Here’s my latest story. It’s about my journey and time on Easter Island, but also about the history and the culture in broader terms. I dig deep into the mystical but also tragic past of the “Rapa Nui” and in the latter chapter I go on to describe the current situation. So if you have been curious about the origins of the mystical Moai or where have these people come from to populate this remote island, please indulge yourself.
In The Shadow of the Moai
It is a cold winters day in Santiago, the capital of Chile, as I make my way through the jammed traffic to my campus, squinting my eyes as the first rays of sunlight try to penetrate the thick layer of pollution emitted by the morning commuters. I have recently arrived to this far away Latin American country to participate in an exchange program. Excited, and just a little bit terrified, I arrive to my faculty to participate on my first class. As I try to enter I find the classroom door to be locked although the class is supposed to start in just a few minutes. I start to doubt if I have come to the right place after all. I see one other student pacing impatiently, looking as if she is waiting for the same door to open. I approach her asking for help with my, at the time, non-existent Spanish. As I am searching for the right word for some mundane expression, such as “to start” or “when” I start paying attention to her features. She looks different from the other Chileans I have met. Her skin is a little bit darker and I cannot quite decipher her ethnicity based on her features. In hindsight that was not surprising. As we later became good friends, I learned she is from Easter Island a speck of land 3500 kilometres off the Chilean coast in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, politically a part of Chile, but ethnically Polynesian. Little did I know at the time, that from that fumbling exchange of words would start a journey of friendship, an adventure that would take me inside her small but extremely rich culture, and ultimately to this island, a peak of a volcano protruding from the seabed in extreme isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
For its small size the island is extremely well known. Its isolation makes it a mystical location that for me felt almost like a myth, just a tiny bit more real or tangible than Atlantis or El Dorado. To get a rough idea of the dimensions and distances in question, the island itself is 25 kilometres by 12 kilometres from its widest point and lies 2000 kilometres away from its nearest inhabited neighbour (Pitcairn Islands), making it one of the most isolated inhabited areas in the world.
I was ultimately invited to travel to this magical place and even better, to stay with my friend’s family so I would be able to personally experience what it means to be Rapa Nui. Little was I prepared for the experience to come. Swimming in a volcano crater, listening to native music under the stars or trying to politely eat fried fish intestines, all of which reminded me of the spirit of adventure, the notion of scratching deeper than the mere surface and about opening my heart and being sensitive to other people’s culture, way of life and energy. To really feel, if just for a brief moment, a part of something that for me up until that moment, only existed in the tales of explorers of the Pacific such as Jacob Roggeveen or Thomas Cook.
Idols or Tombstones
During the flight I examined the immense body of water separating the island from the South American continent. The 5-hour flight represented the final stretch of water that even the ancient Polynesian sailors, for all their seafaring prowess, could never complete, even after slowly migrating from island to island colonizing the whole Polynesian triangle and navigating insurmountable stretches of open sea. Upon arriving to the airport I was greeted by my friend and her two beautiful sisters. I was given a warm hug and a colourful flower necklace as if I had just arrived to Hawaii, and indeed it reminded me of the fact that I was not in South-America anymore. The island’s sub-tropical climate, very different from the dryness of central Chile, hit my sensory nerves immediately. This was a very welcome sensation after spending weeks in nearly 4000 meters in the harsh climate of the Peruvian and Bolivian plateau. After being shown to my host’s home, getting my belly full of freshly caught local fish and my head firmly against a soft pillow, I felt I couldn’t ask for more. My heart was nourished by the sincerity and warmth of my first encounter with the islanders, and my body was tingling of excitement for the experiences to come.
Today the island is well known and a major tourist destination, but there was a time when it truly existed in total isolation. The warm welcome I received made me wonder about the year 1722 and the first European to discover the island, Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch explorer set foot on the island on Easter Sunday, thus naming it Paasch-Eyland or Easter Island. As often is the case, the European name prevailed as the more widely recognized description, but you won’t see this name used very often on the island as the islanders are fiercely proud of their culture and their indigenous name Rapa Nui.
Immediately upon arriving on the island I was faced with its most predominant feature, the giant stone statues called moai. These statues have sparkled curiosity in scientists and adventurers alike for centuries. There are 887 statues on the island ranging from a few meters to up to 10 meters tall and weighing at up to 86 tons. The craftsmanship involved in carving, moving and erecting these giant structures is nothing short of astonishing, but less known is the fact that these statues also stand as a symbol of the rise and collapse of the ancient society of Rapa Nui.
After settling in it was time to get acquainted with my surroundings. The first trip to be made was to ascend to the Rano Kau- volcano. As a mountain it is not all that impressive at mere 324 meters, but the human eye is fooled by seeing only what is above the surface. The crater, however, is all the more impressive with its perfect round shape and little ponds that had formed on the marshland at the bottom. From this vantage point I could see almost the whole island, its rocky shores and rolling hills encircled by the blue ocean. In all honesty the land was too barren to be considered to be a tropical paradise, but what I was witnessing was only the current state, hiding a history of its own.
The most thorough and widely accepted theory to explain its ecological and sociological destruction is the book “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. His research has concluded that the island used to be a very different place before the estimated time of human arrival at around 700-1100 AD, and long into its initial settlement. However according to scientists, the island used to be a lush sub-tropical paradise containing various types of trees and plants since extinct. It was also one of the biggest nesting areas for a plethora of seabirds, but the populations have since declined greatly or disappeared completely. In the heart of this destruction and decline lies the moai and a peculiar story of a miniature society, with little to no contact with the outside world, slowly self-destructing due to over-population and the ensuing competition and warfare.
How the moai were constructed and even more so how they were dragged to their “ahu’s” (sacred platforms on which the moai stand) has puzzled researchers for centuries. Theories range from peculiar to extra-terrestrial, but the prevalent theory is also closely linked to the eco-social decline of the island. Scientists have experimented with moving and lifting the moai and concluded that in a society the size of Rapa Nui it has been a tremendous effort increasing food consumption for an approximated 25% and requiring major over-exploitation of resources.
Moving the moai required ropes made out of tree-fibre and logs on which the moai were pulled. The construction and moving of the moai together with other forms of wood consumption such as canoes and firewood resulted in the complete deforestation of the whole island. Deforestation acted as a cataclysm for soil erosion resulting in fewer crops. The lack of seaworthy vessels that the trees were used for made fishing less efficient, which in turn accelerated the exploitation of the limited landmass at their disposal. At one point the traditional social structure with its priests, chiefs and Gods got overthrown by a military regime. Old traditions were banned and a new culture and order established on its ruins. The Rapa Nui-society kept declining at an accelerating pace, all the while the clans were still competing about whom would carve the biggest moai and expending their scarce resources in showing power and status rather than repairing the fragile ecosystem they had destroyed. Famine led to widespread cannibalism and finally the construction of the moai ceased, the last ones remaining the biggest ever built. When the resources became so depleted that the construction of the moai became impossible the warring clans and disputing families turned to toppling each other’s statues instead. The whole cycle of self-destruction in this micro-society bears haunting resemblance to the modern era and to a development happening on a far greater scale, thus it has been the focus of and example for many scientists when it comes to understanding the fall of societies and the reasons behind the extinction of entire races.
When the Europeans finally arrived on the island the population had declined from a peak of an estimated 15-30 000 to a mere 3000 as calculated by Roggeveen. Although many would argue that it was the Europeans who brought the destruction to the island, the latest evidence suggests that they only brought the final blow, finishing a development that had started way before. It is not to say that the colonists and slavers are somehow exempt of responsibility, on the contrary. It was several decades after Roggeveen’s initial contact with Rapa Nui, when the colonists and missionaries arrived. Slavery and diseases laid waste on the population and the fragile oral culture was destroyed by the foreign influence and internal disputes. By the late 19th century only 111 Rapa Nui were still living on the island, a peril that fortunately marked the turning point and start of a slow recovery. However by then most of the orally passed culture and history had been irrevocably lost.
As I sat with my friends in front of the 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki watching the first rays of sun slowly emerge from pacific, I could not help but to think what these huge stone monoliths represented. Were they the proud idols of a lost culture? Or tombstones representing the ever-present lust for power and status we humans so often fall victim to? The stark contrast between the tragic tale of Rapa Nui and the proud and lively culture I was witnessing required me to look away from the pages of history and snap myself into the present. As a visitor, was I experiencing a façade made for the entertainment of the adventurous tourist? Or could I actually be witnessing a re-birth of a culture that, for so long, had been dangling on the verge of extinction?
One night as I had just fallen asleep I heard a knock on my door. It was my host mother who urged me to put on my clothes, take my swimming pants and towel and hop into the car. As I came out I saw the whole family packing the pick-up with picnic baskets and blankets. I was ushered into the car, and as I was admiring the starry sky from the side-window I was given an explanation for this ad hoc excursion. The mother explained that during dinner she had sensed a bad energy on the table. A member of the family was going through a rough patch and the energy inside the house had gotten stale, thus she took initiative and organized a surprise swim trip on the beach to clean our spirit. I was stunned by the beauty of the whole situation. The psychological sensitivity of hers was astounding. I witnessed how she was inducing us with the spontaneous kind of love that takes the mind off of the mundane worries of everyday life. I saw that she was not only taking care of her family, but the spirit that is family.
I felt that through these people I was starting to grow a new kind of sensitivity myself. In my own society we tend to shun words such as energy or spirit and substitute them with words like psyche or mental capability. We take a more clinical approach, distancing ourselves from these concepts and relying on professional aid and therapy for our consolidation. I feel we are increasingly afraid to resolve issues and emotions inside our inner circle. Sometimes all it takes, however, is a swim under the stars. That night I think all of us slept like babies, revitalized by the energy and strong spirit of the family and the childlike joy of running into the gentle waves under the starry sky.
The life on the island was centred in the small town of Hanga Roa with all the services. In front of the town was the most popular surfing spot full of people of all ages enjoying the waves. All in all the life on the island had a certain repose to it, the absence of people sweating in their suits hurrying from one skyscraper to the other. It is a feeling you can easily get caught up in and sooner than later I found myself amidst the waves being shovelled towards the shore in a white foamy fray unsuccessfully trying to get up on my surfboard. I was not discouraged though and after getting a hang of the surfing I decided to try something even more foreign to me. I am most certainly a city-dweller, but nevertheless despite my lack of knowledge with domestic animals, horseback seemed an apt way discover all the hidden nooks and crannies of Rapa Nui. We explored caves, crater lakes, hidden petroglyphs and enjoyed a picnic well away from the more touristic sights. The islands compact size has its advantages making it easy to explore on foot, bike or horseback as long as you respect the properties and stay well within the limits since the locals are rightfully worried about trampling and littering. It is better to be informed and if in doubt the local agencies and service providers will instruct you of any restrictions.
As I gained a deeper insight into the more recent history of Rapa Nui I understood that I was witnessing a cultural resurrection. One key concept of the Rapa Nui tradition is called Mana, a spiritual energy flowing in the people and in the land through the ancestors buried in it. The islanders seemed very attuned to this concept and its importance to them was apparent. After the main artery of Mana on the island had been almost entirely cut by social decline and foreign influence, the population that had survived were hard at work at restoring that energy. It was not only a spiritual restoration, but a very concrete and tangible one. The ahu platforms were restored and the toppled moai rose once again, not only to impress tourists, but to honour the ancestors and to celebrate the culture. Many young Rapa Nui I met told me how important the moai and ahu’s were for them and how the sacred sites needed to be respected. This whole concern was new. The ban to walk on the ahu’s or touch the moai was less than two decades old. I felt however that it represented a turning point, before which the people were merely getting by, only recently released from a physical and spiritual slavery. The newer generations had regained the energy, the mana, to start restoring and preserving their precious, but fragile culture.
My friend who brought me to the island and in contact with her culture, was part of this restoration. She runs a unique project that takes the traditional tales found on the island and transcribes them into screenplays. Then the stories are filmed on the island and acted by the islanders, thus protecting and preserving the oral culture of Rapa Nui in an audio-visual format. This and many more archaeological, anthropological and artistic projects have raised awareness of the place and have ultimately turned it into a UNESCO world heritage site. However it is not to say that the work is in any way finished. The island is so tiny, so fragile, that it could easily be destroyed by the combination of insensitive tourism and over-population. Although land acquisition has been restricted only to the natives and many sites protected from trampling and deterioration, we cannot be lulled into the misconception that the balance can be maintained without constant work and attention, in an eco-system of this scale.
As with any project involving the varying interests of indigenous cultures and the mainstream population, the situation on Easter Island has not been without its problems. A treaty between the island and the government of Chile was signed in 1888 and in recent times it has come under a lot of dispute. Many Rapa Nui feel that Chile is neglecting their rights and trying to assimilate their culture into the mainstream Chilean society. In an article in the Time magazine, the high commissioner of the Rapa Nui parliament’s division on human rights Erity Teave says; “Even though Chile is trying to assimilate us, I don’t feel Chilean, nobody can force me to stop being who I am”, echoing a sentiment shared by many, but not all. At the heart of the problem lies the islands total dependency on Chile. Due to its size Easter Island is unable to support much, if any, industry making the islanders completely dependent on resources shipped from the continent. Although some factions vow for independence or being part of Polynesia rather than Chile, whom with they share more cultural resemblance, it seems a distant and somewhat unrealistic prospect.
After weeks of surfing, horseback riding, scuba diving and just relaxing on the beach came the time for goodbyes. As I was leaving just before the academic semester started in mainland Chile, it was not only me who bid farewell, but a big portion of the islands youth, including the two older daughters in my family. The single hardest part of travelling is the moment you stand on a bus-terminal, a railway station, a harbour or an airport, surrounded by people you connected with, learned from and opened your heart to. The moment of farewells never gets easier. Fighting back tears I hopped on the plane, all the while thinking about what I thought was the most important lesson I had learned on the island; sometimes all it takes is a simple swim under the stars.