Monday, 14 October 2013

Preview: Easter Island

A tiny triangular island with volcanoes at each corner, it is in the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of nowhere. Over the years, it has been called San Carlos, Davis Island, Teapy, Waihu, or since 1862 by the official Polynesian name of Rapa Nui. The islanders know it as Te Pito o Te Heua - "the navel of the world". We know it as Easter Island, and we've heard of it because many centuries ago the locals had a penchant for building gigantic stone heads.

Spooky, sombre, inscrutable, the giant heads - moai is the correct term - of Easter Island are one of the world's most unexpected monuments. There are hundreds of them - 887 to be precise, although 397 remain in their quarry in the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Their general form doesn't change: long faces and long noses, with deep, furrowed brows as though lost in thought. They are scattered across the island, most standing in lines upon stone platforms, facing away from the sea. The largest outside of the quarry weighs an estimated 82 tons - larger than the biggest stones of Stonehenge - and is 9.8 metres high. Others are typically 40 or 50 tons. There is nothing else like them on earth, and they are all the more enigmatic for their location, on a tiny island of 69 square miles - 1/6th the size of Orkney in Scotland - over 1200 miles from the nearest inhabited island of Pitcairn (population 50) and around 2300 miles from South America - and for centuries cut off from the rest of the planet.

Easter Island was discovered by the wider world in 1722, by a Dutch admiral called Jacob Roggeveen. It was on Easter Day, hence the name. Until the 19th Century, it was the most remote inhabited island in the world (Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic probably has that accolade now). Most likely, it had held this record since somewhere between the 6th and 8th Centuries AD, when it was first actually discovered by mankind, and occupied. It's a reasonable question to wonder: how on earth did primitive man come to occupy an island lost in the hinterlands of the Pacific Ocean? But do not underestimate the dedicaton of the ancient Polynesian seafarer. The Pacific is pretty damn huge, and the islands in it are pretty tiny, and so faced with this eternity of water, the Polynesians got pretty handy with their canoes. Just as the Europeans became keen on ocean exploration a few hundred years ago, the Polynesians likewise felt that urge some centuries before. Building themselves huge, long double canoes strapped side-by-side, they would stock up with supplies - and row. They would row, perhaps to never return, or perhaps to stumble upon a new, unspoilt paradise. And at the same time the Maya civilisation was hitting its stride, the same time Western Europe was slipping into a waking coma following the decline of Rome, and the same time a man called Mohammed and his followers were sweeping across the Middle East following revelations from heaven, a handful of men were celebrating as their 60-foot canoe of dimishing supplies came within sight of a lush new island.

Of course, there's no formal record of this, and making too much of the local myths and legends is a dangerous game. But it's a reasonable extrapolation, as we know the Polynesians explored and traded in this manner, and we know that Easter Island couldn't "always" have had people. Genetic studies back it up. Probably the first inhabitants came from Mangareva (an island in modern day French Polynesia), about a three-week journey away. And it would seem that, remarkably, this wasn't a one-off, one-way journey - right up until the 16th Century, the islands continued to interact with each other via this epic three-week canoe trip.

And so the tiny, remote Easter Island thrived, with the population reaching around 15,000 people (today, 6000 people live on the island). And at some point, somehow, somebody got the notion that building a giant head would be a good idea.

In the absence of any apparent religon or gods, the islanders worshipped and deified their ancestors; the ceremonial platforms and giant heads were manifestations of this. Between the 13th and 16th Centuries, fuelled by interaction with other East Polynesian islands and inspired by their myths, beliefs, and art, Easter Island's entire social impetus focussed on building the giant stone heads and platforms. Easter Island became a productive, proactive and positive society, each group within the larger community spurred on against each other to build bigger and better than their neighbours. Unquestionably, it was a fascinating period of history in an almost self-contained micro-society. Although stone statues are found on other Pacific islands, nothing like the size, form or sheer number are anywhere but Easter Island. Truly, for a two century burst, this tiny island, invisible to the world, produced something unique.

So, what were they for? Well, we're not absolutely sure. Nobody was taking notes back then, and centuries later, when the locals were asked about the stone heads, one responded in surprise, “Have you no moai in England?” The small community had forgotten how or when the moai had come about, and regarded them pretty much as normal everyday stones. They had little to say about them and knew little about why they were built, much in the way an average person from Britain wouldn't have much to say about the Bayeux Tapestry ("There was a battle... someone got shot in the eye?"). It's thought likely they represent important figures from the island's history, the spirits of ancestors and leaders. Upon being quarried, the mostly-completed moai would be transported to its ultimate location on one of the many platforms - called ahu -scattered around the island, usually coastal. There are around 300 such ahu on Easter Island, up to 100 metres long and 5 metres high, built from stone blocks. Around half had moai on them. Ahu are ceremonial platforms, and so lined with the stone heads and upper torsos of ancestors, likely they were settings of worship. Most face away from the sea, in towards the island and settlement, so perhaps they offered protection, or as a conduit to the gods, or some other sacred function. But this, I stress, is just educated guesswork. We don't know for sure.
Almost all the moai were taken from the volanic mountain, Ranu Ranatu, carved out of the rock then transported sometimes several miles to their destination. The carving was easier than the transportation, hence why only around a third of the heads ever made it to their ceremonial destinations. Numerous others are scattered around the island, seemingly abandoned in transit, and many others remains in their quarry. Carving could take just a couple of weeks, although the skill was in carving something that would be stable and stand. The vast majority are carved from a soft stone called tuff, which is compressed volcanic ash and is fairly easily carved, which the islanders did using simple stone tools, found discarded on-site. How they then moved them is still something up for debate - and one of these theories also ties in with the decline of the island.

It seems that to move the moai, trees were cut down to provide wooden rollers. During the heady days of moai production, a lot of trees were cut down to move them. But Easter Island can only support a certain number of trees and a certain amount of cutting them down, and some time in the 16th Century, some thoughtless soul looked at the last tree standing and thought "I really need to roll that giant head I've just built". Easter Island, in the middle of nowhere, had been deforested by its islanders; in their desire to commemorate their ancestors, they had just sabotaged their future. No trees, no wood, no building materials, no way to move the moai, no way of building canoes for contact with the outside world. Easter Island went into terminal decline, that was only accelerated when the colonial powers of Europe stumbled upon them centuries later.

It's a cruelly ironic fate, although in fairness to the islanders, it seems that their deliberate actions were only partly responsible. Unintentionally, likely centuries before the head-mania begun, a type of rat had stowed itself away on one of the canoes linking Easter Island to the other islands. These rats loved eating the small jubaea nuts from the giant palms of Easter Island. The consequence of this was that the felled trees had no opportunity to regrow. Moai production therefore stopped, and a remarkable period in its history came to an end.

Since the end of that period and the beginning of European contact, a lot happened on the island, from warfare to systematic statue toppling and to virtual slavery imposed by the unwelcome colonial powers. The native culture of Easter Island was effectively ended, and with that the cultural memory of the statues forgotten. They have since been the focus of serious scientific study, and so we've got some pretty good guesses about their origins and purpose, but in the end, they will have to remain guesses. And in the 21st Century, surrounded by information and high-speed everything and in a fully-connected world, can we ever really get into the mindset of a "medieval" Pacific Islander on a tiny island surrounded by seemingly infinite ocean, staring up at a giant, brooding stone face, that faced away from the eternal ocean and into the tiny island? Easter Island and the thoughts of its heads will remain a mystery.

I'm looking forward to this one, a lot, although I don't really know what to expect, except for a lot of big heads. I'm hoping for a sense of atmosphere, and the sense of mystery that comes across from the pictures and writings about the island. Easter Island - or its moai, if I'm to be more precise - may have a shot at the top Seven. Certainly, I won't visit anywhere else on my travels, or in my lifetime, that will directly compare.

I'll be visiting Easter Island some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. Fascinating subject eloquently presented. I am a big fan of your work, looking forward to the first hand report.

    1. Thanks. Current estimate for Easter Island is January - I hope it lives up to my expectations.

  2. im doing a report on this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. The Polynesian rats were probably not "unintentional." In fact, these rats were carried as food on the various voyages of the Polynesian peoples as they discovered island after island. Those same rats were responsible for extinction of many native birds, who on most isolated islands had no native terrestrial predators. Likewise, trees that face lots of seed predators either adapt with poisons and prickles and such as protection, or it all happens too quick and they go extinct. Incidentally the Polynesian rat is still revered as a cultural treasure in many island cultures.

    1. Interesting. I'd always assumed the rats had just snuck in, but that makes more sense.

  4. I thought that hawaii was the most remote island? Also, I read somewhere that the way hawaii was originally discovered was the people (I believe they were polynesian but I could be wrong) would see birds flying out into the ocean at the same time every year and would follow them in their canoes for as long as they could then go back to that spot the next year and wait for the birds to fly over and did that for hundreds of years until they found hawaii. Probably how they found other remote islands as well. Have you heard that? I don't remember where I read or saw it.