The Mystery of Easter Island

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Easter Island or Rapa Nui in Polynesian, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is one of the most isolated places in the world, with its closest landmass about 4000 kilometers away. The island’s topography is characterized by windswept rolling hills, punctured by the occasional volcanic crater that abruptly ends at the coast with massive white cliffs, some 300 meters in height, with the great ocean pounding tirelessly at their feet. In recent years, Easter Island has drawn more than 100,000 annual visitors, most of whom are lured by its ancient monolithic statues, called moai. Around 1000 moai can be found on the island’s landscape. The stone blocks carved into head-and-torso figures, average 13 feet (4 meters) tall and 14 tons. They were typically mounted on platforms called ahu.

The historical sites are scattered throughout the island in the Rapa Nui National Park (there is an $80 entry fee – which helps to pay for restoration and maintenance work – and the park is managed primarily by Rapa Nui residents). One of these sites is Ahu Akivi which consists of a large ahu and seven large moai, all of them facing the sea – this is a unique feature as all other moai on the island face inland. The highlight is Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano, and the site of the quarry and factory where the moai were created. The astounding sight of dozens of maoi heads sticking out from the grassy hillside can be seen. A walk around the quarry provides visitors with a good impression of the various stages of production of the moai. Another spectacular site to see on Easter Island is Ahu Tongariki. This is by far the largest ahu (fifteen moai in a row) with the ocean and cliffs forming a dazzling backdrop.

The island boasts a beautiful sandy beach, Anakena beach that is lined by more moai (Ahu Nau Nau). Anakena’s sheltered cove makes it an ideal spot for a swim. The road that leads to the beach passes an ancient ceremonial site that is worth a stop. The site features a globe-like magnetic stone which locals called the ‘Navel of the Earth.’ Orongo, another ancient ceremonial site on the edges of a volcano, is another highlight. A visit to this site involves a hike to the top of the volcano where visitors are treated to a magnificent view of the large crater. The path continues along with a series of primitive dwellings where the priests used to live, and several large boulders full of rock carvings (petroglyphs). The views of the crater on one side and the deep blue ocean on the other side are simply breathtaking.

Much of the history of the island — including that of its sculptures and the Polynesians who discovered it 1,000 years ago — is shrouded in mystery. Many of the descendants of the Polynesian settlers have fallen prey to tribal fighting, European diseases, and the Peruvian slave trade. Scholars have puzzled over the moai on Easter Island for decades, pondering their cultural significance, as well as how a Stone Age culture managed to carve and transport statues weighing as much as 92 tons. There have been multiple scientific investigations into whether they might have been moved on a system of wooden sleds and rollers, or piles of rocks, or whether they were walked into place using ropes.

For many people, the answer all lies in mana, which is a concept shared among several Pacific cultures (for example, Polynesian, Melanesian, and Maori). In Easter Island, mana has been described as meaning any of the following: knowledge, wisdom, or a source of energy that engenders strength. And while it is said to have been directly inherited by the descendants of a few, deified ancestors, importantly, it can also be acquired. Early explorers are said to have been motivated by mana and carving the moai in reverence to the ancestors was another way to create mana. By doing so, people were also able to create a link between ancestors and current-day descendants. Continuing to honor the moai assures distribution of mana to the people. Mana has long been a motivation for many of the things that the Rapa Nui do. It is said to have secured their prosperity and survival. It is what makes the crops grow, and it makes fish jump into nets and boats. In a subsistence economy, before commerce and tourism came to Rapa Nui, these were of prime importance, and they continue to be important to this day, with parents continuing to teach their children about mana, together with teaching them where to fish or how to ensure a healthy harvest.

However, a new study published by Jo Anne Van Tilburg of the Easter Island Statue Project claims to have deciphered the meaning behind the moai. In a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers have claimed the moai served a critical role for the Easter Island people. According to the study, the moai were carved and placed all over the island between the 14th and 19th century to boost the fertility of the land. Dr. Van Tilburg and her team examined a particular pair of stone heads in the Rano Raraku quarry on the east side of the island. The two stone heads were most likely raised between the years 1510 and 1645. About 95 percent of all the moai on Rapa Nui can trace their origin back to the Rano Raraku quarry. Dr. Van Tilburg analyzed soil samples from around the quarry to find evidence of foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and a tropical plant known as taro. The abundance of foods in the soil around the Rano Raraku quarry suggests the land was an agricultural hotspot for the Rapa Nui.

Her most recent discovery was aided by soil specialist Sarah Sherwood and UCLA archaeologist Tom Wake. Dr. Sherwood said: “When we got the chemistry results back, I did a double-take. There were high levels of things that I never would have thought would be there, such as calcium and phosphorous. The soil chemistry showed high levels of elements that are key to plant growth and essential for high yields. Everywhere else on the island the soil was being quickly worn out, eroding, being leeched of elements that feed plants, but in the quarry, with its constant new influx of small fragments of the bedrock generated by the quarrying process, there is a perfect feedback system of water, natural fertilizer, and nutrients.” The expert believes the discovery points to an agriculturally minded civilization that knew how to plant different crops in the same spot repeatedly. Dr. Van Tilburg added: “This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry. That is, these and probably other upright Moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapanui belief, their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”

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