools of thought that postulate space invaders and such.  Really.  There are some people who think the giant statues were flown from place to place in space ships.  I’m not one of those believers.)

We began at Akahanga (pronounced ah-kah-HONG-ah), where we saw the dwellings of the ruling class.  These people are called the Long Ears because they used heavy pierced earrings to stretch their ears.  The kings and leaders were all Long Ears.  The Short Ears were the workers, servants, farmers, artisans, crafts people, and such.  They had normal unadulterated ears.  (Some historians don’t believe this, but there’s some evidence it may be true.)  It isn’t clear whether this is a designation used by archaeologists and anthropologists in trying to understand the ancient Rapa Nui culture, or if the people actually called themselves the Long Ears or the Short Ears.  But the moai, statues of the former leaders, all have exceptionally long stretched ears.  So the nomenclature seems reasonable as an easy way to identify the ruling class versus the working class or peons.

The homes of the ruling class were made of tuff, and were rather narrow and low.  They were surrounded by an area full of rounded river rocks, forming almost like a patio, where people could sit
and work or relax.  These homes were closest to the sources of fresh water, as well as closest to the moai.
The working class people had their homes much further away, perhaps across a field.  We didn’t walk over and see the archaeological evidence of where they lived.

We saw the stone cooking space, a small ring of large squared off rocks.  A fire would be built inside and allowed to burn down to coals, which some rocks inside heating up.  Food (birds, fish, vegetables) would be wrapped in plant leaves like banana leaves and then would be placed on the coals, the hot rocks placed on top, and the whole thing buried with dirt. It would be allowed to cook for several hours before being uncovered and then eaten. Very similar to the curanto I ate in Chiloe!

There was a cave there, and we explored that a bit.

And then the moai!  First off, visitors aren’t allowed to get very close to the moai.  The entire platform is considered somewhat sacrosanct and holy.  Plus the tuff is subject to erosion.  So when not-so-smart tourists want to sit or stand or walk on fallen moai, it impacts these ancient artifacts.  (Yeah, I know, I can’t imagine wanting to do any of those things to an ancient statue. But some people do. I can’t tell you how many people I saw doing handstands in front of moai while their friends took their photo.)

So there’s a line of rock, and one doesn’t walk closer than that line of demarcation.

The moai were traditionally placed on a platform called an ahu (AH-hoo).  Ahus sometimes are placed one atop another, up to five deep.  Or perhaps more, no one really knows.  The platform is made of carved blocks of stone that fit together almost as well as the stones of Machu Picchu (leading some historians, like Thor Heyerdahl, to speculate that the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui actually came from Peru, not other Polynesian islands).

The ahu at Akahanga has collapsed into a pile of rubble.  And the moai toppled over, face first into the ground.  A very ignominious end for these statues that represent the leaders of this dwelling.  Sort of like a statue of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln face-planted somewhere along the Capital Mall.  It was really rather sad to see.  Normally the moai stand tall and proud, faces alternating between serene and severe.  And here they were, involuntarily kissing the ground.  Very sad.

We also talked about a variety of ways the moai may have been moved into place.  Our next visit was to Rano Raraku (rah-no rah-RAH-koo), the quarry where the moai were actually sculpted.  (This is also right at the crater of one of the original volcanoes which formed the island.  Makes sense for finding volcanic stone.)

Rano Raraku is one of the sites where we needed to show our park tickets, and they were stamped.  I had heard that if you carry your passport with you, the guards are willing to stamp that as well.  So I did that.  I don’t mind how touristy it is, it’s a fun souvenir to remember this major trip.

Now, some background is necessary.  It would seem reasonable that huge chunks of stone could be mined and taken to the site where they’d then be sculpted into the statue.  The way we mine stone now, the way the Italians did during the Renaissance.  But the tuff is much softer than marble, and also much less stable.  Because it’s essentially compressed ash, it also isn’t pure; sometimes there might be a huge chunk of basalt, or obsidian, or some other very hard stone that would get in the way of carving the moai, and thus the statue would be abandoned.  The Rapa Nui found it was easier to carve the statues while still in the cliff, and then gently carve away to release the moai from the surrounding rock.  Then the back of the moai would be carved, sometimes with intricate designs that have not yet been fully deciphered.

The oldest moai are rather short and squat, though still several meters or yards tall.  But the heads are large in proportion to the body, and the whole thing is quite heavy.  The noses protrude from the face, as do the lips.  These are delicate areas that can easily be broken while carving or transporting the moai.

But the most fragile area is the neck, where that heavy and large head is attached to the bulbous body with narrow shoulders.  If a moai broke, it would often be right at the neck, decapitating the statue.  And the Rapa didn’t bother with re-attaching pieces of statue, they just started a new one.  (This is one of those everlasting questions – was it important for the moai to be as complete and perfect as possible?  Or did the Rapa not have any methods for re-attaching the pieces?  No one is sure about this.)

So at the quarry, the lower levels are full of hundreds – literally, HUNDREDS – of abandoned moai.  Some might be broken.  Some might have been found to have flaws in the rock that prevented further carving.  Others, well, no one really knows why those particular moai never reached their final destination.  Maybe the sculptor died before finishing the piece.  Maybe the king died before the moai was finished.  Just one of those mysteries that abound on this island.  But it feels like it's the moai graveyard.  And yes, some of the most famous photos that we've seen of Easter Island, of Rapa Nui, have been of statues left as artistic garbage.

The actual mining operation took place at the top of the hill, where there’s a huge exposed bed of tuff.  We hiked along the trail past moai who were placidly gazing at the tourists walking by, facing in various directions.  They really exude a timeless strength and air of mystery, as well as a kind of serenity or tranquility.  Sort of like giant Buddha statues, or something, but much more enigmatic.

At the top we saw three moai still in the quarry, never completed, just the front of the moai carved and then left lying in the bedrock.  One had a large rock that couldn’t be carved with the tools the Rapa Nui had, so it was easy to see why it had been abandoned.  The others?  No idea.

There was also a kneeling moai here, fully finished.  He was placed looking directly at a platform above where we stood, as if something momentous happened at that location.  Again, no one knows exactly what or why.  It just seems as if he’s looking at that spot for a very important reason.  (He's also one of three moai who has a beard.  Three bearded moai.  Out of nearly 1000 known moai!)

We also saw a moai with carvings on his neck, symbolizing tattoos.  And yes, the indigenous population has tattoos, although most of the carvings found on the backs of some moai don’t really correspond to the tattoos that are traditional on the island.

Another moai has a boat carved on his belly.  Again, much speculation with experts drawing various conclusions, postulating this and that.  Heyerdahl thought the boat looked like the reed boats of Peru.  Someone else thought the square sails looked like European boats.  However, an expert in historical maritime architecture (boat building) said the carving looks more like a Chinese junk than anything else.  So for all anyone knows, the Chinese may have visited the island before recorded history.

There has been much speculation about how the moai were placed on the ahu.  Traditional belief is that the statues walked into place.  Of course, no one is sure if this means the statues actually walked to their positions on the ahu; or if they were walked to their locations, as in moved while upright (possibly with tons of ropes and a roacking motion to move the moai along).  Other ideas include rolling the carved statues along rows of tree trunks, or “greasing” the way with mashed vegetables like yam or taro.  (That would be a whole lot of mashed vegs!)

Keep in mind that this island is a tiny dot in the ocean.  The wind is a constant.  Sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce, but unrelenting.  Trees don’t grow straight in that kind of a wind.  They grow bent and crooked.  Which means if you try rolling one of those crookedy logs, they won’t roll in a straight line, you’ll be zigzagging your way toward your destination.  Not what you want to do when the object you’re rolling weighs in at 50 to 80 tons.

Bill said he’s seen, on other Pacific islands, huge canoes rolled down to the water on segments of tree trunks buried in the soil, set up something like railroad ties.  Using shorter pieces of tree trunks might work better that entire trees if a location only has windswept bending trees.  Plus only the central part of the tree segment would need to be “greased,” and not every segment, maybe every third or fourth piece.  He personally thinks this is the most likely way the moai were moved from the quarry to each located.

Another big speculation is: were the moai moved face up or face down?  Face up seems reasonable given the fragility of the nose and mouth carvings.  BUT.  If the moai is slid on the tree segments face up, from the center of the island, and is mounted on the ahu to face inland, it would need to be flipped over and stood up, or stood up and then turned around to face inland.  If the moai is slid feet first and face down, then it can just be tilted up and it’s already facing inland.  (Archaeologists suspect the moai was tilted up with sticks, round river rocks wedged in to hold it up, tilt more with sticks, add more rocks, until the statue is standing upright in place.)

Plant material may have been used to wrap the moais’ faces for protection before the entire sliding and dragging process began.

One interesting fact – and this is a definite fact, backed up by evidence unearthed at the sites of the ahus – is that the eyes were added right at the ahu, when the moai had arrived and was placed.  Up until that point in time, the moai was just a piece of rock, a statue without an identity.  Once the white coral and black obsidian eyes were inlaid into the tuff, then the moai had an identity, maybe even a spirit or soul.  The moai then truly represented Uncle Mike or Grandpa Joe.

Most scientists and social scientists believe the moai represented a leader, who commissioned the statue to be carved and erected while he was still alive.  The other possibility is that a moai represents a deceased leader, and the statue was commissioned by the next king.  Others speculate that the moai represent deified leaders who in some way protect the community.  At this point, no one is too sure.

(I know this is long, but it was all just so fascinating!)

We finally tore ourselves away from Rano Raraku, and headed to Tongariki (pronounced tong-ah-REE-key).  This is one of the most famous ahus and moais seen around the world.  This ahu has been restored by a Japanese billionaire.  What happened was, the fifteen moai were fallen.  (Some people have postulated that moai were knocked down in the class wars, or by rival leaders, or even the next leader.)  Anyway, the moai had been down for the count.  A group of German scholars visited in 1960, and took tons of photographs, hoping to use their photos to better study the site back home.  Then a tsunami hit in May 1960, and the waters forced the moai further inland, breaking some, mixing up the sequence, jumbling the moai and the detachable topknots all together.  In the 1990s, the Japanese government approached Chile and Rapa Nui with word that this billionaire was interested in helping finance the restoration of an ahu, and this site was selected.  The Germans were contacted and reprinted their photos in poster-sized format, and the sequence and style of the original ahu was restored.

The tallest and heaviest moai ever moved is at this location, which is pretty close to the quarry.  You can actually see Tongariki while at the quarry.  That’s the only way that huge moai could make it here.  (And it was mostly downhill.)  There’s actually a taller and heavier moai still at the quarry, so he never moved.

The largest moai moved and erected, here at Tongariki, is from the Middle Period (1050-1680 CE), along with the four moai to the right.  This huge moai weighs 82 tons, and is 8 meters (about 26 feet) tall.  HUGE.  Gigantic.  So impressive!

The middle four moai are from the Early Period (700-850 CE).  They are shorter and heavier, and the stone is more eroded.  And then the six moai at the left end are Late Period (post 1680), taller and slimmer in shape.  

This grouping, with the various periods on one ahu, have led some scholars to believe that rather than EACH moai representing one different king, maybe ALL the moai from one period represent one king.  Maybe one king had four, or five, or six moai made and established to show that he was bigger and better and stronger and more powerful than the king before him.  Or the king to the east or west.  Again, we don’t know.  But there’s a definite sense of one-upmanship about the whole thing.  Bigger is better.  More is better.  So maybe each king was just showing off and putting up as many moai as he could during his lifetime.

Another one of those unanswered questions.

Most of these moai at Tongariki probably had the red topknots, or pukao, though these were badly damaged during the tsunami.  Only one was in good enough condition to be placed back on the moai.  These came from a different quarry, at Puna Pao; the red rock is called scoria, and is another kind of volcanic stone.

On these moai, you can see long lines across the belly, angling downward and meeting in the center.  At first I thought this represented some sort of royal belt that the kings all wore, something like that.  No, it turns out that the moai all have arms carved on the side, with the hands turned inward across the stomach.  These lines represent insanely long fingernails!  Stretching across the entire belly!  As if the king is saying, "Look how rich and powerful I am!  I can grow my fingernails this long, and someone can do everything for me!  I don't need to do anything!"


Both up close and from a distance, Tongariki looks like a chess board set up, ready to play.  Doesn't it?  Might be something symbolic in that viewpoint.  Could it all be part of some game for power, or a land grab?  Something to think about.

Tongariki also has rounded river rocks set up at the base of the ahu.  It is believed that at various clan activities and performances, the rulers or kings would sit on the ahu, at the feet of the moai.  The base of the ahu might be where leaders or their families would sit.  Then the commoners would sit on those round rocks, which really are set up almost auditorium or stadium style, in diagonal tiers for optimal viewing.

This is the best place for sunrises, where the sun comes up behind the statues.  We’re hoping to catch that one morning.

I’m not sure if I mentioned previously that these ahus are all located near sources of fresh water.  Obviously a community needed water to drink.  In some ways, it almost looks as if the moai are guarding the water source.  Or maybe standing guard over the community.  Another one of those things that are open to speculation, interpretation, imagination.

There are some petroglyphs here, especially a turtle who is similar to the mosaics I’ve seen around the island.  (I had to enhance the photo so he can be seen.)

Then on to Papa Vaka, on the north coast, for petroglyphs.  There’s a tuna, shark, curving fish hooks, and a strange tool or implement on one rock.  This implement may (or may not) have been used to move the moai.  Again, there are differing and opposing schools of thought on this.  Another rock has a wonderful octopus, more fish hooks, and the mystery tool.  A third rock is covered with a huge canoe, fish hooks, vague sea creatures, and of course the mysterious tool.  

And our final destination for our tour, Anakena (ah-nah-KAY-nah).  This is the one and only sandy beach of any size on the entire island.  This one beach is called “the birthplace of Rapa Nui’s culture” because, as posted on the signs:
“According to the island’s oral history, Anakena (or Hanga Rau), is the place where the founding king of the Rapa Nui people, Hotu Matu’a, first set foot on the island.  

“Anakena is therefore the cradle of Easter Island’s history and culture, and archaeological studies have confirmed the extensive occupation of this site from about 1200 AD.

“This whole vicinity is a dense archaeological area, which not only contains important ceremonial centers above and below ground, but also houses and other vestiges of importance for understanding the island’s past.”

Given that this is the only sand beach, rather than rock or cliff, one would presume that local legend is right, and this really is the landing place for the first people to arrive here from across the ocean.  Just knowing that kind of sends shivers up my spine.

Of course, I wonder why the early settlers didn’t stay here.  Or perhaps they were escaping from others for some reason, and headed to the island’s south.  It just seems odd that this isn’t the location of the oldest, and first, settlement on the island.

There’s a restored ahu here.  The moai fell face first into the sand that has blown into the area in front of the ahu, and more sand was blown in until the moai were nearly buried.  This these are some of the best preserved moai, with very sharply defined facial features and carvings.  Really amazing.  However, there are some strange things here as well.  One of the stones on the back of the ahu is the head of a moai that broke off.  (Seems somehow sacreligious to use it this way.)  There’s also the petroglyph of a lizard on one of the blocks.  No one knows why, he’s just carved into the rock.

Okay, I have so much more information to share.  But it will have to wait.  This is a huge blog post, and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone.  

Please be patient, wifi is really iffy here and it may be a few days before I can post again.

It feels like we’re living in the midst of an archaeological expedition this week.  Richard keeps saying the island has exceeded his expectations.  I feel like it has answered by dreams.

We’re having a great time!

And a few photos extra-large, so you can see how absolutely amazing the moai are!  (With a few people here and there for scale.)



  1. Didn't have time to read, but the picture are wonderful. As I said, I have seen numerous documentaries about Rapa Nui, but your pictures are even clearer than the shows. I feel the maoi watching me! A real presence. Thank you for posting.

    1. Thank you - and you can always come back and read part of it at a time. I just wanted to get all the details down, I won't remember much of it by next year. The blog is kind of my travel journal.