Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

– visited May 2014 –

Easter Island is small. Shaped like a triangle it is about 25 kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide at a maximum. At 163,6 square kilometres it is about the same size as the country of Liechtenstein. But unlike Liechtenstein, which sits right in the middle of Europe with connections in all directions, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on earth. The nearest inhabited land with around 50 residents is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 kilometres away; the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea in French Polynesia that is 2,606 kilometres away; The nearest point in Chile, to which Easter Island belongs, is 3,512 kilometres away. Flying to Easter Island, the screen shows the plane heading straight into the middle of a blue expanse of ocean. The island is way too small to be shown on the map.

Easter Island is well known for the Moai. There are about 900 of these stone statues, with an average height of 4 metres and an average weight of 12.5 tonnes. The tallest Moai ever erected was nearly 10 metres, and the heaviest weighed 86 tonnes. In the quarry at Ranu Raraku one unfinished Moai would have been 21 metres tall and had a weight of about 150 tons. How did the people of Rapa Nui create these statues? How did they transport them, erect them and what was this all about? As these questions have been on the minds of many visitors, Easter Island has been studied extensively. The tale that emerged is a strong reminder why the protection of our environment is of such importance. If we destroy the environment that sustains us, it will ultimately destroy us.

Rapa Nui, as both the island and its population are known in their language, was settled by Polynesian seafarers probably as recently as 1200 CE. In the following centuries, a thriving society developed which generated enough surplus to sustain the effort to create and move the Moai which are thought to have been a form of ancestor worship. The population is estimated to have reached from 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants. But remember, Easter Island is small. As the first settlers arrived the island had been, head to toe, covered with forest. Population growth led to the cutting of this forest at an unsustainable rate. Eventually, the endemic tree species became extinct and no large trees were growing on the island anymore. Without large trees, it was neither possible to move the heavy Moai, nor to built canoes for fishing or to escape the island (a great feat at this isolation anyway). Deforestation also caused erosion that degraded the soil for agriculture. Land and seabird populations collapsed. The Rapa Nui were essentially trapped on a small island that could no longer provide enough food for all of them. The ecological breakdown also led to a breakup of the societal order. At one quarry site the tools have been found as if the stonemasons left suddenly, Moai began to be toppled in internal strife.

As the first Europeans arrived to Easter Island in 1722, the island was already past its climax. The Dutch sailors estimated a population of 2,000 to 3,000 people with all land being under cultivation. The next ship to stop in 1770 erected a few crosses and took possession of the island in the name of Spain. Both ships mentioned the Moai and describe them as standing. As the famous James Cook visited only four years later, his crew reported some as having been toppled. They noticed only three of four canoes and all of them not seaworthy. The naturalist Georg Forster, who travelled with Cook, described the land as poor, and parts of it looked like they had once been cultivated but had fallen into disuse. He reported of seeing no trees taller than three metres. They estimated the population to be about 700 souls.

By 1838, the only Moai left standing were at the quarry site of Ranu Raraku and the ritual site of Orongo, all others had been toppled. In 1862 Peruvian slave traders arrived and took away about 1500 people, estimated to be about half the population. An international outcry forced the slave traders to repatriate some of the survivors but they brought smallpox to the island leading to an epidemic. A French adventurer arrived shortly thereafter with the plan to clear the island of people and use it for sheep farming. He moved several hundred people to Tahiti and missionaries moved another group. In 1877, only 111 people lived on Easter Island and only 36 of those had any offspring. Today, all Rapa Nui claim ancestry to these 36 individuals. Within 15 years, the island had lost about 95% of its population including all the “tumu ivi ‘atua”, the bearers of the island’s culture, history, and genealogy who knew how to read and write the rongorongo script, a form of proto-writing. Rapa Nui’s culture had effectively been destroyed.

Chile took possession of the island in 1888. Conditions did not improve. The slowly recovering Rapa Nui population was confined to the settlement of Hanga Roa, permission was needed to leave the settlement. The rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm. This was the scandalous situation until 1966 (!) when the island was reopened and the Rapa Nui given Chilean citizenship. In 1985, the airport was extended with US help to create another emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. As a side effect, this allowed modern jet planes to fly to the island. Since then, tourism has taken off (but given the quality of what is on offer, is still very moderate). Today, there are daily flights dumping a few hundred tourists on the island. The population has sharply risen, from 1,936 people in 1982 to 5,806 at the last census in 2012. Since 2007, the island has the constitutional status of a “special territory”.

The main attraction are the Moai. Many of them are arranged in so-called Ahus. An Ahu is a slightly raised stone platform where several (one, two, three, four, five, …, fifteen) Moai are arranged in one line. In front of the Moai is a ceremonial square from which a gentle ramp, covered with rounded stones, is leading to the stone platform. Interestingly, nearly all the Moai are facing inland, turning their backs to the sea. On top of some Moai, a Pukao sits like a hat made from stone. It is thought that most Moai had white eyepieces made from seashells and there is all some evidence that they might have been coloured.

Ahus can be found all over the island and many have been renovated, meaning the Moai have been uprighted again. This time usually with the help of cranes. The only settled area is around Hanga Roa and the airport. Unfortunately, the beautiful sandy beaches like Anakena beach are on the other side of the island. One day, I rent a car with some other travellers (staying a few days in the same hostel gives you a good camaraderie) and another day a scooter just on my own. Renting a car is easy, you go to the shop, put some cash on the table and get the keys. No deposit, no credit card, no nothing. You cannot leave the island unnoticed anyway. If you have wheels, you are advised to head to Ahu Tongariki as it is considered the most beautiful location for sunrise. I go twice and am disappointed both times by the clouds. Other places of interest include the stone village and ceremonial centre at Orongo and the caldera of the volcano Rano Kau. Or you can just take a long walk along the roadless western coast.  

Leaving Easter Island, I am being upgraded to first class, the food is perfect and the seat very comfy. A pity, that it is not an overnight flight. Somehow though, the comfy seat, in the end, gives me pain in my knee.