By Howard A., 25-time traveler & 11-time Vacation Ambassador from Ashland, MA
Where Am I?
I have landed at the most remote airport on earth, on an island inhabited by the most remote civilization on the planet.
This airport has only one inbound and one outbound flight per day using the same plane and opens 30 minutes before and closes 30 minutes after each flight.
Here’s a few more clues:
I am 2,180 miles from the nearest continent.
I am in a place that was barely noticed by the outside world until the late 19th century.
I am on an island of only 116 square miles, with 4,000 inhabitants and an estimated 3,000 wild horses.
This island was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Final clues—these should help a great deal:
Polynesians are believed to be the first inhabitants here, arriving sometime between 300 AD and 400 AD.
South America is the nearest continent.
Last chance—any guesses?
Answer: I am in Rapa Nui, a tiny dot on the globe more often referred to as Easter Island, named by the first recorded European explorer Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday in 1722.
Dreams of this exotic and mysterious land have danced inside my head for decades and now to my amazement I am actually here! I have arrived at Mataveri International Airport after a six-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. This airstrip was originally built by NASA to be used as an emergency abort site for the space shuttle. When no longer needed, it was turned over to the Rapa Nui government for public usage. Prior to this, access to this island was almost impossible, involving a long and arduous sea voyage. Until recent years, visitors here were a rarity.
Rapa Nui is a place of speculation, secrets, intrigue and the unknown. Exploring this land feels like journeying to another planet. Everything here is foreign, mysterious and untamed, with its fragility obvious and omnipresent. All my senses unmistakably indicate that I am a long way from the rest of the world; a stranger in a strange land. Despite exhaustive exploration and research by archeologists, anthropologists and the like, many questions about this island civilization and its religious and spiritual practices remain unanswered. It is one of our planet’s last unsolved mysteries. When I look around I am struck by the fact that every man-made object on this island was brought from the “outside world,” literally thousands of miles away.
I am in a tropical paradise with azure blue lagoons, volcanos, pounding surf, palm trees, beautiful beaches, unique verdant flora and fauna, and breathtaking vistas. This however is not what I have traveled so far to see. I have come to see the iconic Moai: 887 stone carvings that range in size from a few feet in height to the massive 72-foot-tall “El Gigante”, lying unfinished on his back in a quarry at Rano Raraku, and estimated to weigh as much as 250 tons. Did size equate to power? Why is this statue unfinished? Was it simply too large to move? Did ambition overtake practicality? Or did something else happen? The Moai were hand carved from volcanic rock by the Rapa Nui natives using basalt stone tools somewhere between the years AD 1400 and AD 1650. These enigmatic statues stare at me in silence, unable to reveal their secrets. No two statues are alike. Some stand alone or in small groups, while others stand on stone platforms known as Ahus in groups of as many as 15. Some stare out to sea while others gaze inland. Some are at the water’s edge while other are well inside the island’s interior. There seems to be no order other than what appears to be their random placement across the island. Several theories have emerged to provide a logical explanation, but in my opinion all have unresolvable flaws.
Approximately 100 Moai have red stone crowns known as pukau placed on their heads like hats. Others do not. These pukau were carved from red “scoria” stone taken from Puna Pau quarry. The significance of these adornments remains a matter of speculation although It is believed that the pukau designated some form of special standing, as red is considered a sacred color in Polynesia. Some researchers suggest that these “top knots” were added to the statues at a time well after their carving. Some believe that the pukau represent hair, as it was possibly the custom for eminent officials to have long hair tied in a bun. No one can say for certain. It is yet an additional mystery as to how these 10-ton stones were lifted to the top of Moai whose average height was over 30 feet. Researchers have found no evidence of any sort of crane technology existing at this time. The questions about Rapa Nui outnumber the answers.
What is undeniable is that the Rapa Nui natives moved these carvings from their original quarry location to sites as far as six miles away over rugged terrain. How could this possibly have been accomplished without machinery and before the introduction of animal power? The wild horses here were brought by missionaries in 1864, centuries after the construction of the Moai. Scientists suggest theories involving the use of primitive ropes and logs, while the island’s elders believe that the Moai walked on their own using supernatural powers.
Although many Moai stand fully upright, others appear to be just heads. They are however entire bodies with as much as 3/4 of their form resting below the surface, having yielded to nature and the elements over the centuries. There are many lying face down and others broken into pieces, especially near their quarry site along the slopes of the Rano Raraku Volcano, suggesting that transportation was not always a successful undertaking and that once fallen they could not be righted again. Additionally, on this tiny land mass there are cave etchings, more than 300 ceremonial platforms, and thousands of structures related to agriculture, funeral and burial rites, housing, and production. There are primitive roads and even stone ramps, both of which may have been used to transport and lift the Moai into their final positions or to add their top hats. This too is speculation. The more that is known, the less that is known. Very little is universally agreed upon.
Research does indicate that Rapa Nui was once a flourishing and progressive culture that prospered and then collapsed as the result of a perfect storm of Peruvian slave raiders, diseases and rat infestations brought by European explorers, and civil unrest, culminating in over-population and gross mismanagement of natural resources. Some scientists add cannibalism to the mix. Estimates from researchers vary but some set the population at its peak around AD 1600 as high as 15,000, ultimately collapsing to just 111 by 1877. Today’s population stands at 5,800.
Between 1837 and 1864 all the standing Moai were intentionally toppled from their platforms as a result of tribal wars. Moai were believed to represent power and prestige to their carving clan. When resources became limited, war erupted. To topple a Moai was believed to destroy its supernatural power and weaken the tribe that carved it. It is common to find Moai on the ground with their eyes gouged out. The eyes were believed to be the center of the statue’s power and to disfigure them was to extinguish this strength completely. With international assistance the toppled statues have all been returned to their respective Ahus. They are strikingly beautiful in a primitive way, and to view them is a magnificent experience. They exude a sense of immense otherworldly strength and power.
I am not going to attempt to explain any more about the endless mysteries that this island presents. Suffice to say that volumes of research by an international Who’s Who of scientists and researchers can provide a lifetime of reading. There are many theories as to the events that took place here. The one carrying the most controversy and differences of expert opinion revolves around the transporting of these massive statues from their carving quarries to sites over six miles away, over unforgiving terrain. Remember reader—no machinery or animal power. All theories seem logical on paper, but when I envision their actual application, considering the 20-ton average size of the Moai, for me each presents more questions than answers. It remains a stubborn 21st century fact that there is no shortage of theories and possible explanations amongst those professionals who have considered this question.
As I traveled around the island I had the opportunity to interact with scientists, historians, local Rapa Nui natives, teenagers and village elders, each with their own beliefs, theories, and speculation. The Rapa Nui natives had no written language other than a series of primitive cryptic characters. Beyond a small number of stone carved glyphs and a few cave etchings, this civilization left us with very few clues. What is unanimously agreed to, is that despite a century of exhaustive research, nothing is unanimously agreed to!
As one looks at these incredible carvings it seems impossible to imagine what they have witnessed. For the traveler who seeks experiences way beyond the ordinary, this is a bucket list “must-do.” I have traversed six continents of the globe over the past 40 years in search of unique “off the charts” experiences. Rapa Nui—or Easter Island if you prefer—checks all the boxes. In my travels I have seen the unimaginable, the unbelievable, and the indescribable, and now the unexplainable.
Howard Axelrod is an Ashland, MA resident, travel photographer, and writer. He has photographed in 84 countries on six continents, and has traveled to 42 of the U.S. states. He is primarily interested in native and tribal cultures, religion, architecture, and wildlife, which he feels are all disappearing at an alarming rate. His goal is to document through photographs and articles as much of this as possible, while it still exists.
Bear witness to the mysteries of Easter Island during the Santiago & Easter Island, Chile post-trip extension to our Exploring South America: Rio, Buenos Aires, Patagonia & Chilean Fjord Cruise Small Ship Adventure.