Towering above the crashing turquoise waves stands the moai, Rapa Nui’s mysterious megalithic statues. Although they provide little insight as to the prehistoric community that lived on this Chilean island, which is otherwise known as Easter Island, these figures are shrouded by theories as to how the once-thriving Polynesian settlement began to dwindle and are some of the most interesting historical artefacts that people can visit in the world.
“I would definitely recommend people to visit Easter Island”, shares Keith from the luxury travel blog, Velvet Escape. “It's one of the most isolated places in the world and has an extraordinary history made famous by the Easter Island statues. Its isolation, the mysterious history of the moai, and the stark volcanic landscapes mixed with green, rolling hills make Easter Island a fascinating destination that should be on anyone's bucket list and, if you visit, make sure to drop in at the tourist office in Hanga Roa with your passport to get a special Easter Island stamp. It's the coolest souvenir and perhaps most unique stamp you'll ever get in your passport.”
Marcus Edensky, who owns Easter Island Travel, a local agency that provides regular tours across the island agrees that its mystical charm makes it a worthwhile visit. “Easter Island is so small, less than 15 miles at its widest point, but still, so many incredible events have happened here. The stories sound like fairy tales, but they are actually true, evidenced by all of the archaeological remains left by the ancient civilizations throughout the different time periods.”
Rapa Nui is largely considered to be one of the most isolated places on earth, with the closest neighbouring island 1,289 miles away. Taking up just 163.6 square kilometres, the small island became a part of Chilean territory, despite its distance of 2,200 miles from the mainland, in 1888. Today, the intrigue surrounding the moai statues, as well as how its inhabitants once lived, piques the interest of many world travellers, who visit the capital city of Hanga Roa whilst on an exciting world cruise or holiday.
The origins of Rapa Nui
"You simply have to see a Rapi Nui cultural show. The show takes you on a journey through the history and culture of this magical island", shares Lisa from Girl About the Globe. There is little dated historical evidence as to when people first began to settle on Easter Island. However, it is believed that the island was formed as a result of three volcanoes merging together, although these are now extinct. Soon after, Polynesians from nearby islands to the west boarded canoes and made the journey across to Rapa Nui, enjoying the luscious landscapes and abundance of trees. After the settlers arrived, the population of the island began to flourish, and a community developed. Evidence of this community is still prominent on the island as a result of the 1,300 moai statues located across the island.
What are Moai?
“One of the most intriguing facts about Easter Island is it’s shrouded in so much mystery! Especially concerning the moai statues and their true meaning, the scale of the production and their incomprehensible mobility!” shares Sarah and Kris from Jet Setting Fools. The moai statues are one of the most important pieces of evidence surrounding the culture of Rapa Nui. It is widely believed that they were created in order to pay homage to their relatives, with each of the tribes that lived on the island paying their respects to different people. In building these statues, it was said that the deceased chiefs could look over their tribe in protection, whilst also offering good luck to future leaders.
Otherwise known as Easter Island heads, those who once lived at Rapa Nui carved the moai out of solidified volcanic ash. The monolithic figures averaged an extremely high weight, often exceeding 20 tons, and were moved about the island by the settlers. Once transported, they were placed upon platforms across the island, which are said to represent the tombs of those who have died, with bodies often buried beneath.
Although the purpose of the moai is unknown, there are many theories that surround them and their prominence in Rapa Nui’s culture. After the inhabitants of Easter Island began to create moai statues, historians have suggested that animosity between tribes was distinguished, with each group trying to out-build one another. As a result of this, the Easter Island statues became bigger and more prominent, with the addition of hats to important figures in the subsequent years. As each tribe participated in one-upmanship, supplies on the island started to run low, causing more issues between the groups.
Through the years, those living on Easter Island became segregated into two groups: The Short Ears and the Long Ears. The Long Ears saw themselves as superior, which eventually resulted in a civil war and, shortly after, the toppling of many moai. One of Rapa Nui’s mysteries stems from this, as it is believed that the Long Ears began to plot the Short Ears demise. In their plans, they dug deep trenches which were then filled with flammable materials such as straw and grass and planned for their rival tribe to fall into these ditches after being coaxed in, for them to then be set alight. However, the Short Ears heard about this, and when the battle commenced it was the Long Ears who died as a result of being burnt alive. After the death of the Long Ears, the moai were symbolically tipped over, many of which can be found in this position today.
The Tangata Manu Birdman contest
Following the demise of the Long Ears and Short Ears, a new religion emerged on the island of Rapa Nui. The Birdman religion was based on mythology and is one of the biggest mysteries surrounding Easter Island. Make-Make, the God of Creation, was said to have formed a fatherly relationship with a seabird which settled on his shoulder one day when he was feeling particularly lonely. As a result of this, residents of Rapa Nui believed that birds have a connection with a higher power, subsequently leading to the birth of this religion.
Although it is not known how the competitive aspect of the religion came to be, one theory is that “perhaps the cult of the Birdman was brought in as a peaceful way to decide who would have control of the valuable Sooty tern eggs”, as Under the Influence shares. Otherwise known as Tangata Manu, the Birdman competition saw Easter Island inhabitants compete to collect the first egg from a sooty tern bird, which would be situated on an inlet in the ocean. The competition was particularly gruelling as the participants would have to wait for an egg to be laid before swimming back across the ocean and climbing up the side of the cliff-face.