The huge waves roll in relentlessly. They rear up in anticipation of their violent meeting with the unyielding rock of the coast, spray blown from their crests by the strong offshore wind. Having marched unimpeded for thousands of miles, the energy released at this point is staggering. We can feel it through the flip-flops on our feet as we stand in awe silently watching, bent to the wind and transfixed. Sheets of rain hit us as if from the shaking of a big wet blanket.
We’ve just arrived at Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, that remote speck of volcanic rock situated in an exceedingly isolated expanse of the South Pacific. I’m accompanied by two of my sons, one a cultural anthropologist, the other one into urban and environmental planning. Both have studied the ancient culture of the island, and I have read about the enigmatic place all of my life. I guess you could say we’re here on a pseudo-academic errand driven mainly by – what else – curiosity.
It’s May, late fall in the southern hemisphere, and the weather varies greatly throughout a single day. Moisture-laden clouds advance steadfastly from the open ocean and rain falls in torrents for one minute, only to be replaced by subtropical sunshine the next. Cool winds wax and wane.
Rapa Nui is the most isolated inhabited place on the planet, the last to be settled by humans. Hardy and accomplished ancient Pacific seafarers settled the island around the year 800, after a voyage of at least 2000(!) miles. The discovery, the landfall, when spirits must have been on the wane and faith faltering would have been beyond profound. The gratitude the people must have felt may have been part of what drove the statue carving tradition that the island is known for and to which so much time and energy and resources were committed over the subsequent seven hundred or so years.
When Europeans first happened across this lonely volcanic outpost, on Easter Sunday 1721, they found, besides a wild and lonely setting, evidence of a complex and mysterious culture. The triangular island, fourteen miles across, was surprisingly barren yet featured something unlike anything else in the world: huge stone figures, grouped or standing alone, scattered across the island. And not just a few but several hundred of them.
I’m sure you know about the heads. Easter Island’s statues, called moai in the Rapa Nui language were, as best we can tell, an integral part of an ancient tradition of worshiping and honoring ancestors. Evidence of this ancestor worship tradition has been found in other Polynesian cultures, but not on such a grand, over-the-top scale as found on Easter Island. There are about 400 completed moai on the island, with many more lying unfinished at the Ranu Raraku quarry site.
Beyond the difficulties of carving the moai in an iron-free low-tech age, how did the Rapa Nui carvers transport the massive, forty to eighty-ton figures from the quarry many miles across the island and then erect them on their respective platforms? There are several ways this could have been accomplished, using for instance logs as rollers and rope from palm fiber, as proven and tested by researchers in recent decades, but all of the options have in common the fact that they are monumentally difficult. This difficulty and the associated, outrageously large investment of time and resources required has led some people to throw up their hands in disbelief and insist that the Rapa Nui people were assisted by extra-terrestrial intelligence! Hmmm.
We’re staying in a simple and tidy cabana on the edge of Hanga Roa, the town of 5,000 where all of the modern day inhabitants of the island call home. We cook our basic fare -from oatmeal to Chinese noodles and spaghetti- in the modest kitchen. Most of the food on the island is brought from the Chilean mainland; the thin volcanic soil not as fertile as it may once have been. The population here is a mix of Polynesian and Chilean heritage and mainly employed in taking care of visitors from all over the world.
The stars of the Southern Cross hang in the celestial dome overhead. The constellation perches outstanding among the stunning display that is the Rapa Nui night sky. It’s there for us in the predawn sky just as it was for the ancient navigators who arrived here so long ago.
We’re hiking across the island toward its high point, the extinct volcano Terevaka. Later, on the desolate summit we brace against the wind and gaze out to sea. Rain showers can be seen at intervals offshore, some are headed our way and will arrive within minutes. We better batten down the ponchos.
And so our week on Rapa Nui is spent traipsing across it on foot -the ideal mode of transport for the island- visiting archaeological sites as well as natural features that make up such an unusual place. We also borrow some bikes which extend our range to Anakena, the sole sand beach of the island and the place revered for being the site of the original settlers’ landfall some 1300 years ago. Anakena is practically deserted the day we visit it, and the feeling of isolation on this leeward shore is profound.
Tongariki is the largest grouping of moai on the island, 15 of them in a row on an elaborate stone platform in a spectacular oceanside setting. Most of the stone sentinels at Tongariki are complete with their red scoria stone “topknots.” How the ancient builders precisely balanced these 1500-pound stones on top of the erected moai is anybody’s guess. Really.
One morning we hike to the lonely site of the ancient village of Orongo, high on the shoulder of Rano Kau volcano. Taylor, our resident Easter Island-savvy anthropologist, gives us a tutorial on mysteries such as the Birdman cult, and as we gaze out to the tiny archipelago of Motu Nui he describes the annual ritual of the ancient society. In it the new ruler for the coming year was determined through a bizarre and grueling competition in which competitors would each try to retrieve from Motu Nui the first sooty tern egg of the season, swim with it a mile back to the main island, then ascend a 1000 ft precipice to Orongo and the assembled elders. Yes, they really did that.
Another rainy day finds us enveloped in our ponchos and hiking to a lava tube cave known as Ana Te Pahu, the banana cave. Ancient Rapa Nui people grew bananas in the protection of the broad cave entrance. And we for our part eat our soggy cheese and tuna sandwich picnic in the cozy shelter therein, among descendant banana plants, cut off from the outside world by a shower curtain of rain.
All of the moai on Rapa Nui were created at one place, the quarry known as Rano Raraku. Experts estimate that it took a crack team of carvers two to three years to complete just one statue. Several hundred unfinished moai lie here in various states of completion. It’s an astonishing scene, and the morning we walk the silent paths winding through the site, among the stoic sentinels, is not one to be forgotten.
“Iorana!” It’s Miguel calling with the native all-purpose greeting. His family owns the cabana and this evening he’s come by to check on us. We chat for a while in basic linguistic survival mode -not much language in common- about our respective families and we’re reminded of the commonality of our lives -lives that seem so different at first glance. Bounding off, Miguel flashes his trademark Polynesian grin.
Further forays into the mysteries of the island lead us to places like Vinapu, where ultra precision stonework reminiscent of Machu Picchu is found, and to the Kakenga double lava tubes whose underground passages terminate at jagged openings on a cliff face far above the pounding azure surf. We walk across empty wind-blown terrain with only semi-wild horses to keep us company. There are about 3000 such caballos on the island; along with the laid back dog population they seem to own the place.
It’s our last day on the island. We spend it tramping the caldera of the extinct volcano Rano Kau, arriving finally at the spectacular lookout of Vai Atara. As we gaze seaward from the highest point of the crater rim I reflect on what we’ve experienced on Easter Island.
Beyond the remoteness, the silence, the wild natural beauty, one theme that keeps bubbling up into my consciousness is affirmation of the bottomless strength of the human spirit. Besides the wildly amazing accomplishment of the ancient people in just reaching the island, one would think that such a colossal project as carving the moai would run its course in perhaps a few years, the builders and all involved feeling that, “OK, we’ve got the gist of this; it’s time to devote all of this energy to other pursuits.” But no, they were not easily distracted, that’s for sure. The ancient people of Rapa Nui sustained the desire and wherewithal to keep creating the statues for hundreds of years.
Since returning home from that faraway place I find my mind drifting back in time, my thoughts transcending the years -and the miles- to ancient Rapa Nui. The people who lived and died there hundreds of years ago continue to inspire us today in shaking the boundaries of human accomplishment and potential. It’s further timeless testament that given sufficient desire and perseverance people can accomplish just about anything.