In Valparaiso, James Grant-Peterkin, a Brit, who has been living on Easter Island for close to 20 years got on board to spend the next 9 days at sea with us. What an incredible treat! All of his lectures packed the 1,000 seat Royal Court Theatre. People were stacked on the steps and jockeying for a sight line in the back of the room. James is only 38, but he fell in love with the strange bunch of big headed statues when he was a teenager. His fever is contagious, and we all caught it.
We did not land on the Island, which is criminal. We couldn’t, because another cruise ship already got “the spot” for the day in the bay, having reserved it 5 years ago. Poor planning by Cunard. There is no dock for large ships. Only a small cove for the lifeboats to land and deposit people on shore. The tiny town cannot handle two ships at a time, and I hope they never do. That’s a lot of wear and tear.
So, we only cruised around the island, while the passengers on the other ship snickered at us from their smug pedestal of supremacy. That’s okay though. We knew this in advance, because we read the itinerary, carefully. However, less astute passengers saw “Easter Island”, and rushed to book passage before reading “cruise by” in slightly smaller print. Do you think they were a bit perturbed when they figured it out? Oh yeah.
But why has Easter Island captured our attention so fully? There are statues on countless islands, and many much older then the ones found here. It’s the mystery and intrigue. We are enlivened by the unsolvable. The unprovable. It sparks our imagination, and allows it to soar.
It is believed that the Polynesians (Rapa Nui) settled on Easter Island around 700 AD. They did not have a written language, so where they came from, and why they left their old home, is unknown. It could have been weather patterns that affected food sources, war, or volcanic activity that forced them to flee. They did travel from a great distance. The closest island to Easter is 1,289 miles away.
Their boats were double hulled sailing canoes, about 100 feet long. They navigated using nature, a process called “wayfinding”. They were experts at reading the night sky. The pattern of waves and cloud formations would tell them if land was near. They watched the behavior of birds in flight. Then they spotted it. Were they jubilant, or wary? Easter island covers 60 square miles. It was 70% solid forest with millions of nesting seabirds (lots of eggs to eat), an abundance of fish, and three volcanic craters full of fresh water. A perfect place to settle.
The Rapa Nui would have brought banana, taro roots, and sweet potato plants for food. Mulberry was grown to make clothing. They also brought chickens and rats. Yes, rats. They reproduce quickly and are a valuable food source. Who knew! Always eager to try local dishes, we requested sautéd rat in a garlic and white wine sauce from our head waiter. He took a deep breath before responding with, “Madam Gray, I will check with the chef, but I do not think that is possible”… Deadpan humor always delivers an interesting reaction from our multinational staff.
After 300 years of thriving on the island, the Rapa Nui shifted their focus to manifesting their religious beliefs through carving the iconic stone statues (Moai) of their ancestors. By creating these human idols, they would preserve the deceased person’s Mana; magical and supernatural powers, which bestowed prosperity, protection, and prestige on the living. Sounds like good mojo to harness.
The rock came from a volcanic crater that was loaded with basalt, a perfect material for carving. For the next 600 years (1,000-1,600 AD) over 1,000 statues ranging in size from 8-30 feet tall were all carved at the quarry. The statues did not have legs, since Mana only existed in the head and torso. After completion, each Moai was transported to the village where the person died. They weigh several thousand pounds, and were most likely moved using a series of wooden rollers. This process would have taken several weeks or even months. It was then placed on a platform, either by itself or with up to 15 other Moai.
The eyes were carved out as the last step and filled with coral. They were always faced inland, to protect the living and the land, never towards the ocean. The Rapa Nui devoted their lives to creating these statues. They did not continue to explore the seas or trade with other islands like the rest of Polynesia, which was highly unusual. They stayed put, and tried to “shut the door” to maintain their utopian environment. Life was good. For awhile…
The first recorded European contact with the island took place on April 5, 1722 (Easter Sunday – hence the name) when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen visited for a few days. He estimated the population to be around 2,000 inhabitants. His party reported seeing hundreds of remarkable, tall stone figures, a good 30 feet in height, lining much the island. He said the land was rich in volcanic soil and the entire island was under cultivation. The climate was good, but there were very few trees.
This expedition also described the islanders as being over 6 feet tall, bulky, muscular, and well nourished. They distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks, that when they took them out, they could hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear. Sounds attractive, doesn’t it? You can see these large ear lobes depicted in the statues.
When Captain James Cook arrived in 1774, 52 year later, his party witnessed a very different Easter Island. They reported that the statues had been neglected and that many had fallen over. And, that there were hundreds at the quarry that had been abandoned is various stages of carving. In fact, there are 391.
Most are buried up to their necks in accumulated soil. Cook’s botanist described the land as very poor, and that only small parts of the island had been cultivated. Most of the land had fallen into disuse. Cook estimated the population to be about 700 people that looked unhealthy and emaciated. There was a lack of food and fresh water. He saw only three canoes, all unseaworthy. And, the once plentiful giant palm tree indigenous to Easter Island, and not found anywhere else in the world was now extinct. These were used to build canoes. Later on, fossil-pollen analysis showed that they had been gone since about 1650. The party reported not seeing any trees over 10 feet tall.
In 1825, the British ship, HMS Blossom visited briefly and noted that there were no standing statues. They had all been toppled, and in all cases, facedown. And, there was not one single tree left on the island.
So what happened? No one knows for sure.
Some theorize that hostile tribes landed on the island, and slowly took over, methodically knocking down the statues over a 100 year time period. Face down to nullify the protective powers of the ancestors. The statues were often broken at the neck, to make sure the Mana was completely destroyed. The eye sockets were gouged out, and the coral pieces removed.
As the rival tribes battled over dwindling resources, the previously peaceful Rapa Nui people would have become violent. Battles, killings, and revenge attacks including cannibalism (to absorb Mana), would have become their new reality. Bone studies have shown blunt head trauma in many skeletal remains.
The Rapa Nui could not escape to find a new place to live, because all the trees were gone, so there was no wood to make canoes. No canoes also led to malnutrition, since they could not get out to deeper waters to hunt for large fish and marine mammals. And, since they had not left the island in many centuries, the skills of “wayfinding” their ancestors had, were lost.
They were stuck. Some theorize that the Rapa Nui toppled the statues, themselves, because they were pissed off that their ancestors didn’t protect them against the invaders. That makes sense too, when you look at how they devoted their entire lives to preserving Mana.
But, there is another theory to ponder…
The rats brought by the first Rapa Nui settlers, would have proliferated at an alarming rate, and one of their favorite foods was the seeds of the giant palm trees, which they devoured. This would have prevented the trees from reseeding. This coupled with an El Nino that could have brought years of severe drought would have dried up their natural water sources, killed the crops, and left the land dry and infertile.
You are left to decide which theories to believe, if any.
Chile acquired the Island in 1888. No one fought over it. There are now 6,000 residents, many are still “pure bred” Rapa Nui, although cross breeding with Chilean mainlanders who have moved to the island threaten this endangered culture. 95% live in Hanga Roa, the capital. Only 5% live “off the grid’ on other parts of the island. NASA paid to extend the airport runway to “regulation length” so it could be used as an emergency landing site for the space shuttles. Now, there are daily flights from Santiago, Chile, so tourism is on the rise.
Look up James if you are planning to visit. He runs an “english speaking” tour company, and his knowledge and passion for this island is mind-blowing. The ship was a mile from land when I took the photos. If there is a next time, I plan to get a bit closer, I promise.