Easter Island (indigenously known as Rapa Nui) which is a small island of 64 square miles in the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile, is best known for the unique cultural marvel to which it bears witness. The original Polynesian settlers who made this island their home, as far back as 300 A.D., also established a distinctive tradition of commemorative sculpture and architecture. The great stone figures erected by these early settlers in memory of their ancestors, were known as Moai Aringa Ora which means, ‘the living face of our ancestors’. Nearly 1,000 of these monumental statues remain in existence to this day, averaging 13 feet high and some even weighing as much as 80 tons. The largest of these sculptures which is known as ‘El Gigante’ stands at nearly 72 feet in height. Easter Island with much of its extent protected within Rapa Nui National Park, was declared as a world heritage site by the UNESCO in 1995.
Home to one of the most remote and secluded communities of the world, Easter Island, received its name from the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who arrived there on Easter Sunday, 1772. Among the several mysteries and controversies that shroud this tiny island, the most significant one would be in relation to the construction of its giant stone ‘moai’ statues, which though appears to be an extraordinary feat, defies all sense of logic. The question as to how such a feat was carried out on relatively barren land by a community who lacked the resources and man power for it, remains unanswered to this day. One of the main stories alluding to the origin of the Easter Island’s settlement is based on the Rapanui legend of Hotu Matu’a and the seven explorers. Legend says that the King Hotu Matu’a, having dreamt of his own land being submerged, sent seven explorers in search of favorable land. These explorers then discovered Easter Island and when Hotu Matu’a and his entourage finally arrived there, they realized that it had already been inhabited on account of the planted yams and the several standing statues (which at that time were believed to have walked to their destinations:). The seven moai at Ahu Akivi are said to represent these seven original travelers and are the only seven statues which face the ocean. Several other folktales exist as to Easter Island’s first settlers and the creators of the statues, yet not one of these consistently touches upon how the statues, the very source of the mystery came to be.
Legend aside, many scientists have attempted to analyze as to how the larger-than-life size statues of Easter Island were transported in the absence of wheels, cranes and large animals. Of the tested theories, the most conclusive is that the islanders used log rollers, ropes and wooden sledges. In 2011, archeologists Terry Hunt and Carlo Lipo worked with the National Geographic to successfully prove this theory. Although this theory may prove true for the average- sized moai replica, it fails to explain as to how the larger statues, over 10 feet in height and weighing several more tons, came to be. Moreover, the Easter Island statue Project led an excavation in 2012, the findings of which conclude that even the Easter Island heads buried up to their shoulders have even larger bodies, below surface level. The branching road network the moai moved along have been captured by satellite images and the uncovered gradients appear to be much more complex than the people of that day would have had the knowledge to decipher. The statues are significantly smaller in size on the higher elevations, which supports the theory of manual labor for the transportation, as referred to prior.
Studies have proven that the torsos of Easter Islands’ moai statues have been made from volcanic rock form the Rano Raraku quarry, formed by the remains of an extinct volcano. This volcanic tuff consists of sedimentary rock made from layers of partly solidified volcanic ash, which would have been relatively simple to carve from though heavy to transport. Several unfinished statues remain at the site of the quarry. It appears that each of the statues were individually carved lying on their backs and then erected vertically on to platforms. The cylindrical hats atop many of the moai were constructed from a cinder cone and its primary raw material is red scoria formed from a volcanic eruption prior. Although their exposure has resulted in weathering, photogrammetry modelling has revealed detailed carvings on the surface of the figures. The tools used for carving were chisels made from hard rock and were referred to as toki. The eyes of all the moai statues that have been constructed such that they look inland, seem to have been crafted from whit seashell and the Irises inlaid with coral. Even the very platforms of the grouped statues have been remarkably handcrafted.
The Rapa Nui people built these statues in accordance with their beliefs, for the purpose of honoring their chieftain and other important ancient Polynesian ancestors who had passed away, so that they could forever watch over the tribe and bring fortune to it. Particularly in relation to the statues placed on the rectangular stone platforms called ahu, which are the tombs of those represented by the figures. Therefore, each moai statue has differing characteristics representative of the person they signify. As to the statues that have fallen over the years, it has been speculated that tribal warfare may be the cause.
Apart from its historical and cultural significance, as to its ecological and environmental significance, Easter Island has risen to the forefront on account of the disappearance of almost all of its trees within a relatively short span of time, between 1250 and 1600 AD. Despite assumptions as to the trees being cut down to move the statues, the most logical causes are attributed to a rat infestation and the slash and burn agricultural method used by the inhabitants. As a result of its inhospitable landscape, this island currently has a measly population of approximately 7,750 people. Rising ocean levels due to global warming is another threat its people are facing at present.
An island damaged by deforestation and shrouded in mystery; it is unlikely that Easter Island’s mysteries will ever be resolved.
– Rtr Lalinka De Silva