Rapa Nui: The Navel of the World
The wind sweeps across a thousand miles of empty ocean and ascends over the island's eastern shore, the ancient statues at Hanga Nui and the slopes of Rano Raraku crater where the statues had been carved. The wind is cold and clean. Kara Kara hawks wheel in the updrafts, their cries like tiny knives drawn across slate. Halfway up the slope of Rano Raraku, I follow archeologist Sergio Rapu along a narrow trail cut into the crater's sloping flanks.
Moai (stone images) on Rapanui. Photo by Sam Low
Sergio and I step carefully around an outcrop of volcanic tuff and pause to examine a half finished statue, one of the stone figures called moai that were first seen by a European, Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter day 1722. Nothing like them has since been discovered in Polynesia.
In memory of Roggeveen's discovery, Europeans call this place Easter Island but many of the natives here, including Sergio, know it as Rapa Nui. It is one of earth's truly remote places, 2000 miles from the coast of Chile and 2400 from Tahiti.
"Coming here to Rano Raraku is like going to Greece and facing the Parthenon," Sergio tells me in an effusive mood, part Chilean, part Polynesian. "In Greece, where you had such a flow of ideas and civilizations,it's not surprising to find a complex civilization and great works of art. But here, in the middle of the Pacific, in such isolation, the achievement isstunning."
Sergio's pride seems justified. He points out house-size cuts in the crater'swall where ancient sculptors quarried stone to fashion the moai, some of themweighing 80 tons. About halfway up slope, we discover a lithic giant emergingfrom a matrix of living stone in an arrested state of birth - as if its creators had suddenly thrown down their tools and walked away. This impression of abrupt abandonment is confirmed as we ascend past dozens more statues in various stages of completion.
"Look at those two moai there," Sergio says, "one of them is completely carved and ready to be taken away, the other is only half finished. In the 16th century, this place was boiling with activity."
In fact, about 700 unfinished moai lie here in the quarry or along ancient roads where they were abandoned in the process of being transported across the island. At least 200 more stand on platforms called ahu.
Our tour presents questions that have sparked the human imagination for two centuries. Who were the ancient sculptors of Rano Raraku? Why did they investso much time and effort to carve their moai? And what caused them to suddenlyabandon their work?
Dark swords, the fronds of coconut palms, stab the sky above the beach at Anakena. The fronds clatter in a soft wind as I move through the grove and out across the sand which rises gently from the sea toward distant hills. Moonlight burnishes the beach and the undulating hills beyond. Approaching the temple of Ahu Nau Nau, five stone moai soar above me, black silhouettes against glowing clouds. I lock my camera to its tripod and begin to take pictures, moving around the ahu to frame the moai against the moon. The blastfrom my flashgun casts flickering shadows. The moai seem to move, breathing with the distant sound of surf.
I do not hear the horseman until he reins in next to me in a spray of sand. For a moment I am struck dumb and immobile. The rider towers over me. His face is dark and Polynesian and sheened silver by the moon.
"I saw firelight on the face of the moai," he says, "so I came to investigate."
It's my fault. I explain that I'm using a flash to take photographs. The horseman asks me why I am taking the pictures. For a moment I'm not sure whatto say. Is he the statues' guardian? Is he angry? "To capture the spirit of this place and take it home as a memory," I tell him. He nods and settles into his saddle. "Do you know the story of this beach" he asks.
No, I do not.
"This where the great king Hotu Matua landed," he explains, speaking slowly in Spanish so I will understand him. "He lived a long time ago in a distant land called Hiva. In a dream he saw a lonely island in an immense sea and he sent out his greatest explorers to find it. When they reported the discovery,Hotu Matua came here and landed at this beach. He was our first king. This isthe most sacred place on our island."
I remembered hearing the story before, from Sergio. Archeologists are uncertain who Hotu Matua may have been and exactly where he sailed from. Perhaps Hiva was in the Marquesas, 1600 miles to the west; perhaps not. What is certain is that the first king and his subjects spoke a Polynesian tongue and were shaped by Polynesian genes. Radio carbon dates point to an arrival sometime around 400 AD. "The real name for the island is Te Pito Te Henua," the horseman went on. "It means 'the navel of the world.' Europeans call it 'Easter Island' and the people who came here later call it 'Rapa Nui,' but Hotu Matua called it 'The Navel of the world'. Come visit me soon," he said, tapping his horse's neck with his reins.
I watched him gallop across the beach and enter the palm grove where he blended with moon shadows. The wind had died and there was no sound except for waves washing the beach. I sat for a time watching the waves leave a rimeof liquid frost in the moist sand.
"The navel of the world" - it seemed an appropriate name for such a place. Perhaps the people of Te Pito Te Henua kept in touch with their Polynesian brethren to the west, but it seems unlikely. Archeological evidence points toisolation. So, over the centuries, the islanders realized they were alone in an immense sea - a world empty of others where they would live or die by their own hands. The navel of the world. And so it was.
On the island's western border, the shoreline creases to produce a bay and two tiny harbors, one for freighters and the other for a small fishing fleet.The fishing boats are skiffs, maybe 20 feet long, with sharply upturned bows to throw off spray and to rise quickly in heavy seas. Even when local wind may be gentle, distant trade winds, sliding across thousands of miles of empty ocean, push steep ocean swells into the harbor. They rise up against jagged talons of lava, trailing silver manes which sheen the still air. Leaving the harbor, fishermen observe the swells carefully, waiting for a moment when they have lost their energy. Then they gun their engines and speed out to sea.
Above the harbor is the main town of Hanga Roa where a dozen or so shops purvey craftswork, clothing, rent-a-cars, horsefeed and hardware. There are two super markets which, to give you a sense of the scale and pace of things,are about the size of a Vermont general store. There is an open-air market where you can buy fresh vegetables and fruits. There is at least one video store. One of the houses along the main street has windows fashioned from glass fishing net floats. They protrude from the walls like green eyeballs.
The people of Hanga Roa have done much to beautify their town. They have planted gardens of poinsettia, dusty miller, daisies, nasturtiums. There are coral trees, star of India, African flame trees, eucalyptus, bamboo. The houses are made of wood, stone or cement block. The roofs are galvanized tin.It's a picturesque town, but it's not quaint.
In the public park across from the school is a memorial to Captain de FragataPolicarpo Toro who annexed Rapa Nui to Chile in 1888. A bronze bust reveals aman, perhaps in his forties, with arched eyebrows under thick wavy hair, a full mustache and European features. Today, young men lounge beneath Policarpo's statue. They are lean and healthy looking. They wear their hair long hair and tied up under bandannas to make a hat. They are dark skinned and their features are Polynesian.
Although the vast majority of the island's residents live in Hanga Roa, it's not by choice. About 90% of Rapa Nui is owned by the Chilean government in the form of the island's National Park and a single large ranch. Native islanders believe these Federal lands belong to them. Up at the Catholic Church a hand-lettered sign says: "Demand the restitution of your lands usurped by the state of Chile." Feelings against Chileans who have settled here can run strong. They are called "pasto" - "weeds" - by those who see them as a threat to the island's native culture. None of this, however, affects tourists. They are a welcome source of both income and entertainment.
Publicists for the island call it an "open-air museum," and so it is. The National Park contains hundreds of archeological sites, most of them unrestored, all of them open to tourists. Exploring them without a guide is one of the island's great pleasures.
On a clear sunny day, I rode a motorcycle over chocolate colored dirt roads that skirted the coast. Lost in a rare sense of isolation, I passed toppled moai blackened by salt spray and eroded by wind. I stopped at an ahu, an ancient temple. There are hundreds of these on Rapa Nui - platforms, some hundreds of feet long and dozens wide and made of fine cut stone, others tinyand crude. Beneath the ahu, the inhabitants of Te Pitu-te henua buried the bones of their ancestors, and on top they erected their moai - megalithic symbols that did not to represent a particular person but rather a line of descent going back hundreds, even thousands of years to the founder of their lineage.
The rough-hewn stone platform of this ahu confronted the sea over a steep cliff. Heeding inner dictates, I knelt and asked permission to enter. A single Kara Kara hawk landed nearby, regarding me with sharp and insolent eyes.
I found two walls stepping down a gentle slope toward the ocean. They were fashioned of smooth finished stones, a course of long slim ones beneath heavyrectangular ones - a delight in variety. In the distance I made out a circle of stones - perhaps a house foundation; then others - perhaps a village. Somearcheologists think ten thousand people once lived in settlements such as this, each surrounding an ancestral temple. But the land is now empty. The wind, flowing up from New Zealand and the South Pole beyond, is cold. The sea shimmered, harsh and corrosive, eating away my sense of time and place and identity.
I rode on across a prairie rising to cinder cones under a thin layer of saucer-shaped cloud. Men on horseback were common. Stonewalls defined pastures. The sun set. Beside the road, under slanting shafts of light, a moai lay face down in molasses grass. His arms were pinched tightly to his side. His belly was round. His empty eye sockets stared into the ground."In Easter Island the past is the present," wrote Katherine Routledge during a prolonged stay in 1914. "It is impossible to escape from it; the inhabitants of today are less real than the men who have gone; the shadows of the departed builders still possess the land. Voluntarily or involuntarily, the sojourner must hold commune with those old workers; for the whole air vibrates with a vast energy and purpose which has been and is no more."
In 1722 when Jacob Roggeveen discovered the island he found a virtual desert of "withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation," a place that conveyed to him an impression of "a singular poverty and barrenness."The tallest tree was ten feet, the largest native animal was an insect and the single domesticated species was the chicken. Yet the presence of the temples and the moai suggested a thriving civilization. How could this barrenplace have supported such an explosion of art and culture?
Excavations in an ancient garbage dump at Anakena, led by archeologist David Steadman of the New York State Museum at Albany, produced the bones of about two dozen species of tropical seabirds, six species of land birds, also porpoise, seals, rats and chickens. Other researchers, examining mud cores taken from lakes in the island's volcanic craters, teased out tiny grains of pollen to reveal a cornucopia of plant life. There was once a native palm tree that grew 80 feet tall and six feet in girth; it would have provided wood for canoes and rollers for moving the giant moai. There was a subtropical forest canopy here with associated bushes and a lower layer of herbs, ferns and shrubs. There were hauhau trees, which would have provided rope. There was the toromiro tree for firewood. When Hotu Matua arrived, he discovered a Polynesian paradise. For more than a millennia the people of Te Pitu-te henua lived in splendid isolation, in harmony with their environment and each other, to create one of the most spectacular civilizations of the Polynesian world.
Three volcanic craters dominate Rapa Nui's landscape - Poike to the east, Rano Aroi in the center, and Rano Kau to the west. Rano Kau is an almost perfect circle - a caldera formed by the most recent eruption. At the crater's lip, basalt cliffs are fractured by rain and wind into large blocks that hang in delicate equilibrium above steep talus slopes. The slopes are a Joseph's coat of subtle colors - muted green tones of grasses and grape vines; light shades of yellowed sedge; and black slashes of volcanic talus. There is the sharp cry of the Kara-Kara and the light chirping of songbirds; the sound of crickets and bees; the aspiration of distant surf. Through a cleft in the southern end of the crater I see the ocean, dark blue, extend tothe vanishing point. At the bottom of Rano Kau, a lake is blanketed by totorareeds though which still waters rise like a dark mirror.
Along the crater's rim, on a narrow basalt ledge overhanging the sea, are theancient houses of Orongo. They are boat-shaped, arranged in twin rows and made of cleverly fitted stone slabs. The entrance to each is tiny, framed by stone uprights and a horizontal lintel. With friends, I squirm through one ofthem into a space shaped like the interior of a loaf of French bread. It's cool and damp and claustrophobic. Inside, we find a face inscribed on the wall, framed by the blade of a ceremonial paddle. In front of the houses are platforms upon which we sit watching surf crash against the stiletto shaped offshore island of Motu Nui.
Orongo is the sacred place of the ancient Birdman festival, held every year to commemorate the island's supreme deity, Make Make, who sent sooty terns tothe small motu offshore during the Southern Hemisphere's spring - August to October.
"The people waited for the arrival of the birds eagerly because it meant food, birds eggs, and plenty of them," Sergio told me.
From excavations, oral traditions and the reports of early European explorers, archeologists like Sergio have pieced together what went on here. With the terns arrival, priests occupied the houses. Sweet potatoes, chickensand other delicacies were cooked in great earth ovens. The people feasted and waited for the terns to lay their eggs. The man who found the first egg on the offshore motu and who successfully swam the shark infested waters back to Oronogo would become the Birdman, graced with special powers. "The men had dancing paddles (rapa) in their hands and they jumped with them," wrote anthropologist Alfred Metraux who visited the island in the 1930s. "They wore on their heads wigs of women's hair, Tapa (bark cloth) headdressesor wreathes of Toro-miro leaves. Tufts of women's hair hung behind. Everybodyelse carried ao (dance paddles) and they shook their bodies." According to some experts, the Birdman may have had the power to choose victims who would be sacrificed to ensure the island's prosperity.
"The winner was given a ceremonial paddle and he became the Birdman," Sergio told me. "His group took over political control of the island. They now had the supreme mana, the power of the god Make Make. So the enemies of the Birdman would go into hiding. They went to caves or special subterranean rooms hidden beneath the houses of their clansmen hoping not to be found."
The cult of the Birdman may have been a human response to an unparalleled disaster that overtook the island about a millennia after it was first settled. Once more, the story is told by clues from the sands of Anakena.
As archeologist David Steadman examined the bones from his excavations he noticed that those of seabirds, offshore fish and porpoise began to disappearover time. Bones of inshore reef fish became more common for a while and thenthey too began to decline. Finally, in the top layers of the ancient garbage heap, he discovered an increase in human remains. The islanders had begun to eat each other.
Pollen from lake cores reveal the motive for this dramatic change in diet. Inthe deepest and earliest cores, scientists found abundant plant remains. Thentree pollen became scarce and disappeared. In the top levels, the pollen was almost entirely of native grasses. Famine stalked the land.
In the archeological museum just outside of Hanga Roa is an exhibit of small wooden sculptures fashioned during this time of decline. They are pathetic representations of bent-over old men, their ribs showing, their private partsshriveled. "They were trying to tell a story of famine and scarcity so they carved a figure with their ribs showing," Sergio told me. "The teeth are bared in pain. Unlike the moai who are looking up in pride, they are bent over with downcast eyes. The artist is telling a sad story of decadence. Oncewe carved proud monumental sculpture in stone, and now in decline we carved pathetic tiny figures in wood. What once were created by the labor of dozens of men and transported by hundreds are now made by a single man."
Scarcity brought famine, famine brought warfare, and warfare brought the riseof the Birdman cult. The island was once ruled by the noble descendants of Hotu Matua - the ariki - but Sergio thinks the Birdman cult, which began sometime in the 15th century, marks a change in political power.
"The ariki still have respect, but now their position is largely ceremonial, they are like the British queen, but the Birdmen gave the orders, like the prime minister."
Not everyone agrees with Sergio, but his theory takes into account what may have been a growing frustration of the common people as population grew and the island's resources were exhausted. It was a time when competition over scarce resources might have led to conflict and warfare.
"I think that what they were trying to do was channel warfare into a less dangerous game, the game of being the first to get the egg," Sergio says. "And this may have led to a new form of society in which the leader is not chosen by his nobility but by his ability - by showing his talents - and thisis accompanied by an increased emphasis on heroes in the oral literature."
During the first week of my stay, southern winds brought clear days. Then thewind veered east in the night, carrying mist and rain. Heavy swells rose up to reveal turquoise bellies that crashed against ebony spikes of lava in cascades of opalescent sea froth. The island hunkered in upon itself, curtailing vistas, seeking solitude. The wind gathered strength and drove rain before it in sheets. I stood before an ahu watching water cascade from the statues' gaunt faces.
What am I to make of these strange staring figures? Anthropologists like Sergio say they are status symbols created by one family to impress others. They are also giant tombstones marking ancestral graves, and the focus of prayers to the ancestors beseeching them to intervene with the gods. But there must have been a deeper and even more personal meaning for the ancient dwellers of Rapa Nui.
What would life have been like in this "navel of the world" where the sea-girt land around me encompassed all I knew? My father would be buried in the ahu. His father also. And his. Through the figures of the rain-drenched moai before me, I could trace my ancestry for a thousand years. I might recall stories that went back even further - to Hotu Matua and the beginning of life on my island. For the briefest moment, I imagined the shimmering moaiwere my founding ancestors. I stood immersed in an infinite dimension of genealogical space-time. The surf breathed.
Sometime, perhaps in the social chaos that ensued as the island's natural resources were depleted, the moai were toppled from their pedestals atop the ahu. No one is certain how this was done, or why, or exactly when. Some say that when a clan was defeated in warfare, the victors pulled down the statuesof their vanquished enemies. But Sergio believes the moai were destroyed by those who built them because they had lost their mana - their spiritual power.
"Our relationship between the living and the dead is reciprocal," he once told me. "If we are good to the gods we expect the gods to be good to us. Butif the gods are not good, we feel it as a rejection so we will punish them. That's why I don't think outsiders toppled the moai. They were toppled by thepeople who carved them when there were times of famine or plague or when a war was lost."
The Moai stared back at me through the sheeting rain, their gaze fixed towardthe distant crater of Rano Raraku. In the subdued light, grass in the plaza displayed hues of ochre and burnt sienna. An islander rode a dark horse across the plaza and disappeared toward town. The surf was a distant heartbeat.
Anyone who spends enough time in this "navel of the world" comes away with ambivalent thoughts. There is the wonder of the moai, carved with stone toolsand passion. There is the isolation of this tiny speck of land that turns thoughts inward. There is the vast sweep of time that shrivels our impression of self-importance. And there is an abiding feeling that what happened here is a warning that we must bring away with us.
"We no longer had wood to build canoes so we were trapped here," Sergio told me just before we left the island. "When we needed to escape from the social pressures it was too late. So we continued to build our moai to impress our neighbors and to keep them from attacking us, and finally, we dropped our tools and went to war. In the end, there was cannibalism."
For a moment, Sergio paused in his discourse, seeming to wait for a thought to take shape. Later, I came to realize that it must be a familiar one and that he was seeking words to express it. It was a thought that had unique power in this place.
"It is a microscopic representation of what can happen to our own planet," hecontinued. "What is happening today is like what happened to us in the past. Our forefathers ate up their soil. They gave their hands and hearts and mindsto the work of their ancestors. It was a work of passion and devotion and a search for status. But they forgot something more vital - they forgot their own survival."