Easter Island – A Brief Account
by Urvashi Rathee
Easter island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, is a special territory of Chile.
The name ‘Easter Island’ was given by the Dutch Explorer Jacob Roggeveen who landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722. The Island’s official Spanish name, ‘Isla de Pascua’, also means ‘Easter Island’. The Polynesian name ‘Rapa Nui’ or ‘Big Rapa’ refers to the fact that it resembles the Island of Rapa in the Bass Islands. The term ‘Rapa Nui’ refers to the Island, as well as the natives and their language.
Easter Island was formed by the eruption of three volcanoes – Poike about three million years ago, Ranu Kau 2.5 million and Terevaka 300,000 years ago. It was uninhabited until 800 to 1200AD,when Polynesian King Hotu Matu’a arrived at Anakena beach in two double canoes, one lead by him and the other by his sister.
The Polynesians settled on the island and their population increased. As they prospered, they developed a megalithic culture, carving huge moai out of the volcanic rock and placing them on platforms(Ahu) overlooking their settlements. These moai probably represented their ancestors or village elders, who they believed protected and helped them.
However, as the population of the tribes increased and resources became limited, they came into conflict and Moai were toppled all over the island.
The Tangata Manu(Birdman) ritual sprang up, and lasted from around the 17th century until the arrival of Christian missionaries.
At its peak, the population of Easter Island was about 15,000 people. Due to several factors, including introduction of rats onto the island, overpopulation and social conflicts, it had diminished to about 2000 to 3000 people by 1722 when Dutch explorers arrive.
Later on, due to slave trading and diseases such as small pox and tuberculosis, the population decreased to the extent that there were only 111 natives on the island in 1877. Since then, the population has increased and was 5,800 in the 2012 census.
Unfortunately, the people who died or were taken away from the island included all who knew the written language, and most of the elders who passed on knowledge of culture and rituals. As a result, knowledge of the ancient culture was all but destroyed, leading to several unanswered questions related to the native people and their history.
Amit and I stayed at the Hotel Atavai on Easter Island for 3 nights. We arrived from Santiago on 22nd September at 2.00PM(for best aerial views of the Island, book a window seat on the right side of the plane while flying in and on the left side when flying out), and caught the return flight on 25th September at 2.00PM.
Our first glimpse of the island from the plane
Our host Antoine had sent us a mail earlier informing us that he would be there at the airport to pick us up and also advising us to buy the tickets to the National Park inside the airport itself (60 US dollars per person). The National Park ticket is required for entry to two sites – Rano Raraku quarry and Orongo village, one time each within five days. Other sites are free to visit with no time limits.
We bought the tickets as soon as we entered the airport building, collected our bags and found Antoine waiting for us as promised. He drove us to the hotel, telling us in brief about the Island and offering practical tips on exploring all the sites. On reaching the Hotel, he helped us hire a car (Suzuki Vitara with automatic transmission), and marked out the interesting sites to visit on a map.
The following is a brief account of our stay on the Island:
It was late afternoon by the time we settled into our room and completed the formalities of hiring a vehicle, so we decided to just visit the nearby sites of Vinapu and Tahai.
We had a late lunch at the Kuki Vuara, and headed to our first destination.
Lunch at Kuki Varua
This site has two platforms, Ahu Vinapu and Ahu Tahira, with large stones fitted closely together without mortar, similar to Inca sites and unlike other platforms on the rest of the island.
The perfectly aligned and fitted stones at Ahu Tahira
The red stone column in front of the platform was a Moai that probably had two heads.
We left Vinapu and drove to Tahai, to watch the sunset.
The Tahai area is a ceremonial site close to Hanga Roa, restored by William Mulloy. Tahai has three ahus:
Ahu Vai Uri (5 Moai)
Ahu Tahai (single moai, eroded)
Ahu Ko te Riku (single completely restored moai, the only one to have eyes placed in the sockets).
Spot the additional sixth Moai 🙂
Apart from the Ahu, there are remains of Hare Paenga foundations(boat shaped houses) and a ramp for canoes (with limited number of beaches, ramps were required to transport canoes to and from the sea).
Hare Paenga foundation
They are quite a few friendly stray dogs, and one of them took a liking to Amit:
This is what happened when he was told to go away 🙂
The sky was too cloudy to get really good sunset views…..
We decided to call it a night and head back to our hotel.
Next morning, before sunrise, we set out for Ahu Tongariki.
A statue was lent to Japan for the Osaka trade fair, and was placed near Ahu Tongariki when it was returned. It is now known as the ‘Travelling Moai.’
The Moai appear to be gazing up at their birthplace, the Rano Raraku volcano.
The road to Rano Raraku – that is a real horse standing next to the sign, what a pose!
Rano Raraku is a volcanic crater of compressed ash(tuff). It was a quarry for 500 yrs, till the late 18th century.
95% of the island’s Moai were carved from the volcanic rock in this crater.
At present there are 397 Moai remaining at the quarry.
The largest Moai is called El Gigante(The Giant). It is 21.6 metres high and weighs 160-182 metric tons. It is believed this Moai would have been installed on the Ahu Tahira(at Vinapu) after completion.
Tuku Turi, or the kneeling Moai, with Ahu Tongariki in the background.
Ancient Rapa Nui artists expressed their art on the Moai also. This one has the image of a European boat on the torso.