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Land of Giants

Source: Miami Herald, by Fred J Eckert

25th June 2000

Chile's tiny Easter Island remains remote and mysterious... and surprisingly beautiful

It is the land of those mysterious stone giants. That's pretty much all I knew about Easter Island.

That's practically all most of us know about it -- vague impressions that we have formed from the images that we have seen of those strange stone statues known as "moai.''

It is a very different place from what I expected.

"That's a pretty scene, isn't it? Those horses out in the field,'' my guide, Yan Araki, remarked as we headed toward a spot called Ahu Akivi. Yan is a British-educated 28-year-old son of a Chilean doctor father and Easter Island mother

We were driving down a narrow road lined with stone walls and looking out at some splendid horses grazing on green-yellow fields among rolling hills. Except for the yellow hue, it seemed more like Ireland than a South Pacific island.

I had anticipated a small, remote, not particularly attractive island that happened to have these world-famous, colossal stone statues.

"Well, it is small,'' Yan said.

Approximately 64 square miles, it is only about 14 miles long and at no point more than seven miles wide.

"And it is remote,'' he added.

Rapa Nui -- that's what its Polynesian natives call Easter Island -- is, in fact, the most remote inhabited island in the world. It sits in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away -- tiny Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.

Its original Polynesian settlers called this island Te Pito o Te Henua -- "the navel [center] of the world.'' There's a small round stone monument here that marks what they thought was the center of the world.

Easter Island may be remote, but it's very easy to get to. LanChile, the national airline of Chile, flies jet airplanes here twice weekly from Santiago, Chile's capital, and twice weekly from Tahiti. The island has been a part of Chile since 1852.

The landing strip here is first rate because the U.S. space agency NASA upgraded the existing one to serve as an emergency landing facility for the space shuttle.

There is no coral reef surrounding the island -- unusual for a South Pacific island -- and there are only two small white sand beaches. Its coastline is rugged. Here, too, the scenes are more like Ireland than the South Pacific. But what makes Easter Island so special is not just what you see here, it's also how you feel here.

Hotels host shows on local culture

SOLEMNITY

Walking slowly along while looking up at the row of seven colossal moai at Ahu Akivi, I had an elusive sense of solemnity and mystery. It still lingers. It's the same sort of feeling one gets while visiting a special place of worship or one of the great wonders of the world.

One of the largest "ahu'' on the island -- an ahu is the platform on which the moai sit -- Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place, his favorite, Yan Araki told me. Folklore holds that its seven moai represent the seven young explorers that legend says the Polynesian King Hotu Matu'a dispatched from across the seas, probably from the Marquesas Islands, to find this new homeland for him and his people. They are among the few moai that face the sea.

These seven stone giants may well symbolize those seven explorers, but no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows what any of the moai really represent or why only a few of them face the sea.

The generally accepted theory is that these majestic stone statues were built to honor Polynesian gods and deified ancestors such as chiefs and other figures important in the island's history. Most of them are attributed to the 14th and 15th centuries, although some were erected as long ago as the 10th Century.

Their function, it is believed, was to look out over a village or gravesite as a protector. They may also have been status symbols for villages or clans.

They're gigantic. The seven at Ahu Akivi each stand about 16 feet high and weigh about 18 tons. The tallest moai on the island exceed 30 feet. Moai in the range of 12 to 20 feet are common. Even the occasional tiny moai that you come across are at least 6 feet high.

The ahu of Easter Island vary in length -- the longest one is 300 feet, while some that hold one moai are only several feet long. Each ahu has a stone masonry base that slopes upward to a high terrace upon which the moai rest. Some terraces are as high as 15 feet above ground level. All are fairly wide -- the bases of the moai that stand upon them measure as much as 10 feet long by 8 or 9 feet wide.

Understanding why the inhabitants of this tiny remote island built these mysterious stone statues is one thing, how is quite another.

PRIMITIVE TOOLS

They had tools, but only primitive ones. The island's volcanic rock from which they were carved is softer and lighter than most other rock, but even the smallest moai weighs several tons. Some of the moai have been estimated to weigh as much as 80 to 90 tons.

Many of the moai -- there are hundreds of them -- are erected at sites miles from the quarry at which they were carved. How could so few people move them even a couple of feet, let alone several miles, and without breaking them? And once they did move them, how did they erect them? Even today, using powerful cranes, it would be no simple task.

"How do you think your ancestors moved the moai?'' I asked Yan. Yan said that even today many Rapa Nui people believe that the statues were moved and erected by "mana,'' a magical force. Great kings of a long-gone era simply used their mana to command the moai to move to the distant sites and stand there.

LORE OF MANA

Mana is a word and concept you hear frequently in South Seas lore. The people of Rapa Nui believed that the moai also possessed mana, which was instilled at the time their white coral eyes were put in place, and that the moai used their mana to protect the people of the island. Today none of the moai have genuine coral eyes -- and thus the mana is no more. Other theories, Yan explained, include the intervention of extraterrestrials, sliding the moai along on layers of yams and sweet potatoes, and the now generally accepted belief that they were transported on sledges or log rollers and then levered erect using piles of stones and long logs.

Thor Heyerdahl, whose books Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku stirred great interest in Easter Island, conducted an experiment showing that an upright stone statue could be moved using ropes, tilting and swiveling it along. But the experiment was conducted on a flat surface for only a short distance, and this theory, like Heyerdahl's theory that the islands of the South Pacific were settled from east to west from South America rather than from west to east from Southeast Asia, is not considered plausible.

All but a few of the moai of Easter Island were carved at Rano Raraku, a volcanic cone that contains a crater lake. It is an eerie spot. Scattered all around Rano Raraku are 394 moai in every stage of evolution. Some are fallen -- a common sight around the island -- and some appear to have only heads, although they are really full figures that have been nearly buried by soil over the centuries. For reasons that remain a mystery, it appears that the workers at Rano Raraku set down their tools in the middle of a multitude of projects -- and the moai-building abruptly ceased.

But people will never cease to be mystified and enchanted by Easter Island. Its multitude of moai, while far and away the main reason to visit are not its only appeal.

PAINTED CAVES

We visited interesting caves decorated with old paintings, stopped by a pineapple farm for a fresh fruit treat and watched locals fish from cliffs. In Hanga Roa -- a sprawling and pleasant community where the island's 2,775 residents live because it's the only area on the island with electricity and running water -- we shopped for souvenirs. The most interesting souvenirs are miniature wood and stone carvings of moais, though some stone samples up to 6 feet tall are available. And we visited the beach and saw a lot more moai. A few of those other moai were adorned with a pukao, a red scoria cylinder atop the head that looks like a hat, but which, Yan explained, is believed to represent a long-ago native hairstyle.

At Orongo, we visited a restored ceremonial village on the rim of a crater affording a fantastic coastal view. Orongo is famous for its 1,785 petroglyphs on the rocks. Island hotels regularly put on cultural shows that feature native dancers.

While traveling from sight to sight, Yan entertained and informed me with tales about the island's history. He told about the mid-19th-century Peruvian slave trade raids that nearly stripped the island of its population. And about the wars that once raged on the island between the long-ears (the ruling noble clans who had their ear lobes elongated) and the short-ears. That resulted in the triumph of the short ears and the destruction and neglect of many of the moai.

"You have probably seen many places that are a lot more interesting than this,'' Yan remarked. "Do you like Rapa Nui? Is it what you expected?''

I do like it -- it greatly exceeded my expectations. I had not imagined that it would be such an engagingly pleasant place.

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