If you ever want to get away from it all, I’ve got just the place for you: Easter Island. Home to only 6,000 inhabitants, “Rapa Nui” as the island is known in the Polynesian language, is considered to be the most isolated inhabited island on earth. Just think, if you ever grew tired of your 5,999 fellow islanders, you could swim 3,700 km to reach Chile or 2,000 km to reach Pitcairn Island which is, with 49 inhabitants, the nearest “population center”. Of course, Easter Island is most famous for its stone statues called “moai”, not its degree of isolation. It is, however, true that isolation played an important role in the development of the Rapa Nui’s spiritual practices. Cut off from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of ocean in all directions, out of Easter Island an ancestral cult emerged – and the moai played an important role in this tradition.
Easter Island, a Chilean territory, is a remote volcanic island in Polynesia. It’s famed for its archaeological sites, including some 900 monumental statues, called moai, created by its early Rapa Nui inhabitants during the 10th-16th centuries. The moai are carved human figures with oversize heads, often resting on massive rock altars called ahus. Ahu Tongariki has the largest group of upright moai.
A quarry on the slopes of the volcano Rona Raraku was the main source and production facility for the moai. Made out of “tuff” (compressed volcanic ash) and then erected on a platform called “anu”, each moai is said to represent an ancestor, in most cases a prominent community or spiritual leader. Upon death, the person’s body was commonly cremated and buried underneath the anu. After a statue had been erected in a diseased leader’s name, the ancestor was worshipped. It appears that each tribe on the island had its own platform with erected statues. During ceremonial events, the moai’s eyes, consisting of white corals and black obsidian for pupils, were attached to the statue. It was believed, that “mana”, a divine spirit, would travel from the grave through the eyes and rest upon the people. For this reason the vast majority of moai are located along the coast, facing inland towards the tribe. It is believed that ancestor worship began approx. around 1,000 A.D. and ended some time after 1,650 A.D. Today, Easter Island is littered with toppled moai. When the first Europeans came to the island on Easter Sunday in 1722 (thus the name), they reported all of the statues standing. By 1868, however, there were no more upright moai. While some moai are believed to have fallen due to earth quakes, most statues were toppled during tribal conflicts. Yes, even in paradise humans tend to have wars.
Going back a few centuries before the island was discovered, Easter Island was a tropical paradise with millions of tall palm trees, fresh water streams and land birds. Some believe the Polynesians came to Rapa Nui around 375 A.D. The people thrived on this beautiful island where food, fuel and fertile land were plentiful. Gradually, as the island’s population grew to over 13,000 inhabitants, environmental destruction resulted in the loss of all trees, all fresh water sources and all land birds. And as the population grew more and more desperate for food, feuding began among the tribes, resulting in the destruction of many hundred moai. Until today, only 50 out of 887 Moai have been re-erected and restored.
The Rapa Nui (the people of Easter Island) had their fair share of calamities over the centuries. The loss of their pristine environment, a severe rat plague (which was partly responsible for the loss of trees and a declining bird population), raids by Peruvian slave traders, tribal wars and leprosy (among other diseases) eventually reduced the human population to 111 people. With the remaining Rapa Nui lacking leadership and identity, it was not difficult for missionaries to introduce the concept of a Christian God in the 1860s.
Researchers who study the moai, have noticed that all statues feature certain body parts, such as noses, fingers, ears etc., in an accentuated fashion. It is believed that this was done in response to the leprosy epidemic that ravaged the island. The masons shaping the moai had the idea that, at least in his stone portrayal, the leader should look free from the crippling symptoms of this terrible disease.
Almost all of the moai came from Rona Raraku. The slopes of this volcano were the only place where the tuff was openly exposed and the incline of the mountain was perfectly suited for this type of masonry and craftsmanship. Four to five people worked roughly for one year on the creation of each new moai. When the front was finished, the statue had to be detached from the mountain and made to stand upright for the back of the statue to be crafted. For this, the natives dug a hole at the base of the half-finished statue and slowly allowed the moai to slide into the pit in a vertical position.
When the job was done, a completed statue had to be transported to the designated platform, though experts still disagree on how the moai were moved. While theories range from teleportation powered by the divine to Eric van Daniken’s idea that the statues were moved by aliens, most experts agree they were dragged on sleds, rolled on tree trunks or “walked” upright to their intended destination. One thing is clear: it was a tremendous feat of ingenuity and skill when you consider that the average moai weighed 12.5 metric tons and was 4 m tall. Some had to be transported a distance of 18 km. How difficult this task must have been is hinted by the fact that only 32 % of the 887 Moai on Easter Island actually made it to their designated anu. It is not surprising that 397 or 45 % of all moai remained at the quarry - some erect, some leaning, some horizontal, some partly finished. We know now that the production of moai was abandoned around the 1650s. Since then, the statues at the quarry have been partly covered by soil but many statues also seem to have fallen and broken during transport. Can you imagine the distress felt by the dozens of Rapa Nui transporting a moai when their giant statue fell and split in half? (Most statues broke at the neck, the weakest part.) I can still hear the swear words reverberating throughout the island!
Evidence shows that the statues became taller and heavier during the 650 years of production. There appeared to have been a competition among the tribes as to which tribe had the biggest moai. The largest statue ever erected is almost 10 m tall and weighs 75 metric tons, but the largest statue was still being chiselled out of the mountain when the Rapa Nui gave up on the ancestor idea. This moai was to be 21.6 m tall and weigh approx. 182 metric tons. Makes you wonder: did they really plan on moving that monster statue or was it to remain at the quarry for eternity?
Located not far from the quarry at Rona Raraku are the moai statues of Ahu Tongariki. These 15 statues vary greatly in height and weight. They were re-erected in the 1990s with the help of the Japanese and collected from a large geographical area.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the spiritual tradition shifted away from ancestor worship and the production of moai towards the “Birdman Cult”. Until then there had always been 1 paramount leader for the entire island. Perhaps the environmental and political dynamics changed enough for something new to emerge. A new tradition was born that allowed for the election of a new leader every year. This new concept, which had strong spiritual undertones, was promoted by the warriors of the island who had as their symbol a mystical figure of half man/half bird. The election of the new leader took the form of a competition. Every spring, the tribal leaders gathered at a steep cliff overlooking the tiny islet of Motu Nui. The competitors were asked to climb down the 300 m cliff, swim to Motu Nui, await the arrival of the birds and return with the first bird egg of the season. The successful competitor then returned to his sponsor who became the island’s venerated chief for one year. Sponsorship of athletes is definitely not a modern idea.
Almost all civilizations on earth go through extraordinary lengths to create monuments for their spiritual practice or to build structures where the divine is invited to reside. The sheer artistic, physical and logistical challenges these efforts posed to their sometimes seemingly primitive civilizations are difficult to grasp. From the Egyptian temples to the European cathedrals to the Incan spiritual sites to the monstrous statues of Easter Island, the efforts invested in creating these special places and monuments often appear to have required super-human determination and power. How did the Rapa Nui move and erect a 75-ton statue using ropes and sleds? It is estimated that several hundred men would have been required to transport a moai of that size. Any experiments done by researchers over the years have always been performed on much smaller and lighter statues. Why did the Rapa Nui do it? What is this almost unstoppable spiritual urge that drives us to accomplish such a feat? Is it possible that the Rapa Nui availed themselves of “divine help”? Standing in the quarry of Rona Raraku, taking is the energy of this place and visualizing the many workers and craftsmen who gave it their all to create and move these statues, I cannot totally dismiss this possibility.
It is said that a women lived alone near the quarry. She prepared meals for the workers and, as local legend has it, she had super-natural powers at her disposal. Simply by the power of her thought she was able to “walk” the statues to their intended destinations. It must have been a sad day for the workers when she died.