Easter Island

December 31, 2007
by Adam Hofstetter
A tiny, South Pacific island. Giant, mysterious stone statues. Civil war, famine, cannibalism, and cults. The collapse of a civilization. Is it any wonder that Easter Island, named by the first European to set foot on the island on Easter Sunday, 1722, continues to be a center of interest, conjecture, and tourism?

A Head of Its Time

Shaped roughly like a triangle and located between New Zealand, Chile, and Tahiti, Easter Island and its once-plentiful people are both known locally as Rapa Nui. To get to the Chilean-governed island, you’ll have to spend 11 hours or so flying to Santiago, Chile, only to wait around for one of the few five-hour flights that leave Santiago each week. Of course, you can always go the route of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who famously sailed there on a balsa raft from Peru in the mid-20th century.

Online, however, you’ll get there much faster, and the best place to start is Mysterious Places, which tells the island’s fascinating story with accompanying pictures. Part of the story, of course, is how and why those world-famous giant statues were made and transported.

Any discussion of Easter Island must begin with those statues, which are known as moai in the local language and are still shrouded in mystery. The PBS program NOVA tried to unravel some of the island’s mysteries in 1998 by sending a crew of 75 to recreate the transportation and placement of a several-ton moai from the island’s volcanic quarry to a likely coastal resting place. The resulting TV special aired in 2000 and still resides online, complete with a section that allows you to explore the island virtually by clicking on the interactive map for photos, QuickTime video, and 360-degree panaoramic views of the island’s most notable locations.
Now that you know more about the moai’s origins, you’ll want to see some moai up close. Head back to Mysterious Places for pictures of specific areas of the island, and be sure to notice the haunting photo of a full moon rising behind the silhouetted moai.
Next, visit 3D Photo, which has some striking photos of the moai and of other parts of the island. Condé Nast Traveler’s slideshow is short, but includes some excellent views of the moai.
Most of the travelers’ photos of the island that you’ll find at TravelPod focus on the moai, including several striking photos taken at sunset. The lighting is truly what makes every photo of the moai so different from any you’ve seen before. Thanks to the position of the sun, each statue takes on a very different look just a few hours earlier or later. The different angles from which the photos are taken add interest as well, as many of the moai are as intriguing from the side or even from behind as they are, well, head on.
Most of the erect moai were restored to their current positions in the 1960s, having been knocked over during the Rapa Nui’s civil war and by a devastating tidal wave that hit the island in 1960. Playwright Edward Albee discussed some other island facts in an article he wrote for the New York Times Travel section that captures the wonder, beauty, mystery, and sadness of what the island once was, what it is, and what it could have been. Albee describes the island’s only village and wisely suggests saving a visit to the quarry until after you’ve seen some of the moai on their ahu platforms.

Soft Rock

Taking Albee’s advice, now would be a good time to check out Rano Raraku, the crater filled with hardened volcanic ash from which all but a few of the island’s 887 moai were carved. As the NOVA site noted, the islanders carved the moai with stone tools right out of the hillside’s comparatively soft volcanic remnants and then transported them all over the island, abandoning the many that fell along the way. The result is a quarry littered inside and out with hundreds of moai in various stages of completion.
TripAdvisor has a collection of travelers' videos of the Rano Raraku quarry, plus videos of Anakena beach, Rapa Nui dancers performing, stunning rainbows, and, of course, the moai.
You’ve probably noticed by now the many rainbows among the images you’ve seen. Adding to the island’s magical feel, the frequent rainbows are a result of morning showers followed by bright sunshine.

Exploring Further

Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert is the island’s anthropological museum, named for a priest who lived on the island. The museum’s Web site is in Spanish only, but non-Spanish speakers will still appreciate the 360-degree panoramic views of several parts of the island: the partially completed maoi at Ranu Rakaru, the erect moai in places like Ahu Akivi, the views of the island and the ocean from atop Terevaka, the centuries-old maoi staring at the relatively new palm trees in Ahu Nau Nau.
And don’t miss the images of the remains of the oval stone houses in Orongo. Those houses belonged to the Tangata manu, the so-called Birdman cult that celebrated the winner of an annual swim through shark-infested waters to the nearby Motu Nui islet to retrieve the first egg of the season from the sooty tern bird and return, up the 250-meter rocky cliff, to Orongo with the egg intact. As part of Rapa Nui National Park, Orongo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

New Life

The island’s flora and fauna have made a modest comeback since the Rapa Nui’s depeletion of them sent the society into a downward spiral of famine and infighting. Some imported vegetation, notably palm and eucalyptus trees from Australia, have flourished in spots. The nonprofit Easter Island Foundation’s online Vistor’s Guide includes a page with information on and pictures of some of the fish and coral commonly found in the surrounding waters, a kind of virtual snorkeling trip around the island’s exterior.
The annual Tapati festival is Easter Island’s party time, with two weeks of music, dancing, competitions, and other cultural events culminating in the crowning of an honorary queen. The EIF gives some background on the two-week festival; click on the “Tapati Festival Photos” link in the top right corner to see it for yourself.
In the end, the island’s mystery, its beauty, and its draw all come back to the people: those of stone and those of flesh; those who were and those who still are. Photographer Lorenzo Moscia captures the people of Easter Island poetically at his Web site,

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