Sunday, 26 January 2014

34. Wonder: Easter Island

(For the Easter Island preview, please click here.)

There are many ways to visit the statues - or moai, to give them their proper name - of Easter Island; cycling is one of them. No, in fact, cycling is not one of them. Do not attempt cycling around Easter Island. Triangular in shape, with a distance of approximately 20 kilometres between points, Easter Island seems on paper to be eminently cyclable. There are ups and downs but the road is not particularly steep. But: Easter Island is hot. There are no shops or stalls along the way selling water or juice (unless you coordinate your visits with the morning tour groups, which isn't desirable). The best you can hope for is one of the island's sporadic and heavy showers of rain to cool things down.

As you might have guessed, Danielle and I opted for hiring some bikes and cycling across the island. This was not our best decision. We arrived on the island on Sunday, enjoyed a day of leisure on Monday, and then utterly broke ourselves on bicycles on Tuesday. All Wednesday was spent gingerly walking around, lamenting the demise of our rear ends which felt bruised right down to the pelvis. While my bike was alright, Danielle chose an arse-breaker. About midway, her arse fully broken, I took over and broke mine. By the time we arrived back on Tuesday evening, body and spirits broken, exhausted and roasted by the sun, our bikes had turned into torture devices. Neither of us had the strength to cycle even the merest uphill slope; each time we'd dismount, and wearily push the bike up. It wasn't fun.

But was it worth it? Absolutely; definitely: yes. (note: Danielle may not be in full agreement with this view.)

Easter Island, population about 6000, less than half the size of the Isle of Wight, is stuck in the middle of nowhere, a dot in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from anything but seawater and fish. It well earns its local name Te Pito o Te Heua - "the navel of the world". But this tiny, inconceivably remote island is utterly remarkable. There is nowhere else like it. It is unique. On it, famously, are heads: hundreds and hundreds of stone heads and torsos that comprise the moai scattered about the island. Mostly around the coast, they face away from the sea, grimly staring inland. Stylistically near identical, although varying greatly in size, with heavy brows, dark eye sockets, long noses and protruding jaws, they wear on them a brooding and mysterious expression. Inscrutable is the word. They appear to be deep in thought, hiding many secrets. Our day of cycling sought to uncover a few of these.

It was along the south-east coast that we chose for our Tuesday cycle trip. This is a very logical route running from the main town - the only town - Hanga Roa, to the most impressive set of moai, called Ahu Tongariki, on the other end of the island. Most of the tours go along this route. But sitting in a bus, watching the world whizz by, stopping only for a couple of highlights, only gives a very imperfect picture. Cycling, in this sense, offers an advantage, mainly the build up of mystery, and a build up of a story. For the tourist, this is a story inevitably begins in Hanga Roa.

Hanga Roa has a couple of moai, standing proudly by the small harbour. They are, almost certainly, the first statues seen by visitors to the island.

Not far along are some more, at Ahu Tahai. This happened to be the easiest route between the town and the very tranquil cabins we stayed at for our week on the island, so we saw them daily.

But as you'll observe, all these are standing. The one with the "hat" (probably it represents hair) and eyes is obviously restored. The others too are restored, in efforts dating from the 1960s. In fact, every single moai that you find on the island standing is from restorative efforts over the last handful of decades: every single moai was previously toppled. When the Dutch first visited, on Easter Sunday of 1722, the moai were still all upright. When Captain Cook sailed by a little over fifty years later, many were toppled. The last standing moai were recorded in 1838. What happened? War. For a couple of centuries, before first European contact, the religious beliefs of Easter Island had been changing. The last moai had been quarried some time in the 17th Century as the islanders changed from ancestor worship, which the giant statues represented, to a more esoteric form of religion involving their chief god, Make-make and the cult of the birdman, which involved selecting a leader based upon the first person to find the egg of a certain bird (the Sooty Tern) on a tiny rocky island outcrop. Between 1770 and the 1830s, all the moai were pushed down in a tribal war.

This is what we saw as we cycled along the Hanga Roa to Tongariki road: the shattered remains of war, centuries on. In the postcard pictures of Easter Island, inevitably you see rows of standing statues, staring proudly into the distance. In reality, most of the statues are face down in the dirt. Every mile or so we cycled, we'd see another one. Pushing our bike down a dirt track, moai would lie crumbling into the ground. Sometimes they were fenced off, often they were not. Around them, usually, was rubble. Largely, this rubble was the ahu, or the ceremonial platform all completed moai were originally stood upon (all completed moai were placed upon ahu, but there are many ahu without moai). In some cases, the outline of what appeared to be buildings were present. Compared to the upright, if eroded, pillars of ancient civilisation that are the moia of Hanga Roa, these seem like the ruins of a lost world.

I've cycled through the ruins of Angkor and Bagan, and many times visited the remnants of old Scottish castles, and these all convey a sense of loss and lost times. But none are as tragic as the fallen faces of the moai. The giant heads of Easter Island seem far more human than mere building blocks; there is something inherently sad about seeing once-proud faces lying in the ground, as though shot down unceremoniousy by a firing squad. These don't seem like mere block of stone, they seem like people.

And indeed, people they once were, or at least once represented. Figuring out the history of pre-European contact Easter Island is not a straightforward affair. It's a little like piecing together a murder case based upon fragments of incomplete forensic evidence and incoherent witnesses, except in this case it's a mixture of archaeology, historical accounts from European visitors, and oral traditions. All of them are unreliable. Archaeology can only ever be a mixture of facts and evidence linked by guesswork: it never truly answers the "why". Historical accounts are fraught with inaccuracies and bias. And by the time Katherine Routledge, one of the first serious archaeologists to visit the island, in the early 20th Century, asked the native islanders about the moai, she was widely met with surprise. “Have you no moai in England?” one asked, and the statues were generally regarded as simple, everyday stones. Most people had about as much to say of them as a British person of today would have to say about Henry VIII, or Cromwell, or the Battle of Trafalgar.

Put them together though and a more reliable picture emerges, and it is with relative certainty that the statues can be said to represent real people. Each was a tribal chief, either by bloodline or in some cases by a more meritorious rise to power. The island was united by a common ancestral belief system, and divided into numerous villages. The reason that the statues are scattered across the island is because there were many tribes and thus many villages. Each ahu, that is each ceremonial platform, with their one or more moai, faced its village. The people of Easter Island lived in the sometimes literal shadow of their ancestors and the statues that represented them after death. Indeed, within and behind the ahu, human remains, buried and cremated, have been found.

Interesting and mysterious, no doubt, but glorious? A World Wonder? This was the question that I found myself asking after a few hours, cycling in the heat, seeing only destitute moai broken into the ground. Danielle too was asking this question, but let it be said she holds back a little less than me. Sure, we'd seen several standing statues around Hanga Roa, but they were just nibbles of the bigger pie. Easter Island is an ensemble Wonder: it is not a single sight, it is a combination effort, a jigsaw of many pieces to form the picture. And the picture that had been building up was one of destruction and former glory. But then we arrived at Ahu Tongariki.

Make no mistake, Ahu Tongariki is the showpiece of Easter Island. Exhausted, with dented pelvises and perhaps a trace of cynicism drawing in, both myself and Danielle were doubting that it would be worth the effort. As we cycled around a bend and got our first view of the fifteen statues, facing away from the ocean and at that point also from us, a sense of relief washed through me: it was worth it.

In Wonder terms, they are not particularly massive, individually. The smallest moai is 5.7 metres and 16 tons and the largest almost 9 metres and around 90 tons, but these figures don't tell the story. Built over a period of around 250 years, Tongariki is a story of a tribe within a civilisation, and a story mostly lost to time. It is thought they were a tribe of low rank, that is not directly descended from the islands' legendary founders, but nonetheless a tribe of notable power, possibly through their system of meritocracy rather than simply passing down the family line. Building such dominant moai on such a long ahu was their way of subverting the normal order of power from the higher-ranked west coast. This was Easter Island's version of an east-west rivalry. As with all the other moai, Ahu Tongariki was pushed over a couple of centuries ago, and to suffer further ignominy a tsunami in 1960 further scattered the heads and the platform. But after a couple of decades of intentions, between 1992 and 1996 it was finally re-erected. At 220 metres long and with fifteen heads, it is the biggest ahu on Easter Island by some measure and the biggest religious monument in Polynesia. And it is spectacular.

Very close to Tongariki, and a crucial part of the overall picture of Easter Island, is the quarry, carved out of the side of the mountain Ranu Raraku. On our day of cycling, this was a road too far, and after five minutes of uphill struggle we both said "screw it" and went back downhill to begin the long journey home. But on Thursday we did something eminently more wise: we hired a quad bike. Petrol engines beat manpower every time: apart from being tremendous fun, this was much quicker and much less effort than cycling. It did much less lasting damage to our backsides. With no more effort than a slighly tired thumb (pressing the accelerator) we were able to visit the surreal site of Easter Island's volcanic maoi quarry in less than half-an-hour from town.

The master carvers of primetime Easter Island had no such luxury: centuries away from quad bikes, they effectively had to live on site. In truth, we can't be sure exactly how things worked, but it seems that a master carvers and a handful of apprentices only were responsible for the intial crude carving of the statues from the soft volcanic rock. Once extracted, the statues were pushed a short way down the mountain, then stood upright into the ground, whereby a more detailed carving could take place. This whole process could take up to a couple of years for the largest of moai. Then, and only then, were the statues moved to their intended location upon their ahu somewhere on the island.

But visiting the quarry, there is a very visual anomaly: there are loads of them. To put this into numbers, a total of 887 moai are currently known to have existed. Of these, just 288 made it as far as their ahu. Another 92 never made it that far, abandoned en route, likely because they broke during the journey - their sad remains can still be seen across the island, usually lying alone in the dry undergrowth. 110 are classified as miscellaneous, ranging from surviving only in fragments to being in foreign museums. But in the quarry are an incredible 397 statues, not too far off half the number of statues ever built. What on earth can account for this number? Flaws in the rock and human error can account for quite a few, but not all. Our guide on our Friday tour had some interesting ideas. Some may have existed specially for apprentices to practice on, he reckoned. More intriguingly though, buried at the base of a number were human remains, and it is thought that some of them may have been specially built to honour the master carvers, with their bones placed beneath them. They are, in a sense, gravestones.

The quarry is an arresting sight: it reminds me of a monomaniacal sculpture park. In contrast to the rest of the island's moai, all the quarry heads face towards the ocean, or at least away from the mountain. This is due to the way they were still down the mountain, on their backs, but looking at the multitudes of them it seems as though they are fleeing from something, frozen in the moment. Some seems to have fallen and broken in mid-flight.

Rano Raraku isn't just a mountain; it is an extinct volcano. Climb into its rim and the full crater, now filled with water, grass and wild horses can be seen. And, naturally, lots and lots of stone heads.

On our final day, as I mentioned, we took a guided tour of the island's highlights. After having seen them all in the days before, I was wary that this might be a rather extravagant waste of money, seeing the same old stuff as before but from the comfort of a bus filled with Germans. Well, that's how it was, but we got lucky. Our guide, a local called Chris, was exceptional, perhaps the best guide I've ever had, and most of the revealing information above is from him. His great-great-grandfather was a man called Juan Tepano, a mini-legend in modern Easter Island terms as he was the interpreter for Katherine Routledge's visit, in which she interviewed the locals and studied the statues. Chris has continued his ancestor's legacy, and brilliantly exploded many of the myths associated with Easter Island. Significantly, the myth - which I unwittingly propagated to a degree in my preview - of the islanders cutting down all the island's trees to provide rollers for the statues, and thus ending their own civilisation. Although a hilariously, if cruelly, ironic way for a civilisation to end, it is also absolute bollocks.

The truth, as is usually the case, is a little less punchy, and is to do with global weather conditions. In around the 13th to 17th Centuries, there were ideal conditions in the Pacific for navigation, and Easter Island maintained a steady contact with other, albeit very distant, islands. But these conditions changed and the contact ended, isolating it. At the same time, in part due to these conditions and the need to use more trees for material and fuel (but not due to building statues), the tree population was reduced from twenty-three species to just seven, but never wiped out entirely. There was no collapse of society. Religious beliefs changed, slowly but not dramatically, from ancestor worship to the cult of the birdman, and statue production ended as a result. But society continued, with its ups and downs. It's only in the 19th Century that the true collapse of Easter Island happened, after disease and being enslaved by European forces.

No doubt, if you like archaeology and giant stone heads, Easter Island is a fascinating place. But archaeology and interesting histories don't necessarily correlate to being World Wonders: the Nazca Lines and the Terracotta Warriors are examples in case, at least for me. Being a World Wonder is about something bigger, something grander: it is being spectacular to people who have no interest in history or archaeology or even the background story. A World Wonder needs to be a spectacle to the uninterested. Do the moai of Easter Island make the grade? Simply put: yes. Even if you're not particularly impressed by the various standing ones around Hanga Roa or other parts of the island, and don't get excited by the face-down remains, it would take a heart of stone not to feel a thrill at the fifteen stone statues of Ahu Tongariki. The quarry too, very nearby, is an astonishing and surreal sight. If you like, Ahu Tongariki and the quarry are the singing sensations of this Wonder, with all the other statues - hundreds of them in various conditions - being the grand backing choir. The sheer number impresses, but so does the simple unity of style. I find their serious, distant, vaguely ominous stare quite mesmerising. This small island in the middle of nowhere, more-or-less cut off from the world for most of their existence, has created something that is weird, compelling, and very impressive.

Criteria then.

Size: At 10 metres at the very most (one statue still in the quarry would have been 21 metres if ever finished), individually they are not giant. But the moai are about numbers rather than dimensions: lots and lots and lots of them.
Engineering: Considering they were built and moved using virtual stone-age technology, on a small island with limited resources and no metals, it was no mean feat of technical skill. Mind you, they got it wrong a lot, as the ones broken en route to their destination testify, as well as the abandoned efforts in the quarry.
Artistry: Much of the carved details have eroded over time, but I don't think it matters much. The power of the moai is in their simplicity and unique style. To my mind, their deep stare is a lot more mesmerising than an accurately-sculpted Greek statue.
Age/Durability: Up to a thousand years, but more generally around 500 years old. The great worry about the statues is that they're made from soft volcanic rock, and therefore are eroding quickly. Will they be around in another 500 years?
Fame/Iconicity: They are very distinct, and I think most people would recognise the heads even if they couldn't say much about them. Perhaps not in the top tier of the world's icons though.
Context: Just them and an island and thousands of miles of water. Their isolation is part of the appeal.
Back Story: Wrapped up in myths and guesses and the rise and fall of a micro-civilisation, Easter Island is fascinating to read about.
Originality: Totally unique.
Wow Factor: It's right there at Ahu Tongariki. I love a good pie analogy, so the other statues across the island are a case of nibbling away, getting the flavour, but it's when you bite right into Ahu Tongariki that you realise "My, this is a delicious pie."

Easter Island is great. What a relief, as I genuinely worried that I might be let down with this one. Indeed, if I had visited before Ahu Tongariki's restoration in 1996, perhaps I would have been. I found all of the island's moai interesting, but no doubt it is Ahu Tongariki that makes the impression. It captures the very best of the island's moai: the size, the numbers, the unity of style, the intriguing expressions, the sense of mystery. After having seen various other standing statues and lots of broken ones scattered everywhere, it completes the experience in a very satisfying way. There's no doubt that the moai of Easter Island are a Wonder, it's more a case of whether they'll end up in the top Seven. I think it'll be close. They don't threaten the current top three of the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, and Macchu Pichu, but they smack right down on the Eiffel Tower. And to be honest, I can't separate them - the Eiffel Tower and Easter Island are so different, where do I start? So, for the first time, I'm going to call something equal, with perhaps the settling of time and opinion, and a likely revisit to the Eiffel Tower in March helping to sort them out better. But for now, Easter Island is equal 4th on my list.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
=4. The Eiffel Tower
=4. Easter Island
6. The Millau Viaduct
7. Angkor Wat

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris


Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Nazca Lines
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Fascinating.

    There seems a quiet mystery about the moai, and I was guessing early on in your post (and frankly in your preview) that you weren't going to end up rating it all so highly, so I was surprised when your reflections and conclusions led to such a high rating. I guess the sheer scale makes it utterly unique.

    Would be interesting, however, to hear a bit more about the island. In many photos, it looks a little bleak, almost like an island or the west coast mainland of Scotland on a particularly sunny day. Part of the aura of mystery for me, I think, comes from the fact you don't tell us much about the island, its life, culture, people, town etc. Perhaps you will do in a later more general blog post?

    1. Yeah, this entry was just about the actual Wonder, the moai. I'll be writing an entry about my general week on the island when I get the chance, in the next few days I hope. It's a lovely island.

  2. Hey!
    I am pretty new to your site. I actually found it while I was trying to get more information on the 7 World Wonders (which is quite hard to find!). I plan on reading each and every one of your reviews, but while I'm doing that, I'd like to hear your input on places that you thought were great to travel to near where I live. See, I'm in the Army and I'm stationed in Germany. I've been here for about a year and a half and I want to travel more but, I have so many places I want to go I just dont know where to start. So, in your opinion, where did you like traveling to the most in the countries surrounding Germany? Which was your best/most fun/most fulfilling trip overall? Also, I noticed you didn't have any reviews of any place in Germany. Why is that? Sorry, lots of questions... Just curious. :) Thanks!

    1. Hi Alyssa. I've got no reviews of my German Wonders because I haven't yet been there - I'm planning to in late March or April.

      As you say, there's a lot to see in Germany and Europe, and you'll not go wrong visiting any of it. Germany itself is terrific to travel around. I don't know where you're stationed, but I assume you'll have to chance to visit Berlin at some stage. In terms of my Wonders, I've visited Cologne Cathedral twice and it is simply awe-inspiring.

      As you're asking my opinion, I'll give you my own personal choices. Croatia is wonderful - the standard tourist destination is the walled town of Dubrovnik, which is great, but I'd also recommend nearby Spilt, the capital Zagreb, and the town of Pula with a giant Roman amphitheatre.

      Slovenia is also a delight. I'd single out the charming coastal town of Piran and the fairytale Lake Bled, surrounding by mountains, a castle on a rock, and with a church on the island lake.

      My website is mostly about (potential) World Wonders, so you shouldn't go wrong visiting anywhere on my list. But if you're still unsure, just buy a Lonely Planet for Europe, close your eyes and pick a page - it's all good.

    2. Awesome! Thanks, I hadn't thought about just picking somewhere random to go. I think I may do that! I will be in Madrid end of April, but if you are in my area (the Rheinland-Phalz, Kaiserslautern area) in Germany before then, I would love to take you and your wife out to dinner or something and chat!

    3. I'm not going to be in Germany as planned any more, for logistical reasons (I'll visit at a future date) but as it happens I'll be in Madrid on the last two days of April, so if you're there then and around, give me an email (on the right hand bar onscreen). Danielle and I are always keen on any excuse for drinking.


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