Stone Guardians

Trip Start Oct 07, 2013
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Unless you happen to be geographically-challenged Deb P, who is likely convinced that Easter Island is one of the islands in the Toronto harbour area used for an annual kiddie hunt for egg shaped chocolates and candies, you are likely familiar with the iconic image of the massive stone heads that stand as silent guardians on this island with three names- Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, and Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name and the one commonly used by the locals). The first recorded European visitor to the island, not-so-creative Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen called the place "Easter Island" simply because he arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722.

Rapa Nui is often referred to as the most isolated inhabited island in the world and that's easy to believe. For us, it's been a 24 hour red-eye series of flights which included a five hour flight due east of Santiago (only the Chilean airline, LAN, is allowed to fly in). With the nearest inhabited island (Pitcairn Island) 2,075 km's away and continental Chile 3,512 km's away, Easter Island is not a place you drop into on the way somewhere else. Flying in, however, does offer up a small thrill of its own- in 1985, NASA lengthened the existing airport runway- that way, if needed, the space shuttle could have landed here (it was never actually used by a space shuttle but it was probably as close as we'll get to returning from a space adventure (although, as our faithful readers know, if the Princess decides she wants a space trip, I’ll have to figure out how to make it happen).

Rapa Nui is technically part of Chile but there is very little Chilean about it except for perhaps governance and infrastructure (and our early introduction to Chilean bureaucracy would suggest that Easter Island might have got a bit of a raw deal on that count). It was annexed by Chile in 1888, and until 1965 the Chileans literally kept the natives as prisoners on their own island. The Rapanui were confined to the town of Hanga Roa and the rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm until 1953. The island was then managed by the Chilean Navy until 1966, at which point the island was finally reopened in its entirety.  Easter Island currently has around 5,800 residents and over 60% of these people are descendants of the native Rapa Nui people.

The Big Wow stars of the show on the island are the 887 massive statues, called moai, which were sculpted and erected by the early Rapa Nui people. Nearly all the moai were carved from solidified volcanic ash at a quarry site on the side of the extinct Rano Raraku volcano. The carvers used basalt stone hand chisels, with many teams working on different statues at the same time. However, a single moai apparently took a team of 5-6 men about a year to finish. This quarry was first used around the year 900 A.D. Of all the statues, 288 were transported to their spots, 397 never made it out of the quarry and 92 were somewhere in between.

And in the finest tradition of colonial powers, and before the moai were granted protection, many of them were removed from the island and are housed in museums worldwide, including the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France. Presumably because Finland was not a colonial power and couldn't take an entire statue, in 2008 a moronic Finnish tourist was caught chipping a piece of ear of one of the moai statues- the tourist was fined $17,000 and promptly ejected. DH left her chisel back in the room.

It’s a bit of a misconception that the Easter Island statues are just heads (although some have been buried up to their necks over time). They also have torsos, with most ending at the top of the thigh, while some are complete kneeling figures. In fact one of our favourite travellers, Jen N, she of the phallic symbol fixation, noted with great curiosity that the statues often seemed to be trying to cover their groin area with carved hands- you have to admire a girl who seems to be looking south while most others are looking north.

With debatable groin area accuracy, each statue represented the deceased head of a family ancestor and supposedly brought spiritual powers to its builders. The average 'head’ is about 13 feet tall, and weighs 14 tons (and before Carol C gets to it, that is considerably more than me!). While the production and transportation of the moai is considered a remarkable creative and physical feat, there is a degree of mystery around how and why this was done. With their stone lips sealed tight, you get a sense that they want to speak, but are forever relegated to a frozen gaze and a silent guardian role. Beyond DH’s theory of space alien involvement, there is some consensus that the construction of the moai contributed to a civilization implosion because it resulted in an environmental degradation when extreme deforestation destabilized an already precarious ecosystem. Loss of the large trees to be used as rollers meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. This was further exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations as a potential source of food. Loss of resources and overpopulation led to cannibalism and  the huri mo'ai (statue-toppling)resulted as a part of fierce internal wars and very few moai remained upright.

This in turn led to an end of the Ancestor Cult as warriors known as matatoa gained more power which morphed into the Bird Man Cult. This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer big-head statues, but human beings chosen through a competition. The purpose of the birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds- having snatched an egg, the first contestant to swim back was declared birdman for that year.

If it wasn’t located on the same island and covered by the huge shadow cast by the mysterious moai of Easter Island, Orongo would be a destination in its own right. In much the same way that the attraction of Machu Pichu is its magical setting, Orongo is a stone village and ceremonial centre with a dramatic location on the crater lip of Rano Kau right at the point where a 250 meter sea cliff converges with the inner wall of the crater. The inside of the crater is a jaw-dropping example of the artwork mother nature is capable of. Maybe it was the fact that we had the place pretty much to ourselves, or that the prevailing winds seemed like whispers from the past, but we really enjoyed Orongo as a big Wow and quite distinct from the moai- the islands other big Wow.

We never did get to the stonehead fatigue that others complain of although sifting through thousands of moai photos will probably bring that on. We did enjoy pretty much everything the island had to offer- it was a long way to go but well worth it.
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Comments

Martin on

Amazing! What an experience. Keep 'em coming and look forward to the next blog update. Travel safe. Martin

lorena on

Wow. and thanks. what a visit.. so glad you were able to be there and experience the beauty and history of Rapa Nui.. most certainly a destination to have on your bucket list.. Big hug.
the pictures as awesome.

DebP on

Ha, ha funny boy. They're actually not bad looking horses.

Ruth on

Love reading your blogs!

Rachel on

Hi Guys! So glad you sent us the link to your blog. It was so fun meeting you on our horsebacking adventure in the Elqui Valley. Travel safe. :) From your friends in Missouri.

gilmer
gilmer on

Wow... Such an amazing blog... :)

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