Apr 16, 2012

Easter Island is also known as Rapa Nui

On Easter Sunday in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer, was the first European to visit the island giving it the name Easter Island. However, the local Polynesian name is Rapa Nui. A few years ago John and I spent a week on Easter Island. It has everything: beautiful scenery, mysterious ruins, a couple of great beaches, friendly people, and a relaxed Polynesian ambiance.

Evidence of the ancient Rapa Nui culture is everywhere. There are nearly 1000 of the huge stone statutes called moai scattered around the small island making it an island museum. At Vinapu, not far from the main town of Hanga Roa, the stone work on an altar is similar to that found in Cusco, Peru. The workmanship is so precise that the stones fit perfectly without any mortar. Strangely it is the only place with Cusco-like stone work. The accepted theory is that the Rapa Nui people arrived from a Polynesian Island that was destroyed by some natural disaster. However, at some prehistoric point in time there was a cultural exchange with the mainland of South America. Besides the Inca-like construction, the sweet potato which is indigenous to South America, was introduced.

The giant monolithic moais are scattered across the entire island, which is only 22 miles by six miles. The moais were a form of ancestor worship that became competitive. They made larger and larger moais in an attempt to outdo those made by neighboring groups. Then everything came to a halt. The most widely accepted belief is that a growth in population and the construction of bigger moais led to deforestation. Wood was needed in constructing moais and for rollers to move them. Both issues led to a bloody war over food and power. A good example of what can happen if the environment is not protected.

One of the most intriguing sites is on the side of Volcan Rano Raraku where the stone was quarried. Nearly 400 heads of the completed moais are sprouting out of the ground. They are the finished moais that were waiting to be transported to the altars. Due to erosion two-thirds of their bodies are buried in the ground. Higher up the hillside are more moais in various stages of completion. It is as if one day the order came to stop work and everyone just walked way.

The most impressive altar is Tongariki, where 15 moais have been restored to their upright position, including one of the tallest, which is well over 30 feet. Many of the finished moais are adorned with a topknot hat-like structure of red stone weighing up to 11 tons. Nearly all the moais face inland except a grouping of seven located in the middle of the island near the manufacturing site of the topknots.

We meet Eliza Riroroko-Mason, a Rapa Nui married to an American. She expressed concern for the island’s future. “My island is small and people want to build big name-brand hotels and a casino. Once again my island will be destroyed. I don’t think the change will be good for the Rapa Nui people. It will help only the people who want to make money. This is a very special place. We need to preserve it.” Like Eliza, we hope that desire to capitalize on what the Rapa Nui created will not result in turning the small island into a commercialized tourist attraction.