Recently, I had the pleasure to cross another travel destination off my bucket list. There was an off-season sale on flight and hotel packages from Santiago to Easter Island, so we pounced and made the trip. It’s been on the list for me, for quite some time. As a kid, I remember watching In Search Of (narrated by Leonard Nimoy) and being fascinated by the episode on Easter Island. Likewise, the (somewhat controversial) chapter on Easter Island in Jared Diamond‘s book Collapse is poignant and mystifying. Thor Heyerdahl‘s Kon Tiki expedition, with its genuine discoveries and myriad strange ideas,was another motivator. So, with this limited background, and five short days, I set off to see for myself what mysteries this strange little island holds, and see if I couldn’t figure this all out.
First, the logistics. To get to Easter Island, you take a five-hour flight from Santiago, or a seven-hour flight from Tahiti, whichever is the least out of your way. Indeed, I was tempted to book a flight to Tahiti and just layover in Easter Island, but that ticket wasn’t on sale. Needless to say, these are not cheap flights for most North Americans / Europeans. Even so, Easter Island still manages some 50,000 visitors a year. Accommodations are very expensive on the island, and of sketchy quality. We upgraded to a cabana, for about $160 a night, as the room included in our package was like a monastic cell. It was a step above camping, and very much “fend for yourself” (including “fix your own toilet”) but certainly one of the worst $160 a night rooms I’ve ever rented. Dining on the island is a bit odd.
There are a mix of restaurants, charging moderate to high prices for meals that generally were adequate. Expect to pay $20 a meal for your main, $10 each if you want a starter or a dessert. Beer is $3 – $4 a can, wines and spirits quickly break the bank. Those prices are about double, indeed triple, what you’d pay in Chile (and the quality is better there as well) so it’s a bit of a shock for a Chilean resident, but not bad if you’re used to city prices. You do need to rent a car when on the island, and for $50 a day, we had a little Jeep sort of vehicle,that was perfectly adequate. The currency is the Chilean peso, but USD and Euros are welcomed at most places. One restaurant does have a surprisingly fine range of high-end Bordeaux wines, at reasonable prices (’97 Lafite-Rothschild for $700) which is completely bizarre to see this on offer in such a podunk little place.
Now that you know the realities of the logistics and budget, why on earth do people come to Easter Island? Well, it is all about the Moai, of course! Reasons you’ll be told by guides, books, and museums both on and off the island range from cultural (demonstrations between rival societies on the island of wealth/power), religions (a form of ancestor worship / burial site protection), to the supernatural (aliens!) Moai were placed on Ahu, which are large stone platforms. Many of these platforms house human remains (in at least one site, visible human remains). The Ahu themselves are almost as impressive as the massive Moai – hundreds of tons of rocks, shaped, and carefully erected, a tremendous undertaking of labour.
At many of the Moai/Ahu sites, you can see evidence of human settlements in the form of ‘chieftain’ houses with stone foundations shaped roughly like the hull of a boat, or ‘peasant’ houses, which are obviously stone foundations, but of less distinct structure. At many sites, there are petroglyphs, and at a couple of sites there are also remains of painted frescoes. Many of these, you are told, were carted off in the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of the most noticeable things about Easter Island is that it is incredibly inhospitable. The landscape is not particularly fertile , caused largely by erosion that followed from deforestation. Indeed, modern attempts to grow papayas, bananas and the like largely fail. It appears that the islanders over-fished and ate most of the easily accessible shellfish, as middens show fewer and fewer bones from large fish and smaller and smaller shellfish, as the years went on. Even today, what little produce is grown on Easter Island is rather dismal. Apparently, the main protein source for the Easter Islanders, was the rat, of which we did see a few.
The mysteries that intrigued me the most, were the following:
-Why build Moai/Ahu when life was so exceedingly difficult and harsh?
-Why were all the Moais toppled over?
-Why did the society fail or wipe itself out to essentiall, extinction?
Why all the building?
My takeaway, after five days of stomping around, is a combination of cultural and religious practices seems to be the most plausible answer. The explanation given by one of our guides, that the Ahu served a practical purpose in burial rites, combined with the human remains at some of the Ahu seems the most reasonable. The Moai appear, to me, to be a form of ancestor worship. There are distinctive styles to some of them that indicates they could be representative of individuals. It would seem plausible to me that the message could be “be an important person, you’ll get buried in the Ahu, and the Moai will guard over you.” The fact that the Moai were built larger and more dramatic later in the culture does speak to some obvious one-up-manship going on. By the end, the Moai were incredibly massive, multiple times larger than the oldest Moai found on the island. This speaks to me of competitiveness / demonstrating power, although it could also be desperation in trying to appease a higher power while society is crumbling and collapsing. Please note: this is conjecture on my part. These are simply my hypotheses at this stage, based on my limited reading, and even more limited observation.
PART II – tomorrow!
- Easter Island (digitalliteracy6.wordpress.com)
- Easter Island, the remotest place on earth (circleme.com)
- LIving in Papua New Guinea (twodifferentgirls.com)