Hidden in the endless wastes of the Pacific, nearly 2,500 miles from the coast of Chile, the small remnant of volcanic rock named Easter Island was once the most isolated place on earth. But in recent decades the huge and inexplicable statues left by the Polynesian culture have drawn attention from around the world. Where once only one ship a year stopped here, today flights arrive six days a week from Santiago. This tiny triangular South Seas outpost measures just 15 miles across and has a population of only 4,500, but there is a lot to explore. Easter Island has a wonderfully raw, unspoiled beauty with windswept coastlines, gentle, treeless hills, and a lush interior. Golden beaches and coconut palms are in short supply.
Archeologists believe Easter Island may have been populated as long ago as AD 400. The first Europeans arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722, giving the island its name. Dutch Admiral Roggeveen spent a day ashore, recording (unlike later accounts) that the statues were upright, the lands were neatly cultivated, and “whole tracts of woodland” were visible. The population here may have been as large as 12,000 at one time.
POINTS OF INTEREST
THE MYSTERIOUS MOAI
No one knows the true story behind the moai, but they are thought to have been symbols of gods and ancestors. They were carved from around AD 900, out of the soft volcanic rock forming the sides of Rano Raraku crater, where some 400 incomplete pieces remain, many as high as 5.5 meters (18ft) – the largest is 21 meters (69ft) tall. Each probably took a year to complete. Once finished, the moai was cut out of the quarry and transported to a family burial platform called an ahu, some being given red stone “topknots.” The family dead were usually placed in a vault beneath the moai, which was probably believed to transmit mana, or power, to the living family chief. All of the standing ahu moai that can be seen now have been re-erected in modern times. In the period of the tribal wars, all the moai were toppled, presumably to break the mana of the family chief they protected.
The most geologically spectacular place on Easter Island is the volcano Rano Kau, with its steep crater and multicolored lake. The ruined village of Orongo, sitting on steep cliffs above the crashing sea and three foam-washed islands, has an excellent interpretation center and is surrounded by rocks with Bird Man carvings: a man’s body is drawn with a bird’s head, often holding an egg in one hand. Fortunately, we know quite a lot about the Bird Man cult, as it continued up to 1862. It involved a strange rite that probably began in the period of the wars. The basis of the cult was finding the first egg laid by the Manu Tara, or sacred bird, each spring.
The chief of each tribe on the island sent one chosen servant to Moto Nui, the largest of the islets below Orongo. Swimming across the dangerous waters, the servants or hopus spent a month looking for the first egg. On finding the egg, the successful hopu plunged into the swirling waters with the egg strapped to his forehead, swam to the mainland, and climbed the cliffs to Orongo. The hopu’s master, named Bird Man for the year, would be given special powers and privileges. Today, there are more than 150 Bird Man carvings in the area, overlaid with fertility symbols. Nearby are markings and stones that have been interpreted as forming part of a solar observatory, where on the summer solstice the sun can be seen rising over Poike peninsula – one more mysterious attraction on this beautiful and fascinating island in the Pacific.