Around the World: Wonderful Easter Island
It’s unlikely that you’ll get there in time for Easter or even later this year, but the tiny rocky dot of land known as Easter Island is a great destination to add to your bucket list for some time in the future.
Like the holiday for which it was named, Easter Island does give rise to a sense of wonder. It’s in the middle of the vast ocean, miles from any other land mass, and yet it has sustained life and its human own civilization for centuries.
Imagine the astonishment felt by the Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggenveen when, after months at sea, he spotted the remote island back in the year 1722. It was on April 5 -- Easter Sunday -- to be exact. Hence the island’s name – at least the one assigned to it by Europeans. Admiral Roggenveen and his crew must have been delighted to be able to set foot on land for the holy day.
And, by all accounts, they were consumed by curiosity about the people they found inhabiting the island and fascinated by their unique culture that was so different from any they’d ever encountered in Europe or anywhere else.
The native islanders were Polynesian in origin, descendants of settlers who’d arrived on the island sometime in antiquity, around the year 300. They were most likely from Mangareva, an island in the Gambier chain, some 1,600 miles away, or from the Marquesas Islands, some 2,000 miles away. They navigated across all of that distance in their hand-carved open sea in canoes.
The islanders’ awesome navigational skills confounded the eighteenth century Dutch explorers who were trying to map the globe. Even today, tourists who find their way to Easter Island are in awe of the ancient navigators’ accomplishments.
Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. Currently, the nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island (which is 1,289 miles away and has 50 residents, most of whom are descendants of Fletcher Christian and the crew of the infamous Bounty). The nearest continental point is 2,182 miles away, in central Chile.
Easter Island – or Rapa Nui as the natives call it -- was when Roggenveen arrived and is today a place of mystery and legend. It is a tiny island with a huge and fascinating history.
Even back in 1722, when Admiral Roggenveen introduced awareness of Easter Island and its culture to Western Europeans, nobody could accurately account for the origin of the island’s most fascinating artifacts -- hundreds of colossal stone statues clustered at several locations around the island. These statues are called Moai.
Standing upright, the Moai are shaped like huge heads that are characterized by long sloping noses, strong brows, deeply inset eyes, and prominent chins. Some of the statues are adorned with cylinders that are made of red stone. The cylinders sit on top of the heads like hats.
The amazing Moai have an average height of 13 feet, but they actually vary in height from about eight feet to one that measures over 70 feet. The carvings commonly weigh between 10 and 12 metric tons.
Most were carved from soft volcanic tuff, the source of which is an extinct volcanic crater called Rano Raraku. It was apparently the primary stone quarry when the statues were carved centuries ago.
From the time of Roggenveen’s arrival until today, the islanders have had many legends about their ancestors. But actual historic details about how they sailed to the island, and about the creation of the statues, the meaning of the statues’ meaning, the way the stone was carved and how the weighty statues were actually moved to their sites were never documented, and they were no longer in the islanders’ realm of knowledge.
Through the centuries since Admiral Roggenveen’s arrival, Western historians and archeologists have been studying the statues, applying the latest technologies for dating and other research methods to figure out as much as possible about the Moai and the people who made them.
The theory is that the statues are images of ancestral chiefs, thought to be direct descendants of the gods, whose supernatural powers protected the community. Depending on whose theory you’re following, the Moai were carved between 1100 and 1600 AD. There are 900 of them, most are still in situ, erected on template platforms along the coast, most of them facing inland. As if to protect the community.
Historians and archeologists have staged recreations of how the statues might have been moved from the place where they were carved to the site where they were erected, using a wooden sled or rollers, with a crew of about 40 people to move the statue, and some 300 to 400 people supporting the effort by providing rope and sustenance. The job was huge.
By the time Roggenveen and subsequent European explorers visited the island, the Polynesian population had declined significantly. Moai were no longer being carved.
By the mid-ninteenth century, most of the statues had fallen over due to neglect, or been knocked over during periods of war. More recently, most of the statues have been restored by archeologists dedicated to preserving them, and learning more about their meaning.
It is the fascinating Moai that make Easter Island a place of wonder and curiosity. The statues are the most important tourist attractions on Easter Island – or Rapa Nui – and seeing them makes the long trip to the remote island – either by ship or plane – absolutely worthwhile.
Plane is the faster choice to get there, of course. But even by jet, the trip takes 20 hours from NY’s JFK Airport and requires two stops. Easter Island is that remote.
Various airlines offer regularly scheduled flights to Easter Island from around the world, or fly to Santiango, Chile and take a package tour from there. Most package tours are designed to last for four days, which is a reasonable amount of time to spend exploring the island. Package tours include the services of expert guides, and local transportation to see the Moai and the island’s other wonders, such as the volcanic crater Rano Raraku and caves with exquisite petroglyphs. Guided and self-guided treks are also popular with tourists.
Easter Island is also a port of call for cruise ships, including those operated by Silversea and Seabourn Lines. But the port call for most ships is usually just one day. Local tour operators are standing by to make every minute of that day count by offering guide services for ship passengers to see the Moai, but a day isn’t really enough time to absorb all the island has to offer. It certainly doesn’t let you experience the extraordinary friendliness of the Easter Islanders whose charm and warmth are as memorable as the somber Moai statues. But the long voyage by ship does allow you to really experience and understand the remoteness of Easter Island and the wonder of the rich culture that has been a product of the island’s relative isolation.
For more information about getting there, accommodations and asttractions, browse the Easter Island Tourism Website at http://www.easterislandtourism.com.