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First, a brief history lesson to give you some background on Easter Island/Rapa Nui.
FYI, the name "Rapa Nui," is the local word for both the island and the locals who have lived on the island for multiple generations, not including the 1,000 foreign-born locals who currently live there as well.
In 600 A.D., a group of French Polynesians with ancestral roots in Asia settled on Easter Island. They arrived on two large catamarans, carrying pigs, dogs, chickens and black rats (ew!) for food. The settlers lived peacefully for four hundred years.
Beginning around 1000, tribal warfare, partially caused by dwindling resources, tore up Easter Island. The lack of stability made Easter Island vulnerable to foreign rule.
From 1770 to 1888, the French, the Dutch and the Peruvians all took turns claiming Easter Island as their own. By 1862, one-third of the native population had been sent to the continent as slaves or domestic servants. At its worst, the population of Rapa Nui people was reduced from 4,000 to 111 survivors.
Today, Easter Island is owned by Chile. Since 2007, it has been designated a "special territory." Soon, it will occupy it's own official region - the 16th - with extended autonomous rights.
It seems like the Rapa Nui have it pretty good right now. They don’t pay any taxes and they’re the only people with landowning rights on the island. At the same time, their education and health care comes from Chile, so it’s good quality. The Rapa Nui can attend college in Chile at the same low prices as tax-paying Chileans, and they pay specially low flight prices to the mainland. There’s a cell phone network and internet on the island, reliable utilities and some TV and radio. They also have a huge say over what is allowed onto the island. For example, there are no insurance companies, public buses or fast food chains because the Rapa Nui don’t want them.
Ok, history lesson over. If you stayed with me through that, you get an A+.
Today, the girls and I took a private tour of Easter Island/Rapa Nui's most important sites.
Our first stop was Orongo. This is a former village of 52 small flagstone houses where the chiefs and important members of society would live during the annual contest to decide who would be the island's head Chief.
The contest arose as a way to define a local power structure once foreign rulers corralled the local people in Hanga Roa town. In the old days, regular old tribal warfare between neighboring clans had decided the structure. Now, with fewer people living closer together, the birdman contest did so.
The houses were oval-shaped and unbelievably small. It looked like a person could easily hold his arms out and touch the walls. They had no windows and the door was so low and small that you had to crawl inside. This was done for security reasons, since it’s much easier to defend a tiny opening than a large one.
In the contest, one representative from each of the tribes would climb over the cliff, swim 1 km across the ocean to three small islands (Motu Mui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao) which were known for attracting sea birds. The contestants waited until the sea birds laid eggs, which took anywhere from weeks to months. They slept in caves and lived off fish and food that they’d brought in a special compartment inside their surfboards. Once the birds laid eggs, the first contestant to find them shaved his head and eyebrows according to ceremony, yelled across the water to his Chief (living up on the hill of Easter Island) and swim back with the eggs. The first man to make it back with the eggs was the Chief of Easter Island for a year, acting as the authority on all political, social and economic matters.
The new Chief took a wife according to another contest. The eligible girls were kept in a cave for six months in order to whiten their skin as much as possible. While they were in there, other measures were taken to make them more desirable. Primarily, this meant having someone stretch their genitals until they were as elongated as possible. Yikes. When it was time, they were brought to the village in the dark, and underwent a series of measurements to determine who would marry the new Chief.
In 1867, the Birdman cult and the contest was permanently stopped by missionaries who objected to the human sacrifices offered when the Rapa Nui felt the Tangata Manu (the god, not the guy who won the contest) was unhappy.
The rocks in this area are covered in petroglyphs - drawings carved into the rocks. The three most important petroglyphs, which show up in several places, are the Tangata Manu or “birdman” (from the cult of the birdman described above), the creator god Make Make and the Komari fertility symbol.
One-third of the island is a national park, but most of the sites are free. The exceptions are Orongo and Rano Raraku (a quarry I’ll talk more about later). Tickets costs $60 USD to get into these two sites, and you can only enter each site once per ticket. I think they must’ve hiked the price recently because our Footprint guidebook (2010 edition) reports the price as $11 USD.
Near the village is the Rano Kau Crater, measuring 1.6 km across. The crater is a sacred spot for the Rapa Nui, who climb down into it to this day to collect plants that heal cuts and burns and mushrooms that cure upset stomachs. Standing on the edge of the crater, I could see two other volcanoes on the island. All of them are in between two and three million years old.
The rest of the day centered around Easter Island’s famous moai. In case you’ve never seen them, moai are large stone statues (up to 9 m high) carved to resemble the ancestors of a particular tribe, especially those who were royalty or warriors. The head, with its long nose, elongated ears and tipped-up chin, is the most noticeable feature (and in fact many people call them “the big stone heads”) but there are also torsos and arms attached. Some of the moai have long fingernails and hair, which indicated a person’s wealthy status.
Moai were placed upright, facing inwards towards the village, providing protection and luck. The most important feature was their eyes, which turned the moai from simple statues into sacred objects that provided protection and luck. The whites of the eyes were made of coral and the pupils made of red rock or black obsidian. Unfortunately, the moais' eyes have all been lost or looted over the years, but you can see fragments of one at the island museum.
Our next stop was the Rano Raraku quarry where the moai were carved straight from the rock using basalt chisels, then slid down the hill to a finishing area at the bottom. In addition to the 900 moai on the island, there are 400 more still in the quarry, in varying stages of completion.
Our last stop of the day was Tongariki, better known as the “15 Moai,” since that’s where 15 moai stand with their backs to the ocean. Folklore says that there are actually supposed to be 18 moai, since there was a famous king who had 18 sons. Looking at the platform, it looks like there’s room for exactly three more moai.
As we looked at the 15, our guide told us that by the 1860s, every single one of the 900 moai on the island was toppled over due to tribal warfare or tsunamis. The interest and funding of foreign archeologists and anthropologists are largely responsible for the restoration efforts that resulted in the standing moai we see today. For example, a Japanese team got the 15 moai standing. Our guide said that the islanders speculate that the Japanese chose this site because the sun rises right behind the 15 moai, and the Japanese flag shows the sunrise. While many have been restored, we still found tons of moai laying on their backs or tummies all over the island.
A few general observations…
Easter Island forms the Pacific triangle along with New Zealand and Hawaii, but it doesn’t look like your average tropical island. Over the years, the Rapa Nui cut down all of the palm trees on the island to use them for canoes, rollers to transport the moai and other purposes. This caused massive soil erosion that’s still a problem today, and the extinction of half the island’s native plants and bird nesting sites. There are a handful of strategically planted palm trees today (for example: on the beach at Anakena), but they’re all imported from Tahiti, which is their nearest neighbor to the west.
There are hundreds of horses and cows roaming the island. They’re on the main streets of town, wandering through the bush, in people’s yards, and basically wherever else they want to go. According to our guide, they’re privately owned; but, I could tell by their protruding ribs that no one really takes care of them.
I saw a few random tents here and there on the cliffs overlooking the ocean and asked our guide about them. He said that the Rapa Nui can basically camp anytime, anywhere, but that everyone else has to stay at the campgrounds in town, like we are.
In the end, it was totally worth it to take the private tour. We went with Christophe Conry, whose flier said, "Rapa Nui Tour," and he cost about the same as a group tour with another company. It was hard to choose a company because all the fliers say roughly the same things and follow similar routes.
What made Christophe different was that he takes a reverse route to the other tours, which significantly cuts down on the crowds at the sites. He also brought along a binder of pictures that he'd pull out to explain his points as we stood talking at the sites. Christoph was really good at answering our questions, although the answers were sometimes (necessarily) less than satisfying because the small number of Rapa Nui who survived tribal warfare and colonialism mean that opinions vary widely on the finer points of Rapa Nui history.
Also, while the Rapa Nui are the one Polynesian society who did use writing, most history was transmitted orally. You know how a whisper down the lane games ends up. One example of the current confusion is that no one can agree on how the moai were transported from the quarry to their various resting places around the island. Some people think they were rolled there on wooden rollers, while others think they were flipped over end to end, and still others think they were dragged.
In any case, anyone thinking of taking a tour on Easter Island should do her research. There are currently 70 guides on the island, and Christophe told us that there is no certification process, so the guides can be hit or miss. We certainly lucked out.