February 11, 2012 – Easter Island
Easter Island is such a special and spectacular place. I am sure that the fact that it is so remote lends itself to the unique nature of the place – you have to really want to get there. If Polynesia is a giant Pacific triangle with Hawaii at the northern tip and New Zealand at the western tip, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is referred to by Polynesians, is the far eastern point of the triangle – 2200 miles from Chile and 2500 miles from Tahiti.
The normal port we would use, in Hanga Roa, the main village, was not possible because high swells would have made the tender operations too dangerous, so the ship was positioned on the more protected north side of the island and we tendered into Anakena beach – note the Moai statues on the beach, and the tender heading in. Tender operations here were interesting, so I took some pictures and will write about them in tomorrow’s entry. Our guide for the tour mentioned that he worked at the British Consulate and when I asked him what he did for the consul, he informed me that he actually is the British Consul for Easter Island – he said it is a one man shop, and when an English speaking ship arrives, all English speakers are pressed into service, as Spanish and Rapa Nui are the normal languages on the island.
The main attraction for tourists here are the Moai – they always have been and were even mentioned by explorers such as Captain Cook. There are about 900 Moai on the island, and it is believed that the statues were carved and erected by different tribes, to honor specific important ancestors in the belief that the Moai would insure that the spirits of the ancestors would provide for and protect the descendants who erected and maintained them. They were erected on a flat stone platform, sometimes a burial site of the honored ancestor, called an Ahu.
All the Moai were created in the same quarry – Rano Raraku, on the slopes of one of the three volcanoes on the island. Since the statues were carved by competing tribes or clans it is not known how they handled possible conflict at the quarry site. Many of the most dramatic Moai are still at the quarry, abandoned in place before they were moved to their Ahu. Most of them are about 15 to 20 feet tall, but there is one in the quarry, incomplete, which is over seventy feet high.
When completed the Moai were transported on wedge shaped sleds, pulled by hundreds of people, to be erected near the sea, facing inward, toward the village to be protected. If the Moai broke during transportation, they were left in place, and not repaired since it was believed that the protective spirit left when the statue was fractured.
Apparently the Moai had eyes made of coral and obsidian rocks (volcanic glass) which were supposedly kept in the lodges and brought out and inserted for ceremonial purposes. The round red “hats” are separate items, quarried from red stone in a separate area, and actually represent the long hair of the person, pulled into a pony tail or top knot.
Easter Island’s population peaked at about 15,000 persons creating friction and war between the tribes, and resulting in “knocking down” each other’s Moai, until there were none standing by the 1900s. Many of them have restored by the very active Chilean National Park Service on the island. The island population suffered not only from tribal warfare but external forces as slave traders removed large portions of the people during the 1800s. Today there are between 4000 and 5000 residents, and the island is on the rise due to increased tourism. This has been driven by the Chilean restoration work and the fact that NASA built a huge emergency runway for the space shuttle on the island which now allows for daily flights to Chile on LAN, the Chilean national airline.
A spectacular place to visit and even though it was difficult for ship’s crew to get us here, which you will read about tomorrow, I am very glad they did!