Rapa Nui – Easter Island – December 18-21, 2014
Pictures included: foundation of one of typical oval houses, the reconstructed moai that were knocked down from the 1961 hurricane, an unusual kneeling moai and one site that overlooks the harbor. Note the top knot and eye on the lone moai.
The best thing about visiting Rapa Nui was our guide Claudio who had been on our expedition to “educate” us on the excavations and history of the island. Claudio stayed with us throughout the island tours along with his ex-wife, 6 children and 8 grandchildren, many who were guides as well. Claudio is an anthropologist who worked on the island for the past 40 years along with his first wife has a long history as an archeology professor at University of Chile who worked with many of the 26,000 excavation sites on the island. We were with her for one of the days on the island as she gave her sense of the history and politics of excavations.
Rapa Nui (meaning Big Rapa) was populated by Polynesians about 900 A.D. At first the burial sites and worship sites were small, but around 1200 A.D. when the island population had grown, the sites became more elaborate. Giant moai were carved from a quarry and then transported many miles to the various ceremonial sites. Scientists believe that these statues were transported standing up and scooted along ancient roads. Claudio believed it became a competition to see which “tribe” could out do the other as the moai became bigger and bigger. With each site, there were villages with lava rock homes that were built in the shape of ovals. There didn’t appear to be pigs or dogs on the island, but lots of chickens that also had their own rock roosts.
During our three days on the island, we visited 2 quarries, one where the giant moai were carved and the other where the red scoria top knots (hats) were carved. There are still over 300 moai in the process of being carved, lying either broken or partly carved lying as reminders of a once powerfully, vibrant civilization.
The island of Rapa Nui is volcanic and came together with three large volcanic eruptions that joined landmasses together to form the island from separate volcanoes. We drove to the top of one crater where the last ceremonial center (1400 to 1600 AD) of the Birdman cult resided. Here on the very edge of the crater were stone homes of elders, probably ceremonial chiefs. The birdman cult centered on the young person who could swim to a near-by island to capture the first egg of the nesting year (lots of migratory birds stop here) and return. Thus, at the end of the moai worship, another cult began centered around bird migration and representing fertility. The island by this time had destroyed most of its natural resources including all the trees. And, because there was no more wood, boats could not be built, nor bodies cremated. Scientists believe the sweet potato was brought from South America by Polynesians who left and returned. The sweet potato became their staple along with chickens and eggs. Fishing was never abundant in these deep waters of the Pacific.
Mysteries of the island’s ancient culture still exist. It was a real privilege to be with Claudio and his family, to hear the role they played in the excavations and restoration of many of the worship sites, and to hear their version of the story of Rapa Nui.