The Mystery of Easter Island

The Mystery of Easter Island

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | March 1, 2013 3:40 PM ET

Easter Island may be the most mysterious place on Earth.

Lying 2,300 miles away from Chile, the country that governs the island, it's the most remote populated island on Earth.

Some 5,800 hardy souls live here now, descendants of the original Polynesian peoples (Rapa Nui) who first settled here.

Before their numbers declined, though, partially from disease and tribal warfare, the Rapa Nui left a legacy of some 638 Moais, stone statues as high as 29 feet, generally of human forms. Most were carved at the quarries of the Ranu Raraku Volcano, filled with relatively-soft rock. It's hard to believe that this silent place of awesome vistas and tradewinds - now a National Park - was actually called "The Center of the World" by the people who built these statues. And its slopes are filled with over 300 Moai statues...some never completed.

The statues were carved into the quarry wall and then transported - somehow! - to different Ahus (ceremonial centers). Work ceased after the tribal wars, and the remaining Moai were left there. Eventually, the elements took their toll, and some of them are partially buried today.

Every tribe had its own Ahu, with statues on stone platforms facing the villages, their backs to the sea. These figures represented ancestors who would watch over the tribes. The only Moai statues facing the sea are on the eastern part of the island. According to legend, these seven statues represent the navigators that King Hotu Matu'a sent to follow the rising sun in search of lands for his people, after a clairvoyant priest dreamed the land would be destroyed.

Interpretations of the statues vary widely. For example, at Ranu Raraku there's a Moai that appears to be kneeling. Some say it represents a priest, while others think it's an ancestor guarding the quarry. This spot is home to the biggest Moai on the island. Measuring an astounding 65 feet and lying on its back, this half-carved statue is still attached to the quarry rock.

The island got its name on Easter Sunday, 1722, when a Dutch captain sailed his ship into the harbor and described the Rapa Nui as "a subtle culture of beautiful women and kind men."

Most of the hotels, restaurants, and nightspots are in the town of Hanga Roa. At the Hanga Roa Crafts Market, you can find something unique to bring home. And the Padre Sebastián Englert Anthropological Museum offers some clues to the past.

Following the tribal wars, the Rapa Nui people reorganized their society through the cult of the Birdman. Family chiefs would compete in the quest for the egg of the manutara, a migratory bird that nested near the village of Orongo. Competitors had to swim (sometimes among sharks) to an islet, find the bird's first egg, and bring it back intact. The winner would be named Tangata Manu (Birdman).
Today, Orongo has 53 stone houses, and petroglyphs symbolizing fertility, the Birdman, and the Make Make, the great divinity in Rapa Nui culture.
Easter Island was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions that created some 800 caverns. And researchers have found 7,000 meters of caverns, apparently used to hide from enemy tribes. Today, however, these caverns are easily accessible.

One of them, Ana Te Pahu, actually has a natural garden, nourished by rays of sunlight coming through a hole. And in the Ana Kai Tangata cavern, overlooking the Pacific, there are prehistoric paintings depicting The Birdman.

Easter Island, like its statues, petroglyphs, and caverns, is eternal. And so are the mysteries that continue to swirl around it. 

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