Easter Island is a tiny chunk of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, five hours by plane from both Santiago and Tahiti. Legend has it, it was discovered in a dream and seven polynesian explorers were sent to the island in the year 400AD. We’re not quite sure how else they could have found it back then, with so much open ocean to explore.
The first settlers slept in caves and under over-turned boats. And as they brought more people to the island they slowly developed a social hierarchy and a religion that gave reverence to their ancestors. This is where those large stone megaliths, called mo’ai, come into play. They are placed throughout the island, looking inwards. Each tribe would bury the bones of their most important members beneath the mo’ai, so that the ancestors could keep watch over the living.
The way they create these statues is amazing, but the big mystery is really how they transported them from the stone quarry where they were carved to the various points on the island where you find them today. One theory is that they used sweet potatoes to grease the ground so that they could slide them along paths. They still don’t really know.
What we do have on record is that when the first Europeans arrived around 1720 all of the statues were standing. Then there was a civil war among the island’s many tribes, probably due to over-population and perhaps related to the slave-class being unwilling to continue the ambitious production and transport of bigger and bigger mo’ai. By 1780 most of the statues laid face-down, and a new religion was born.
After the mo’ai they began to follow a new god, make make, and with this they launch the cult of the birdman. To quote wikipedia’s succinct explanation which is consistent with what our Rapa Nui guide told us:
In the cult of the birdman (Rapa Nui: tangata manu), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season’s first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern). The first swimmer to return with an egg and successfully climb back up the cliff to Orongo would be named “Birdman of the year” and secure control over distribution of the island’s resources for his clan for the year. The tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans but was suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s.
Perhaps the biggest historical event since the initial discovery of the island occurred when Peru was no longer able to employ african slaves in their mines. They went searching for free labor, and found Easter Island unprotected by any colonial power. So they shipped people from the island in droves to go work the mines in Peru.
This continued until the Pope told Peru to stop, after which they sent the five hundred or so who survived the mines back to the island. However, only sixteen made it due to illness. And when they got to the island, they infected everyone.
In 1877 the total population of the island was reduced to 111. And, with so many deaths, many traditions were lost – including their entire written language of petroglyphs (called Rongorongo). There is nobody left who really understands what is carved on the many artifacts found on island.
Then Chile, after formalizing their relationship with the island in 1888, rents out the entire island to a company called Compania de Explotacion de Isla de Pascua. Seriously. That is the name of the company. No shame.
They bring in loads of sheep to graze there, forcing locals to tend to them and then selling the wool. Basically, still slaves. Only since the 1950s were they given full rights as citizens.
Today they have a slowly growing tourist industry. To be honest, we were expecting it to be more developed for tourism, but it’s a very small island, hard to get to, and with the one main attraction being the mo’ai, which are everywhere. Most are toppled, face down. Some suffered Tsunamis. Some are in transit. Some prepared for transit. Some still being carved. Many are in the process of being restored and set upright. Now they all sit in various states around the island and, in this way, they tell part of the story of Rapa Nui.
When we arrive at the island we are presented with flowers around our necks and shuttled to our hotel. The following three days we enjoy organized tours where local guides explain the history to us. From the very beginning we wonder, how did they find this place? The legend of the dream seems the most plausible.
Each day we try a different local fish and soak in the sub-tropical sunshine. Like we’re on vacation. We tour around the island visiting a giant volcanic crater, several caves and, of course, mo’ai.
Our last day we rent bikes and do a giant loop across the entire island, from the town to the beaches on the north coast, back around the east coast. It’s very hot, and we both get pretty serious sunburns. But we know it’s winter in Europe right now, so who are we to complain?
For our last night we go to a traditional Rapa Nui dance show. It’s entertaining, and similar to a hawaiian hula dance. Basically there are a group of girls in different island skirt costumes softly shaking their hips, smiling the whole time. Then there are just two guys, painted head to toe wearing loin cloths that are aggressively jumping around stage, almost scaring the girls as they pass from one to the other. One guy even leapt off stage and landed at our feet – his sweat flew off of him in the impact, and sprayed us in the face. Epic.
Overall it was an amazing trip to a place with an incredible history. Sadly, we have to take our return flight to Santiago and then head home to Spain.
This was a wonderful way to end our trip, with history, geology, sub-tropical weather, cycling, good food, and lots of local culture.
It has been a true pleasure capturing what we can of these experiences in writing and photos. A big thanks to everyone who took interest in our journey!
Categories: Posts in English