Easter Island/ Rapa Nui

Moai head with another in the background

I think Easter Island caught my attention the first time I saw a picture of one of the moai. I had no idea where they were or what they were or what they symbolised  but I knew that I wanted to see them. Maybe it is my love of sculpting but something about these statues fascinated me.

The moai are  located on Rapa Nui, the most isolated inhabited island in the world which is pretty much located in the middle of the Pacific, between Chile and Tahiti.

After some internet surfing I managed to convince Andrew that we had to go.

So off we headed….. after a 5 hour flight from Santiago we arrived on Rapa Nui.

EVERYTHING was very expensive including accommodation and about the only thing we could afford was a campsite. But the campsite was beautiful. Right on the sea with the sun setting directly in front of us…

Tent with a view. Our home is the blue one on the left and to the left of the tent was the sea.

View from our tent in the late afternoon

A  little about the history of the island…. The island itself is volcanic in origin and originated from 3 volcanoes and is pretty much shaped in a triangle by the three volcanoes with each side measuring 16, 17 and 24km. Not very big!

View from the top of one of the three volcano’s on Easter island. This one was MUCH easier to climb!!!!

Rainbow just after a rainstorm. This was taken pretty much in the middle of the island

It was apparently first discovered by Polynesians in about the VIII to IX century (though there is some debate with some thinking there may be influences from South American culture and others saying that it was discovered much earlier).

The oral tradition of the Rapanui people tells a story of two boats that arrived at the island. The boats were lead by Hotu Anua and either his wife or sister (they are not sure, I just hope she wasn’t both).  Over a few centuries the population grew and a highly stratified, complex culture developed independent of any outside influence. The king of the island was called the Hotu Matu and he was the oldest male that could prove his lineage to the original Hotu Matu, Hotu Anua. The people were divided into different groups or mata and each mata occupied a different part of the island. Each mata had a hierarchy with the common families living in the centre of the island and the high ranking officials and priests living by the shore and the volcanic craters. The common families constructed houses, fished, planted crops and bred animals, the middle to higher class where involved in building the moais and the priests and high ranking officials were involved with supervising the building and construction of the moais and praising the ancestors.

Each mata (or group of people) had their own set of moai statues which were placed on an ahu (religious platform), the bigger and more statues your mata had the more powerful your manu. (I hope this is all making sense… took me quite a while to work out the difference between a mata and a moai and an ahu!!!)

A religious platform. When you think that they only had bone and stones to use as tools it is quite amazing that they managed to get precision carving like this done

An Ahu religious platform on which the moai heads are placed. The religious ceremonies happened around and on these platforms

The moai were all built at a quarry at one of the volcanos, Rano Raraku.

Ranu Raraku where all the moai were built. If you look really closely you can see small rocky outcrops on the edge of the hill. All of these outcrops are moai heads

This is where the typical pictures of the moai heads emerging from the ground come from.

A few of the moai statues that are in various stages of being built on Ranu Raraku.

All of the moai statues are monoliths which we learned means that they were built in one piece. Quite something with the largest moai being over 20 meters tall.

Andy standing in front of a moai that is in the beginning stages of being carved from the rock face.

They were carved out at the quarry at Rano Raku and then moved to the ceremonial sites. How they were moved is a much debated topic with many theories from the moai being “walked” by moving them from side to side, to wooden platforms that were pulled, to wooden slings… there are quite a few theories….

Moai on their platform in a rainstorm

Once the moai were in the correct place they then had pukau (red stone topknots) placed on their heads and they then had eyes placed in situ. The pukau were mined at another quarry called Puna Pau and carved from a different type of rock called scoria. The monloliths themselves werecarved from either the molten lava rock of basalt rock. The eyes were made out of coral. The moai only got their power (manu) once the coral eyes were put in place and this was apparently only done by the priests.

One of the ceremonial sites that has been restored. You can see the second moai has a tophat

Moai with different pukau

With time the population grew and the natural resources of the island were exploited leading to a major crisis and lack of resources including food and wood. The different mata (groups of people living on the island) then started fighting each other, and eventually a fight for survival ensued. The different mata attacked each other’s ahu and moai and pushed nearly all of them over.

One of the moai sites that has not been restored after the statues were toppled. In the front of the picture you can see 2 of the head pieces and further back you can see the moai statues lying face down on the platform.

Due to a lack of food there is also a suggestion that the people resorted to cannibalism. The belief in the moai and ancestor worship then declined and a new form of worship developed.

This belief was based around the Orongu volcanic crater where a ceremonial village was built. 

The Orongu volcanic crater. This place really had a sacred feeling about it. It was quite something sitting at the edge watching the clouds form patterns below. A really beautiful experience.

The belief involved worship of the god Maki-Maki with a strong relationship to birds, spring and fertility. The birdman ritual was central to this new tradition.

Orongo ceremonial village which overlooks bird island

Each mata selected the strongest man from their mata to partake in the birdman ritual (tangata-manu) which happened every year. The participants of the ritual then had to climb down a very steep cliff and had to swim to Bird Island.

Bird island is the island in the distance behind the rocky outcrop

They then lived in the caves of the island (often for periods of weeks) waiting for the arrival of seabirds (in particular the sooty turn). The winner of the competition was the first one to find an egg from one of the seabirds and to then bring it back to the Orongo ceremonial village. He then became the birdman for a year and his mata then became the leading mata on the island. The birdman himself became a sacred being for one year and had to live in relative isolation and was not allowed to feed or bathe himself as a religious leader had to do this for him. The last birdman competition took place around 1867.

The ecosystem was destroyed with the increase in human population and fighting and the number of Rapanui people rapidly declined.

Europeans first discovered the island in the 1700. They landed on Easter Saturday and that is how Rapa Nui was named Easter Island.

In the 1860’s Peruvian slave traders arrived and about 1500 Rapanui were abducted including the king and most of the priests. After international protests the survivors were released from the mines. Most had already died and the small number that returned to the island brought smallpox and TB with them which them decimated the remaining island population.

A Frenchman called Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bormier (who was a bit of a rough character…supposedly into gambling, arms dealing, slave trading etc) then bought up most of Easter Island and the missionaries evacuated about 250 Rapanui to Tahiti leaving just over 200 Rapanui on the island. Of those left on the island only 36 had children.

With the massive loss of people most of the culture of Rapanui was lost  including all who understood the script of  Rongorongo which is a hieroglyphic script unique to Easter Island.

Chile then annexed Easter Island in the late 1800’s and the Rapanui people were confined to the small town of Hanga Roa with barbed wire fences. The Rapanui children were taken one day a year to the beach and that was the only time they were allowed out of the barbed wire area. The non-Rapanuians were allowed free range over the island. Sounded a bit like apartheid to us.

In 1966 the island was reopened and the Rapanui people were allowed to explore their island again freely. So quite a history. Both Andy and I were quite affected by the island. The devastating effect that man has had on the island with nearly all of the natural fauna and flora being destroyed and an absence of birds and animals. This combined with the moai statues and Orongo village ruins was quite something.

We were on the island for 5 nights. On our first day we hired a car and toured the sites including the Rano Raku quarry where the moai were built. This was most definitely a highlight for me. The next morning (Andrew’s birthday) we watched the sun rise over Tongariki…. AMAZING!!!!

Sunrise on Andy’s birthday

We found an amazing little restaurant, La Kaleta, on the end of the pier and went to it 3 times for supper… the most delicious prawn risotto we have ever eaten and they had killer pisco sours too.

We hired bicycles and cycled to the top of the Orongo crater (well… I should be honest…. it was a horribly long uphill cycle and I was very, very thankful when my husband offered to push me for more than half of the cycle.

Triumphant cyclists at the top of the Oroku crater

The crater and the birdman village was beautiful. This was a highlight for Andy. I think he quite fancied the idea of taking on the birdman challenge.

So all in all a most amazing and memorable experience.


{Andy here; the moai’s were really incredible but I could not help feeling that Isla de Pascua, Easter Island, represented a microcosm of what we are doing to earth. There are literally 10 patches of small forest left behind on an otherwise stripped piece of rock. These rehabilitation zones have been planted by I think UNESCO or US organisation in an attempt to re-grow the forests of Rapa Nui. The place has been stripped of everything allowing the elements to do the final onslaught leaving grassy fields – looks a bit like the Pampas in Argentina. Then some European plants ‘lupin’ flowers to get rid of the horses! This stuff grows like weed and is all over the place. It binds horses and cattles’ gut thereby causing them to die a painful death!
The population grew so much that the best they could do to cope is start slaughtering and eating each other! They were capable of making these incredible statues, but incapable of navigating the seas looking for alternative land?!?!….. end of Andrew’s comment}


Categories: Diary | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Easter Island/ Rapa Nui

  1. Vikki Herman

    Hi Cath and Andy,
    I don’t comment very often but I do check in all the time -to catch up on news, beautiful pics and adventure…We are all learning so much through being voyeurs – love it!It all sounds so incredible and such an adventure-whoo hooo-so glad you took the bull by the horns and leapt into this trip!!Andy – hope you have caught up with everyone in the Amazon by now and look forward to hearing new exciting ‘tails’!love Viks

  2. Doug Lawson

    This is the best historical summary of Easter Island on the web. Thanks. What a strange and disturbing story this is.

  3. will

    i absolutely loved your history lesson on Easter Island and was moved by it and the pictures. What a fantastic addition to the trip. Who is babysitting the motorcycle back in Chile?

  4. Fantastic post Cathy! Love reading all your stories. I am off to England now and only back in two weeks.

    Lots of love to both of you!

  5. jakub

    Just shows you people have not managed to really change in hundreds of years. Just rape, pillage and abuse until there is nothing left ……. and then turn on each other. Sad.
    Only thing that they did not ruin is the sunset.

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