Easter Island

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.

Ahu Vinapu



The perfectly aligned and fitted stones at Ahu Tahira

Ahu Vinapu


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.


Tahai complex

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


Canoe ramp

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.

1DSCF1300Ahu Tongariki at sunrise – obscured by clouds again. Ahu Tongariki is the largest and most impressive Ahu on the Island, with 15 Moai

2DSCF1314The Moai had been toppled by the tribal wars, but the Ahu was intact until 1960, when a tsunami destroyed the platform and pushed the Moai inland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAhu Tongariki was restored from 1992-1996 with aid from Japan.


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.


 Tuku Turi displays several unusual features – it has been carved from red scoria, not tuff, and has a beard, arms and legs. The beard and kneeling posture can be seen clearly in this view.


Ancient Rapa Nui artists expressed their art on the Moai also. This one has the image of a European boat on the torso.

“Chin, chin……..”
Friends forever
On the path to the Rano Raraku crater – lined by stunted guava trees.
The crater wall
There is a fresh water lake in the crater, lined by totora reeds
Unfinished Moai can be seen on the inside of the crater walls as well. Quite a few horses and cows too.
We left Rano Raraku and drove along the coast road, stopping to admire the view
Pu o Hiro – a stone war trophy, which supposedly attracted fish when one of the holes was blown into
Papa Vaka – one of the largest petroglyphs(rock carvings)
There is a large canoe(papa), 12m in length, carved into the lava flow(vaka)
Ahu Te Pito Kura – site of the biggest Moai erected, called ‘Paro’ – It was 9.80 metres high, weighing about 74 metric tons. Toppled remains visible behind me (grey oval = moai, red circle = pukao or topknot)
Te Pito o Te Henua is a huge round rock, representing the “navel of the world” to the island inhabitants. It has magnetic properties – when I placed my compass on it, the needle moved and changed direction.
Anakena Beach – the site where King Hote Matua arrived on Rapa Nui. This is also the site where the eye of a Moai was discovered, made of coral and red scoria.
Ahu Nau Nau – the Moai here have the most finely chiselled features.
The carvings on the backs of the Moai are also very well-defined. Another interesting feature is the Moai head that has been fitted into the platform(grey rectangle).
Ahu Ature Huki – the first Moai to be reconstructed. It has a broad face, the features indicating a connection with the Birdman cult that developed after the Moai were toppled.
Wild horses on the road
Lunch at La Taverne du Pêcheur………
…followed by scuba diving!
 The next day:

We arrived at Orongo village early to beat the tourist groups and were the first ones to enter the site. Orongo is a ceremonial village consisting of 54 stone houses, related to the Manutara(Easter Island sooty tern) cult and the Tangata Manu(Birdman) competition. It is situated on the lip of the Rano Kau crater. The houses are built on levels, creating an interesting tiered structure – looked to me like a grassy green Pamukkale

Orongo is also the major rock art site on the island. The rocks beyond the last house have been carved with hundreds of petroglyphs. This was the area where the priests would wait for the winner to come back with the manutara(sooty tern) egg that would end the competition.

The village was only used for a few weeks each year, for holding the Birdman competition. A representative from each tribe would climb more than 200 m down the cliff wall, and swim out through shark-infested waters to the islets, or ‘Motu’, seen behind me in this photo- Motu Kao Kao, Motu Iti and Motu Nui. On the islet called ‘Motu Nui’(Big Islet), he would wait for an opportunity to retrieve the freshly hatched egg of a Manutara bird. The first competitor to return with an intact egg was declared winner and he and his tribe were granted royal privileges for the next year, when the competition would be held again and a new winner declared.


Remains of two unrestored houses – and doesn’t that look like a miniature cow perched on my shoulder?


Rano Kau volcano – it is 1.6km in diameter and approx. 200m deep, and the crater lake contains fresh water. The lake’s surface is covered by cattail plants, which are the same species as the ones found in the floating islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru.


A designated path has been created around the village to protect the fragile structures.


Mirador (lookput or viewpoint) for the Rano Kau crater.


The freshwater lake in the crater is 100m above sea level – one can see the difference in levels through the gap or ‘bite’ in the rim of the crater.


A dog (?Rottweiler) walking along with Amit as we head to our next destination.


Ana Kai Tangata : Ana = cave, Tangata = Man, and Kai = eat in modern Rapa Nui, leading some to erroneously refer to this as the ‘Cave of the man-eaters’. However, there is no archaeological evidence of the Rapa Nui ever having practised cannibalism. In ancient Rapa Nui, the word ‘Kai’ also meant to ‘gather’ or ‘teach’, so a more likely explanation for the name is that this cave was a meeting point. Seeing the large number of Manutara/bird paintings on the walls, it is speculated that this cave was a gathering place for the competitors in the Birdman competition.


The cave is in an excellent location to see the waves breaking on the cliffs.


We left town and reached the site of Ahu Akivi – seven Moai  of almost equal shape and size stand on this platform. While the Moai on all other sites faced inland (towards the particular village that they were meant to protect), the Moai on this Ahu look out towards the ocean. It is believed they are astronomically inclined – they exactly face sunset during the Spring Equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during the Autumn Equinox.

Another explanation for the orientation of the Moai is that the village that the Moai faced lay between the Ahu and the ocean.


It was a beautiful day to be exploring the island.


As we walked along, I noticed that there were quite a few almost ripe guavas waiting to be picked – snack time! Compared to Indian varieties, the guava trees on Easter Island appear stunted, and the fruit is not as sweet.


Ana te pahu – a grove of banana trees marks the entrance to this cave system.

At a number of places on the island, there are caves that were once used by the ancient Rapa Nui natives for living quarters, shelters, or hideouts.

These caves started out as lava tubes, formed when the volcanoes were active and rivers of molten hot lave flowed into the ocean. Once the lava flowed out and the walls cooled, these caves remained.


Rockfall – Amit decided to explore further


Further ahead, there had been another cave-in, and the tunnel was completely blocked


The Ana te pahu/roiho cave system complex is one of the longest on the island, with several long inter-connected tunnels. The roof caved in at several places, allowing natural light to enter, and providing fertile areas for the natives to grow trees and vegetables.


The path was lined not only by guava trees, but also with flowering trees, probably coral trees.


Ana Kakenga – cave with two windows – looks like just a hole in the ground – but leads to a 50m long cave with two exits onto the cliff, and sheer drops to the ocean.


This window is steeper and sloping down.


This window is larger, one can see the ocean clearly.


Panoramic view of both windows


Interior of cave as seen from the larger window


Amit waiting for me to climb out


Scuba diving – today it was Amit’s turn


 We went to Puna Pao quarry in the evening. This is the place where the pukao or topknots of the Moai were carved from the red scoria.
Our last day on the Island:
Our final day on Easter Island began with a leisurely breakfast at Atavai hotel, accompanied by fresh goyaba(guava) juice.
Antoine’s dog greeting Amit.
Mango, loquat and banana trees in the front yard.
Satellite TV has made the world smaller – even in such a faraway place as Easter Island, we have something in common – Television serials!
We had been searching for this Moai but had been unable to find it and asked for Antoine’s help. He informed us that since it was on private land, there was no sign post. He also told us the area where it would be visible from the  road. Thanks to his instructions, we finally located it – Ahu Huri a Urenga, ‘The Astronomer’.
This is the only Moai with four hands – the reason for this peculiarity is not known.
The Moai is astronomically inclined, and directly faces the rising sun on the day of the winter solstice (June 21st). It is believed to have played an important role in the Rapa Nui calendar.
Santander Bank – panels with striking modern petroglyphs.
Sebastian Englebert Museum – small but very informative, definitely worth a visit.
The only Moai eye ever found(on Anakena beach) is on display here.
A female Moai – the head was discovered 32 years later than the body. The torso, discovered at Anakena beach in 1956, was taken to Norway by the expedition lead by Thor Heyerdahl to be a part of the Kon-Tiki museum.
In 1988, the head was discovered by members of the Kon-Tiki Museum near Ahu Nau Nau on Anakena beach.
Heeding requests from the Rapa Nui community, the torso was returned to Rapa Nui and the complete Moai is now on display here.
Rongo Rongo tablets – the symbols have never been completely deciphered, but may represent the forgotten written language of the Rapa Nui.
We finally found a reference to aliens!
Outside the museum – another tree with bright orange flowers.
A bonanza for this bee!
The Post Office, where we got the (unofficial) distinctive Easter Island stamp on our passports
Farmers  Market
Waiting for our flight at the airport
A Birdman statue
View from the plane.
Final look at the Rano Kau crater

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6 thoughts on “Easter Island

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