Talking Heads

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Known to us today as Easter Island, Isla Pascua in South America (i.e. Easter Isand in Spanish) due to the date the Dutch explorers found it in early 1700s, its current Polynesian name is Rapa Nui or big Rapa due its similarity with the Polynesian island of Rapa. It was originally called 'Te Pito O Te Henua', or ‘the navel of the world’.  Rapa Nui is on the western corner of the Polynesian triangle with New Zealand and Hawaii making up the other two and is the most remote inhabited island in the world with its closest inhabited neighbour being Pitcairn Island, 2,075 km (1,289 mi) to the west, with fewer than 100 inhabitants.  We were welcomed off the plane in true Polynesian style with a big smile and a flower garland and taken to our awesome hostel Minioha, right on the water’s edge with beautiful sunset views and a front line spot for watching the bluest waves you have ever seen crash onto the black volcanic rock shores. Or you can amble a short walk to watch the uber surfers catching some massive breaks.

For us, it was really nice to unpack our bags and know they didn’t have to be repacked for a week. Being only 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point it really doesn’t take long to visit most of the sites.  We did a day tour to get some background and history and then hired a car for a day to visit the rest of the island.  We also walked around the sites that are easy to access from Hanga Roa, the main town and where almost all Rapa Nui’s and ex-pats alike live.  If money wasn’t an issue we would have done a dive here too as its known to be some of the clearest, bluest water in the world with visibility underwater normally 40 meters.  There is a fake Moai underwater too, used in the making of the 1996 film Rapa Nui and then sunk.

The rest of the time we just ambled around the barren landscape, watched the waves and the sunsets and relaxed.  We cooked very basic food, as everything has to be imported food is expensive.  A Chilean family were staying at the hostel too and the ladies took us under their wing offering us traditional Chilean tea through a metal straw/filter, home made salsa and their left over salad.  They were a hoot and we only wished that our Spanish was a little better so we could converse with them more.

Of course the highlight of Rapa Nui are the giant heads called ‘Moai’.  Along with the other archeological sites Rapa Nui is the largest outdoor museum in the world, and so fascinating to see first hand. The most amazing thing is probably that such an advanced society existed on such a remote island.  In their hayday here lived a culture of people who were advanced enough to carve out stone sculptures weighing up to 86 tones and moving them across the island.  How they did that is still debated although those who listen to the oral history of the island are convinced that they were moved upright in some way.  The Moai’s were mostly carved from the volcanic stone found at Rano Raraku Quarry.  The Moai do actually have torsos despite their fame as ‘heads’. The Red top knots that represent the long red hair of the old tribe folk comes solely from a volcanic cone on the other end of the island, Puna Pau.

The Moai were carved between 1100–1680, the oldest being smaller and wider.  A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections so far, one of which, Hoa Hakanani’a, is in the British Museum in london, taken from one of the houses in Orongo Village as a ‘gift’ to Queen Vicotria.  The name Hoa hakanani'a is from the Rapa Nui language, and has been interpreted as meaning "stolen or hidden friend".  Only a quarter of them actually reached their platforms ‘Ahu’ and the rest remain at the quarry.  The largest ever made was the height of a 5 story building and would have weighed around 200 tones although it was never fully excavated.  The remnants of petroglyphs and the foundations of houses (called boat houses) also remain from this era. The tribal folk of that time ‘the Ancestor Cult’ believed in the maker god Make-Make.  The Moai’s were constructed to remember their ancestors and erected above or next to the tomb of its owner.

Unfortunately the system that existed for inheritance caused the downfall of the society.  The sons would all inherit a piece of tribal land which over time led to smaller pieces of land which in time led to battles over land and eventually tirbal wars became rife.  Unfortunately there is more documented about this phase in history than that of the Moai’s and so the mysteries of the Moai’s may never be resolved. Even more unfortunate is that the tribal wars also meant that the Moai’s were toppled and the landscape raped to such extent that every last tree was burned or chopped down and so several species of flora and forna were lost forever.  The tribal knowledge also degenerated and by the time the Europeans arrived they found only simple tribal societies living hand to mouth having exhausted all the island’s resources.

After the Moai’s came the birdman culture or Tangata manu.  The main spiritual base for this was Orongo village, perched high up on the cliffs next to the crater lake of Rano Kau.  The small round stone houses here were home to the spiritual leaders of each tribe once a year for a period of preparation and training for the annual competition. This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition.  For the competition competitors would collect the first Sooty Tern (manu tara) egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui, swim back to Rapa Nui and climb the sea cliff of Rano Kau back to the village.  The winner or the man he represents would become the next Tangata Manu and would live in solitude in Rano Raraku or Anakena Beach for a year.

Unfortunately for the people there followed a succession of people who exploited the land and the people and caused irreversable damage to many of the archeological sites.  In the 1800s the English exploited the land there trying to promote tourism under the company ‘The Exploitation of Easter Island’ (the name says it all) and confined the people of Rapa Nui to the town of Hanga Roa.  The island was then annexed to Chile.  Until the 1960s the surviving Rapanui continued to be confined to Hanga Roa and the rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm.  Nowadays much of the tribal lands are yet to be returned to the people and there continues to be frustration on that front, but Chile is unlikely to give the Island back.
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