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January 26 - February 6, 2017  

Passage Note #92 - Rapa Nui

Unique and Mysterious Rapa Nui (Easter Island)


In the middle of nowhere in the southern Pacific Ocean stands a triangular wedge of volcanic rock called Rapa Nui (indigneous name) or Easter Island (English) or Isla de Pascua (Chile).  It is the most isolated permanently inhabited place on earth.

It’s the Big Guys who bring you there - the iconic monumental stone statues called “moai" silhouetted against the sky, vacant eye sockets staring over rolling green landscapes, backs to the turbulent sea.  Their anthropomorphic images symbolize Rapa Nui. Standing in a row like giant bowling pins, these sentinels once guarded the various coastal plain communities that carved and created them, protecting them from both warfare with each other and the evils of their inhospitable island world.

…but it’s the people who keep you there - the warm and wonderful Rapa Nui - the handsome and stately descendants of these vanished peoples in whose modern faces can be seen the fusion of their Polynesian origins with the latino comeliness of their colonizers. They are a proud people struggling today to regain more governing autonomy from distant Chilean authority (economic reliance precludes independence).  They are asserting their identity, revitalizing a distinct culture, and celebrating their very existence as a tribe which was in doubt not so long ago. Internal warfare, Peruvian slave raids, and the introduction of disease almost completely exterminated the Rapa Nui people in the second half of the 19th century.  And, like the Galapagos Islanders,  they are grappling with the pressures and problems of exploding tourism (80,000 a year and growing) and overwhelming and unwelcome immigration from the Chile mainland.

It’s also the many unknowable mysteries of the island that intensify the awe and fascination of being there - the enduring enigmas surrounding the landscape, the ancient peoples, and the famous moai statues.    Where did the original inhabitants come from? What was the Ancestor Cult? Why did it end and give way to the Birdman Cult?  Why did these two early civilizations collapse?  What caused the original lush forests to disappear, transforming the island into tree-less rolling grassland?  How were the moai made and then moved from their quarry birthplace miles away to platforms (ahu) across the island?  What do the red lava “hats” represent and how were they placed atop the moai? What is the meaning of the unique hieroglyphic Rongo Rongo “talking boards”? Rongo Rongo was the only written language known in Polynesia and remains undeciphered to this day. Many theories swirl around these puzzles and are still debated endlessly today.

Prelude - Getting There


It was January 2017.  We were on Jacaranda in Marina Papeete with the heat and the humidity of the Tahitian summer bearing down on us daily.  Chuck had just finished some major re-rigging and we were being watchful of the weather since it was cyclone season.  Papeete had, just the month before, experienced a 250-year rain storm of Noah’s Ark magnitude.  The city was flooded, locals were using their va’a (outrigger canoes) to navigate the streets, and the airport was inundated with water levels reaching the wheel wells of the planes. 

We decided to take a break. We had been discouraged from going to Rapa Nui in the peak season of February because we were told that during the Tapati, the two-week annual festival, everything was outrageously expensive - that is, if you could even find scarce accommodation and get seats on the weekly plane flight.  We LOVE a good festival and besides, our friends the Rigneys were going.  We hadn’t seen Leslie, Eric, and their two boys for a while since they had moved svKandu to Raiatea after leaving Nuku Hiva and we thought it would be a fun bonus to spend time with them. 


It was worth an inquiry.  So Linda went to the LAN airlines office and discovered that not only was there availability but there was a specially discounted airfare being offered!!!  She placed a hold on 2 tickets and ran to the computer to find a place to stay.   Voila!  We found a simple but nice-looking “eco-hostal” in walking distance of the center of Hanga Roa.  We planned to stay for two weeks - one week to explore the island and one week to experience the first half of the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival.

The Ancestor Cult and the Moai


The first two days we spent touring the island, 44% of which is designated a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, guided by a local from Easter Island Travel. Jose Ika showed us the sites, explained the history and archeology, patiently answered questions about their modern way of life and the relationship with Chile, and taught us a few phrases in the Rapa Nui language.  Whenever we got back in the car, he turned on his radio and loudly sang along to traditional songs.  Jose was surprised when we asked him if he listened to “Amahiro”, a popular local band.  We had purchased their CD from the lead singer, Mario Tuki, at the Marquesan Matava’a Festival in 2015 and really liked the music.

We traversed the low-lying rolling green island staying on well paved roads that mainly paralleled the jagged lava shoreline. Rapa Nui is only 25 km in length and 12km across (it is almost twice the size of Manhattan). There is an extinct volcano in each corner: Terevaka (the highest point at 507 m),  Rano Kau and Poike.  The stark bald terrain is a manageable outdoors activity paradise, easy to explore by foot, horse, or bike.  There are caves and grottoes to explore, some with petroglyphs and rock paintings.   Waterwise, there is surfing, boat tours, snorkeling and diving. 

Although a territory of Chile since 1888, Rapa Nui is a Polynesian island (part of the Polynesian triangle) thought to be settled around 700 -1200 A.D. by people from either the Gambiers or the Marquesas Archipelagos in modern-day French Polynesia.   This first phase of Rapa Nui civilization, the Ancestor Cult,  was responsible for the erection of some 887 world renowned moai and dramatically changed the landscape from a densely forested island to one that is rolling grassland, barren of trees. It is thought that the population peaked at 15,000 and ended with a sudden collapse roughly in 1530.   Most of the moai were standing when the first European, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, arrived on Easter Sunday, 1722.  However, by 1774, Captain Cook noted in his journal that many of the moai were toppled or damaged due to intertribal warfare.  All of them were fallen by the time the French Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1860’s.

Today, the only moai that are standing are the ones that have been restored by archeologists in the last century.  Back in the day, the well-dressed moai had sported white coral eyes with obsidian pupils and a red lava pukao (top knot), but not much of these original embellishments remain.  Read the National geographic article on the history of the Moai statues.

On the first day of our tour we visited one ahu (stone platform) after another to view the moai at various ceremonial sites.  We showed our National Park pass to the indigenous rangers posted at the entrance of each.  Jose explained that in the past Chileans had fully staffed and administered the National Park and Chile had kept all revenues from tourism for its national coffers.  After local protests in 2015 closed the Park and shut down the airport, a plan was developed for the rangers to be native Rapa Nui and for the islanders to manage the Park and administer all tourist revenues generated on the Island.  

Pirate flags and protest signs surrounding one of the hotels we passed was evidence of another festering problem with Chileans - land disputes and demands to return “confiscated” property to rightful indigenous owners.  Immigration from the mainland continues to engender animosity with the locals;  we spoke to a young waitress from Chile who said she was having a tough time with hostility from other Rapa Nui employees at the restaurant.

Our tour included the major highlights:


• Ahu Tongariki  -  15 moai standing on the largest ahu ever built, looking over a large village site.  The ruins of this site were severely damaged in a 1960 tsunami but were restored by Chilean archeologists in 1995-6. The “wandering moai” rests here, weary from being transported and shown at public exhibitions around the world.  This spectacular ahu is especially impressive at sunrise.

• Ahu Tahai - part of an interesting grouping of archeological treasures at the north end of Hanga Roa. There are several moai and remains of hare paenga (traditional elliptical houses resembling an upturned canoe, with a single narrow doorway). This is a great place to watch the sunset.

• Ahu Akivi  - restored in 1960 by American archeologist William Mulloy.  There are seven moai in an unusual inland location, one of only 25 sites found in non-coastal areas.  


• Puna Pau - the lava quarry where the large reddish cylindrical pukao were produced.  It is thought they represent topknots of a traditional hairstyle.  How they were placed onto of the moai heads and their significance is still under speculation.

• Anakena Beach - A beautiful white sand beach  (a rarity on the island) surrounded by a grove of tall swaying coconut palms. It is highly commercialized but remains a popular place for both locals and tourists to gather and picnic or have lunch at the various small restaurants.  According to oral history Anakena is the birthplace of Rapa Nui culture where the first king, Hotu Matu’a first set foot on the island.  This area has evidence of being occupied since 1200 AD. The first moai to be re-erected was here in 1956 at Ahu Ature Huki led by Thor Heyerdahl.   Nearby Ahu Nau Nau is an imposing ahu of seven moai, some with topknots, some with carvings restored in the 1970’s by local archeologist Sergio Rapu. 

• Rano Raraku - The quarry high on the outer southern slope of the extinct volcano is the “nursery” of the moai. Wandering among these statues in all stages of construction you are transported back in time. You can feel the mana (spiritual energy) of the nearly 400 moai frozen in their birth processes, some already extracted from blocks of black lava stone, some still embedded in the hillside. Many are just heads visible above the ground sitting atop their buried bodies.   Others lay prone in the grass or along ancient “roads” radiating into the distance, abandoned while en route to another part of the island.  We were so enthralled here that we returned on our own for a second visit to the quarry later in the week although technically our Park Pass only allowed a one-time-only entrance. 

How were the moai moved?  Oral history says the statues walked upright from here to their ahus miles away around the island.  This contradicts one theory that the moai were rolled horizontally on logs, a method contributing to the island’s deforestation.   A  2014 video called the Hidden Secret of the Statues in Easter Island explains the widely held theory of how they were constructed and moved upright by the use of ropes.

Within the volcanic crater is a small sparkling lake with stands of totora reed and 20 standing moai scattered above.

On a different day we mounted chestnut brown horses and rode to the top of the grassy knoll of Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island  (1680 feet) with its spectacular and unobstructed 360 degree views.  This  inactive volcano takes up most of the island.   The four hour expedition ended in a light rain shower.

The Birdman Cult


The second day of the tour included another remarkable place:  Orongo Ceremonial Village. The Ancestor Cult, represented by the moai, eventually collapsed and was replaced by a second civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries called the Birdman Cult.  It was represented by the Tangata Manu or Birdman and the village was the focus of its strange rituals linked to the god Makemake.  Imagery of the Birdman Cult imparts major symbolism to contemporary Rapa Nui art.

The Orongo Ceremonial Village is located in a most dramatic setting: high on the top of the rim of the Rano Kau volcano.  To one side is a “witch’s cauldron” crater lake, one mile in diameter,  sitting 280 meters below (918 feet). It is sensational to stand on the precipitous edge as cloud patterns of light and dark animate the mottled mosaic of water and totora reed patches far below. The crater is an important source of fresh water and its wetland has a microclimate that creates a greenhouse for a unique biodiversity of flowers and endemic flora. 

On the other side of the volcano rim is a steep drop off to the sea where three small motus (islets) stand offshore.  Motu Nui, the largest of the three, used to be the breeding grounds for a migratory bird called the sooty tern which returned every July to nest.

One hundred and fifty years ago this event set the stage for the seasonally occupied ceremonial village of Orongo to come alive and celebrate the ritual of the Tangata-manu or Bird-man. This ritual determined the leadership and dominant tribe on the island.  Every July, the island’s various tribes vied for power by choosing an athletic competitor (Hopu Manu) to represent their king (ariki). Each Hopu Manu climbed down the cliff of the Rano Kau Volcano from the Orongo village, swam on a reed float to Motu Nui, and waited in caves for the birds to arrive and lay their eggs. The mission was to retrieve the first egg, swim back and climb the cliffs to the top with the egg intact.   The Hopu Manu who first gave the egg to his king (ariki) became the sacred Tangata Manu and his king became the religious, political and military leader on the island for a year.  Many brave challengers died on the way - drowning, falling or being eaten by sharks.

Today the Village itself is a sacred site of 50 unique basalt flagstone (keho) houses that has sustained major damage throughout its history of contact with outsiders.  The only moai found here, exceptional for the unique Birdman Cult carvings on its back, was stolen for Queen Victoria in 1868 and today resides in the British Museum. During the end of the 19th century foreign expeditions looted cultural treasures of great significance, destroying houses to steal valuable painted stone slabs. It is heartbreaking to see photographic evidence from 1886 of William Thomson’s men on the USS Mohican standing among the rubble holding their plunder. The site’s exquisite petroglyphs are disappearing from erosion.  Restoration efforts at the Village are ongoing.

Hanga Roa


We spent quite a bit of time exploring the one and only little village of Hanga Roa with its 2 “main” streets of modest buildings and fisherman’s harbor built in 1967….there isn’t very much to the town.  The picturesque little waterfront area is lined with dive shops and some nice restaurants where you have a good view of the surfing area.  It was fun to sit with Leslie and Eric Rigney at a waterfront cafe and watch Bryce and Trent riding the waves, which they did as often as possible.  Behind them, past the surf were 5 or 6 sailing vessels anchored in the deep water, rocking and rolling with the unruly swell.  We were glad to have come by plane so we could be carefree, not having to be vigilant or uncomfortable on a boat with the vagaries of sudden weather shifts. The tourist brochure from Easter Island Travel warned:  “The ocean floor is rocky and treacherous. Weather at Easter Island is very spontaneous, and wind can change quickly. With this in mind, always make sure you anchor well, and always have your sailboat manned by at least one person.”   While we were there, two cruise ships arrived but they only stayed for one day.

Now, during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival, the walkways and seasonal artisan booths swelled with tourists.  People milled around buying vegetables from the trucks on the street (sweet potatoes, tomatoes, pineapple, watermelon, calabash, bananas),  eating emapanadas or Chilean bread from the bakeries, renting cars to explore out of town or buying souvenirs of moai carvings and jewelry made of feathers or shells. 

The catholic church, as in most places we have visited, melds universal religious symbolism with a local cultural twist; here christian emblems interestingly incorporated Birdman and Makemake figures. We stopped into the Tourist office and were pleasantly surprised to see Viatiare Rapu, one of the beautiful and graceful dancers we had met at the Matava’a in the Marquesas a few years earlier, sitting behind the desk.   Eric, a wonderful photographer, gave her some of the pictures he had take of her in Hiva Oa in 2015 and she was very appreciative.  Little did any of us know that she would be chosen as one of the uka (queen candidates)  for the next Tapati Festival in 2018.

Our lodging, Keu Henua Eco-Hostal, was a lovely garden oasis perfectly located very close to the Festival stage and “downtown" but far enough away to be quiet and serene. There were a cluster of individual cabins, a dining/kitchen building, and a greenhouse tucked in among the well cared for grounds which bloomed with all sorts of flowers and fruit. We enjoyed our clean simple room in a separate cabin, the mural in the sunny breakfast room, and meeting other guests, mostly Chileans.  We had been greeted at the airport by Elvira, the proprietress, who placed leis of dark red ti leaves around our necks - the local version of the customary Polynesian welcome.  She spoke no English although some of her staff did.  We had been looking forward to communicating in spanish in a South Pacific setting but suddenly found ourselves challenged, which shouldn’t have been a real surprise given our dormancy in speaking the language for so long in French Polynesia.  Elvira lived in a small home at the entrance to the residential compound which was always filled with family coming and going - kids, grandkids, sisters, and friends.  She had been widowed a few years earlier and enjoyed running the busy eco-hostal and the greenhouse.  We sat on her porch late in the evenings trying to connect to the internet, usually somewhat successfully albeit very slowly.

Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert


One morning Linda trudged up the road from our eco-hostal to the Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert, looking forward to viewing the precious artifacts, getting a more scholarly orientation to the island archeology, and curious to see how exhibits were arranged and presented since she has a museum background herself.   As she approached she noticed the museum was shuttered and the main gate was locked.  “Closed for renovations”.    Undaunted, she entered the adjacent administration building, met the staff and director and arranged for a private tour of the collections with an archeologist curator the next day.  

Leslie Rigney came with her and together in their behind-the-scenes tour they saw rare objects that the public does not get to see.  Ever since a nearly successful theft from the exhibit hall was thwarted a year ago,  most of the objects on public view were now reproductions. In the collection room, metal shelves that reached from the floor to the ceiling were filled with authentic treasures in carefully marked blue plastic bins or draped under protective cloth coverings.  Whenever Francisco Torres, the curator, opened one, they were spellbound by the exposed relic and were enlightened by what he could…and couldn’t…explain.  

Linda and Leslie saw original painted stone slabs stolen from the Orongo Ceremonial Village in 1886 by William Thomson on the USS Mohican and housed in the National Museum of Natural History (USA), only recently repatriated and returned to their rightful island provenance.  There was the rare white coral moai eye with its red scoria iris found at Ahu Nau Nau in 1978 as well as real wooden “talking boards” of Rongo Rongo hieroglyphic carvings.

Dark and Shameful History


Today Hanga Roa CONTAINS the entire population of the island  - about 6,000 people, more than half of whom are implants from Chile. There are 36 original Rapa Nui families living here.  But underlying the town’s sleepy appearance belies a dark and shameful history we had become aware of from a documentary at the 2016 FIFO film festival in Tahiti ("Rapa Nui, the Secret History of Easter Island").    We were shocked to learn that this same area once CONFINED the entire Rapa Nui population in what amounted to an internment camp for 60 years; it finally came to an end only in the late 1960’s!!  

In 1897, the Chilean government had given control of the island to the English-owned Williamson and Balfour sheep company which became the island’s de facto government.  The company rounded up all Rapa Nui and imprisoned them in the camp while the sheep roamed free.  The people were not allowed out without permission - they could not go to fishing areas, wash their clothes in the Rano Kau crater lake as was customary, or visit the sacred centers of the island.  Food was scarce and many went hungry.  Some surreptitiously built canoes in caves and secretly launched themselves from the island never to be heard from again.  Others did successfully escape, slowly getting the word out into the larger world of the plight of the Rapa Nui people.  In 1953 the Chilean government took charge of the island but continued the imperial rule the islanders had been subjected to for nearly a century. 

Finally, a young Rapa Nui man named Alfonso Rapu went to Santiago, Chile for university, studied political science,  and returned to lead a “revolution” to liberate his people into freedom in 1964.  He became the first mayor of the island and introduced drinking water, electricity, a new school and an airport; restrictions of movement on the island were lifted and the adoption of an Easter Island flag was one representation of the natives’ new identity and nationality.  Alfonso Rapu is still alive today and was at the Tapati Festival, as were many of the elders who lived through this scandal of colonization.  In 1967 a commercial airline link between Santiago and Tahiti with Rapa Nui as a refueling stop opened the island up to the world.  It’s amazing to realize that this is not some ancient history but happened within our own lifetimes.

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