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Arts & Community

Off the beaten path: The Moai of Easter Island

  • By Kandice Bell
  • |
  • Nov. 13, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Off the beaten path: The Moai of Easter Island

Photo courtesy Watson E. Mills

This is a portion of the hundred of Moai statues that are along its coastline.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in a region where few people ever go, lies a mysterious and often forgotten island situated at the southeastern-most point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. This remote island is more than 1,200 miles in all directions from the nearest land mass, the Pitcairn Islands. In between, there is only the empty and moving vastness of the largest ocean in the world.

Easter Island is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. It is a small, hilly island of volcanic origin. Easter Island is 63 square miles in size and has three extinct volcanoes, the tallest rising 1,674 feet. The rounded shapes of these large volcanoes are at the "corners" of this roughly triangular-shaped island. Between these volcanic peaks lies the lush, fluffy grass lands. On the ride in from the airport, I saw beautiful palm trees nestled among the single-story houses. Once into the hinterlands, the scene shifted to low shrubbery of figs and guava bushes as well as the tall, grey-green, tasseled shapes of eucalyptus trees.

DNA samples from skeleton remains found on the island have demonstrated that the original inhabitants of the Island were of Polynesian stock and that these people most probably arrived from the Marquesas or Society Islands. Should you make the effort to travel here, you will discover a fascinating island dotted with tall, monstrous statues, the artistic work of a now-vanished race. Nearly 900 of these strange-looking statues – called Moai – remain. And while theories abound, their purpose remains an enigma to this day and continues to fascinate the world.

It is often said that Easter Island is the most isolated destination in the world, and being so remote, getting there from the Eastern part of the USA is itself a challenge. Chile has had sovereignty over Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as it is known locally) since 1888, even though it is separated from Chile by 2,400 miles. Easter Island is this Latin American country’s sole piece of Polynesian territory.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the entire island is protected and is known as the Rapa Nui National Park. Easter Island still displays many of the cultural elements of historical Polynesia today. The park is a protected Chilean wildlife area which concentrates on maintaining the legacy of the Rapa Nui culture. Easter Island is number seven of the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die” (it is in the sub-category of “Feats of Engineering” along with the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall). This tiny Island was discovered in the early 18th century by a Dutch explorer who was sailing the south Pacific. The date was Sunday, April 5, 1722 – which just happened to be Easter Sunday on the Christian calendar. Hence the name.

There is no easy, direct way to get to Easter Island from Atlanta! I had to invest two travel days to journey there in 2008. My flight to Santiago, the jumping off city for flights to Easter Island, was almost seven hours including ground time in Miami. At Santiago, I spent the night and took the LAMAM Airlines flight the next day to Easter Island – another six hours in the air.

Today, Easter Island has become a major tourist destination, and this fact has radically changed life on the island. The island’s thriving tourist industry is today its major source of revenue. During the 1970s, there was only a single weekly flight to the island; today, there are daily flights. Only a decade ago, there were only about 8,000 tourists per year on the island. Now there are more than 80,000. This ten-fold increase means that conservation has become an increasingly important issue. It is forbidden to touch a Moai, and these laws are strictly enforced. If you touch a Moai, you might be photographed by a civilian policeman and face a considerable fine. A European tourist actually tore off an ear of a Moai a few years ago by striking it with a rock. When apprehended by the police he said he “wanted a souvenir.” He was fined $17,000 and deported, being banned from the island for three years.

Anything you buy here is very expensive because everything has to be ferried to the island by either ship or plane. There is a relatively new airport with paved runways, but the island does not have a deep-water port; therefore, the few supply ships that arrive each year must anchor off shore and send their goods to dock by means of much smaller vessels which adds further to the cost of every item.

Easter Island is most famous for the hundreds of Moai statues that dot its coastline. It is these foreboding-looking Moai that tourists come here to see. These monolithic human figures were carved by the island’s indigenous people between 1250-1500 A.D. Nearly half remain at the island’s main quarry, but hundreds of others were transported out of the quarry and set on stone platforms (called ahu) around the island's perimeter. There are some 250 of these ahu platforms spaced approximately one-half mile apart to create a virtually unbroken line around the perimeter of the island. Another 600+ statues, many of which were not completed, are scattered across the island. Depending upon the size of the statues, it is estimated that 50-150 people would have been required to drag them across the countryside. One theory is that this feat was accomplished using sleds and rollers made from the island's timber.

A small number of the Moai were once capped with “crowns” or “hats” of red volcanic stone. The purpose of these capstones remains unknown. These statues were carved by Rapa Nui people, who inhabited Easter Island from about 800-1600 A.D. How these people even got here in the first place is itself a mystery given the island’s isolation from all other land masses. Yet somehow, these ancient Polynesian people with their exceptional canoes made it across hundreds of miles of open ocean, landed here and built a civilization. Most archeologists hold that the Moai were constructed sometime after 1100 A.D. Beyond these incredible statues, we know very little about the island’s inhabitants, who are now extinct.

At first glance, it appears that the head makes up the whole of these statues. Research has proved the full bodies were often attached to the heads but were unseen because they were subterranean. It turns out that some of the statues were incredibly tall. To date, the tallest unearthed statue measures 33 feet in height and weighs a remarkable 82 tons.

One noticeable feature of all the Moai is that their unusually large heads measure about a quarter of the total size of each statue. The statues are also known for their distinguishing facial characteristics such as broad, elongated noses, rectangular ears and deep eye slits. Their nostrils have curls that resemble fish hooks, and each head displays a heavy brow. Many of the heads have truncated necks that make the jaw lines stand out. The arms were carved to rest in various positions against the body with long slender fingers and hands resting along hips' crests. Of all statues unearthed, only one was found in a kneeling position.

While various types of rock were used in carving the statues, about 94 percent of 887 surviving Moai were carved from compressed volcanic ash. The average height of the Moai is 13.1 feet with an average weight of 12.5 tons. All the statues face inland, away from the ocean. One possible reason for the statues facing towards the villages is that this culture believed that the statues would protect the island’s inhabitants. But according to other experts, the statues were symbols of political and religious power and authority.

On my last day, I walked along the coast on the Western side of the island. I paused to watch the scuba divers loading their gear onto small boats that would take them out to sea. There were some inlets where it was safe to enter the water, and I saw people taking a dip. Nearby stood several Moai, forming a line against the ocean, its waves crashing against a natural rock barrier below. The Moai looked as if they were anxious to share their ancient secrets with anyone who would listen. In the stillness, broken only by the lapping of the waves against the shore, I wondered what they might say if they could only speak; however, they cannot, and their story remains a mystery largely, if not entirely, unknown.

Next time: “The Great Wall of China”

Note from the author:

I had read about Easter Island in advance of my visit, and so I arrived that bright sunny day expecting to find a fairly grim and remote place set deep into the huge ocean that surrounds it. To my surprise, from the moment I landed and was draped with a colorful flower lei – the Polynesian garland of flowers presented upon arrival as a symbol of peace and affection – until the day I departed, this island’s friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and courteous people coupled with the chance to finally see the Moai, turned this long, grueling trip into a truly wonderful and unique experience. I would, without hesitation, encourage you to consider making this long journey to one of the most remote places in the world.

Watson E. Mills has traveled to 174 of the 193 member-countries of the U.N. and is a member of the Circumnavigators Club of New York having completed three around-the-world journeys.