A Visit to Easter Island, "Navel of the World," by Ted Cookson

 Return to the list of Ted's travel articles

by Ted Cookson
Published in  March 2004

On 25 January 2003 I sailed from Valparaiso, Chile to Papeete, Tahiti on the 513-passenger German-registered cruise ship MS Deutschland.  During the 16-day cruise the Deutschland called at Chile's Robinson Crusoe Island, Easter Island and Pitcairn Island as well as Fakarava and Moorea in French Polynesia.  On 1 February I toured Easter Island for the third time in 2 1/2 years!  Cruise ships often call at both Pitcairn Island and Easter Island when sailing between Tahiti and South America's west coast ports.  So it was due to my interest in trying to land at Pitcairn Island that I also happen to have visited Easter Island on cruises in both 2000 and 2002.

Easter Island is some 3,600 km west of Chile.  Pitcairn Island, 1,900 km distant, is its nearest inhabited neighbor to the east.  Triangular in shape and hilly, with a maximum altitude of 600 meters, Easter Island is 23 km long, 11 km wide and has an area of 163 square km (63 square miles).  Easter Island, with an extinct volcano at each corner, was formed by a series of separate underwater volcanic eruptions.

Dutch admiral Jakob Roggeveen, who discovered the island on Easter Sunday in 1722 and spent only a single day there, described a population which worshiped huge standing statues with fires while they prostrated themselves to the rising sun.  The island was also visited by an expedition sent by the Spanish viceroy of Peru, which spent four days on the island in 1770.  This expedition reported that the local population of 3,000 had its own form of script.  It appears that a civil war may have taken place prior to the visit of Captain James Cook in 1774.  Cook found only 700 poverty-stricken men and fewer than 30 women on the island.  He wrote that most of the statues had been overturned and were no longer venerated.

In 1864 a French Catholic missionary, the first European to settle on Easter Island, converted the population to Christianity.  Settlers from Tahiti began to raise sheep on the island in 1870.  In 1888 the island was annexed by Chile.  Easter Island was administered by the Chilean navy for 11 years from 1954, but since 1965 Easter Island has had a civilian governor.

The population was decimated to a low of 111 in 1877 by Peruvian slavers, smallpox, tuberculosis and emigration.  Today's population of about 3,000, living in the town of Hanga Roa on the sheltered west coast, has been augmented by emigrants from the Chilean mainland.  Tourism, the mainstay of the modern economy, began with commercial air service in 1967.  Nowadays about half a dozen cruise ships also call at Easter Island annually.  Chile has declared the entire island a historic monument.

Polynesian culture was able to spread across the Pacific within the great triangle formed by New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island due to the fact that Polynesian mariners had devised ways to navigate in small boats between very widely-dispersed islands.  Also known as Rapa Nui, its Polynesian name, Easter Island was probably colonized by mariners from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia in about 400 AD.  The oldest ceremonial altars and statues are similar to those found in the Marquesas.  However, later development of the tall gaunt statues with elongated faces and ears for which Easter Island is famous is unique to Easter Island.    Mysterious "rongorongo" hieroglyphs found on the island have never been deciphered.  Curiously, the first inhabitants called their island "Navel of the World."

It is thought that five clans on Easter Island, each of which had its own lands, attempted to display their strength through the construction of complex monuments of ancestor worship.  Incredibly, over the centuries about 1,200 monolithic stone statues were quarried at Rano Raraku, on the sides of an extinct volcano.  The statues were then transported to their various resting sites on the periphery of the island, perhaps by means of wooden rollers.  (A 1986  experiment showed that it was also possible for 15 men to move a medium-sized statue in an upright position by means of ropes.)  Each statue originally wore a red topknot which was quarried at another location distant from Rano Raraku.  In addition, large round pebbles laid out in long rows in front of the statues were all gathered from one particular beach.  Virtually all of the statues faced inward so as to watch over the clans' ancestral lands.

The remarkable monoliths, carved from tuff, a soft volcanic stone, range in height from 3 to 12 meters.  Some weigh more than 45,500 kg (50 tons).  The largest weighs 74,500 kg (82 tons) and wore a topknot weighing 10,000 kg (11 tons).  It has been theorized that the engineers, quarrymen and sculptors were paid from surplus agricultural production by the families which commissioned the statues.  After about 1400 AD the quarrying slowed and then eventually ceased.  This might have been due to deforestation caused by production of rollers which in turn led to soil infertility.  Heavy cropping may have contributed too.  Today Easter Island is mostly grassland aside from some introduced eucalyptus trees.  It is still possible to see the remains of hillside trails created by sheep which were ranched on the island for a century until the mid-1980's.

Another interesting but later phenomenon is the birdman cult.  In an annual ceremony young men raced down steep volcanic cliffs and swam to three small islets offshore to try to obtain the first egg laid by the sooty tern, a migratory seabird which still nests there.  The chief of the clan of the winner of this race was named Bird Man.  This position apparently allowed that elder to govern Easter Island for the next year.

In addition to the obvious Polynesian cultural borrowings, some strong arguments can also be made for influences from South America to the east.  In particular, the stone work on one of the ceremonial altars and at the ceremonial village of Orongo are similar to masonry in South America.  Also, the early Easter Island statues bear characteristics reminiscent of pre-Inca monuments.

As Easter Island has no cruise ship dock, the Deutschland stayed at anchor; and I rode ashore in the morning on the ship's tender.  Riding horses were available for rent at the small dock.  But to see the most in a short amount of time, a vehicle is best.  My day tour began with a drive up the steep slope of Rano Kau, the largest volcano, to the ceremonial village of Orongo which consists of low stone buildings associated with the Bird Man cult.  Petroglyphs there show a creature which is half man and half bird.  From Orongo I could look out to sea toward the nearby islets where the annual Bird Man competition was held.  From this same vantage point I could also see the fresh water lake in the crater far below which provides sufficient drinking water for the entire island.

I drove back down the slope of Rano Kau and then continued around the airport, the original runway of which was lengthened by NASA for use as an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle.  Beyond the small town of Hanga Roa I reached the ceremonial altar known as Ahu Ko Te Riku.  Not only is the statue here one of the few to again wear its original red topknot, but this is the only statue which currently contains eyes.  It was only in the 1990's when a single eye-shaped coral piece was unearthed that archeologists realized that all of the statues originally had eyes carved from white coral.  The pupils were made of dark stone.

From there I drove to the volcanic crater Rano Raraku where all of the statues were quarried.  Some statues still recline in situ, only partially excavated.  Many others lie abandoned nearby, having broken at the very beginning of their separate journeys to the various clans' lands around the island.

The quarrying at Rano Raraku took place with basalt picks both inside and outside of that lake-filled crater.  Today statues stand buried near the quarry site at random depths and at random angles.  Some statues are buried by silt to their abdomens or waists, some to their necks and still others to their chins.   Nearly all of the statues are cut off at waist level.  On only one of the remaining statues are stubby legs carved on its sides.  Interestingly, one statue has a three-masted sailing ship inscribed on its chest.  This artwork must have been added sometime after the arrival of the first Europeans in the eighteenth century.

My next stop was the largest ceremonial altar, Ahu Tongariki, where 15 statues stand on the same platform facing inward from the sea.  In 1960 a tsunami caused by an earthquake near the coast of Chile swept all 15 statues off their platform, hurling some of these huge stone megaliths hundreds of meters inland.  My guide explained that a Japanese owner of a crane company had donated one of his cranes for use in restoring this altar after returning home from a visit to Easter Island.

The final destination on my tour was Anakena, Easter Island's only true sand beach where the ceremonial altar Ahu Nau Nau contains half a dozen statues, four of which wear red topknots.  A plaque at Anakena records the visit by Thor Heyerdahl to this site in the mid-1950's.  After a picnic lunch I returned to the town of Hanga Roa to try to see the museum.  Unfortunately the museum was closed due to the 10-day-long Semana Rapa Nui, a festival with dancing, singing, tattooing and body-painting plus horse racing and swimming competitions, which was due to commence that evening.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

  Return to the list of Ted's travel articles