For many years I’ve been utterly fascinated by Rapa Nui (or Easter Island as renamed by Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722). Rapa Nui is a far, remote, and very mysterious island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The famous writer Jared Diamond proposed the following questions about the inhabitants:
“What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”
This February 2019, I spent five days on Easter Island exploring and thinking of the impact humans have on their environment. Although this blog post is a bit unusual for someone who primarily writes about Teslas, I have never shied away from purely environmental subjects. I also found in my previous research limited and outdated practical travel information about visiting Rapa Nui.
I’ll divide the post into two sections. The first section discusses the mysteries around the statues, and potential lessons for our planet. The second section concerns simply practical concerns for travelers in 2019 that differs from other info that I found on the web. I do not claim to be an expert on either subject, and I hope my information and personal theories have some accuracy, are somewhat useful, or at least inspires thought.
Easter Island Mysteries
- Why did the local population carve the Moai (pronounced mow-eye)?
- How did they move the statues from the quarry to the numerous locations throughout the island?
- Did the local population have any trade or contact with other people prior to the arrival of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722?
- Why was the population reduced from an estimate of 3,000 to 30,000 people to only 111?
- Why are there so few trees on the island and how has that impacted the inhabitants?
- What lessons can we learn from Easter Island in the era of climate change?
Motivation for Carving the Statues
Mana is a Polynesian concept of the spiritual power that each person has along with animals and inanimate objects – including the bones of a deceased person. People are historically cremated or buried near their home not in public cemeteries. Clan chiefs on Rapanui had large public squares and were buried under platforms called ahus along one side of the square facing inland. The moai were placed on top of the ahu, looking at the clan, protecting the clan, and facing away from the ocean.
The moai are quite large and up to 40 feet tall in height and 75 tons in weight. Some statues also had a pukao or top knot. The top knots were made of a different volcanic material.
The statues were all carved in one quarry located in the western side of the island, the pukao we carved from a separate quarry on the eastern side of the island about 6 miles away as the crow flies. The island has 64 square miles and 3 dominate volcanic mountains. Unlike many of the smaller islands in the South Pacific, Rapanui has a considerable amount undulating land and some flat areas.
On the map below, the large black spots represent the locations of the ahu and moai, which are located primarily on the coast.
Around 1,000 statues exist on the island, 400 are still in the quarry itself. The earliest statues were a manageable size. As time went on, the statues got bigger. Important clan chiefs ordered the statues before they died, and they were all carved from the same quarry that was controlled by one of the 10 major clans.
The original intention was to honor the important people on the island, but there also appears to be a second motivation of status and competition. The statues got much larger over time. So this part of the motivation could a combination of friendly competition or simply a way to impress others.
When Roggeveen visited the island, the moai that they saw were apparently all standing, while Cook arrived fifty two years later and noted that some, but not all, had been toppled. 1838 was the final year in which any outside visitor recorded seeing an upright moai.
The oral traditions of the locals recount a period of warfare that included sheltering in caves and cannibalism, which was another way to capture manna. The moai were toppled by competing clans, and not by any natural disasters. The moai that you can see upright today were all raised back onto their platforms since 1955.
Moving the Statues
Various people have had different theories for how the statues were moved across the island. They weigh up to 150,000 pounds, and traveled across the island up and down slopes. The Rapanui people said that the statues walked. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo ran an experiment to show how the statues could be walked quite easily. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpNuh-J5IgE
The statues were also shaped in a variety of ways that enabled walking.
- The statues were shaped with a center of gravity slightly forward.
- The bottom of the statues were not flat, but cut on an angle.
- The statues in the quarry had wider bases than those on the ahus.
- The eyes were not finished until they were at their final location, so ropes could be tied to the top of the statue.
Rapanui is a very isolated island. It takes five hours by plane from Santiago, Cuba. By boat it is another 1,250 miles to the west to to Pitcairn Island, another remote island in the South Pacific. Pitcairn also had a native population but they either also died out or moved away before the Bounty arrived. The mutineers of the Bounty settled in Pitcairn and burned their boat. Unfortunately this “paradise” has no airstrip and recently has had a problem with child molestation.
The original settlers came further away than Pitcairn, most likely from Mangareva or the Marquesas islands, which are 2,000 miles away.
Due to its very remote isolation, no regular trade occurred with other populations. Heyerdhal proposed that there was contact with South America because the one of the stone walls resembled the walls the Inca built. But this these walls only have similarities on the surface. The Inca walls are very large, and the stones are deep. The walls on the island are simply veneers and not very elaborate.
Trees, rats, boat building and food sources
One of the mysteries is what happened to the trees. The island originally had a forested cover of endemic palms and a few other trees. This palm was extremely slow growing, and its fruit was likely not edible. Also palm trees are not good for building boats.
Jared Diamond’s theory that they used up all the trees to transport the statues is not very viable since walking the statues has an oral legacy and can be demonstrated.
Klein emphasizes that the original settlers brought rats with them to the island. The rats could have been a food source or possibly a stowaway on the original boats. His theory is that the rats ate through all the palm seeds. The problem with the rat theory is that there are hundreds of other, Polynesian islands with both rats and palm trees.
Archeologists also found evidence of farming in clever ways. They used rocks for some fertilization and some rock walls for wind breaks to save on water. The soil on Rapa Nui is volcanic in origin, but locals farm there today successfully without importing fertilizer.
In 1722, the Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen estimated that 3,000 people lived on Rapanui. Roggeveen said the people had plenty of food and shared it with his crew. Clan warfare started after the arrival of white men, and lives were lost.
But the biggest impact of the population decline was the introduction of smallpox and plague that the locals had no defense against.
In 1862, Peru came to Easter Island and took 1,500 people as slaves with only a few eventually to return. In 1876, a Frenchman Jean Baptise Dutrou-Bornier turned the island into a sheep colony and moved 275 of the remaining islanders to Tahiti. By 1883, only 111 people were living on Rapanui. The locals were confined to the living only in Hanga Roa till the 1960s.
A Story of Environmental Collapse?
Is Easter Island a story of environmental collapse popularized by Jared Diamond?
For me, the answer is probably somewhat true. Serious deforestation occurred on Easter Island, and also on Pitcairn and Mangareva. These very small islands are self sustaining for a period of time, but if the population grows too much, the resources can be used up after several generations.
The environmental decline was both the destruction of the forest but also five endemic land birds. The societal collapse and population reduction to only 111 had other contributing factors including civil wars, cannibalism, and slavery.
Like the Rapa Nui, people today often still focus on status symbols such as big fancy cars, houses, jewelry and clothing. In some cases, this consumption uses up a lot of resources, which are limited on our planet. But a secondary concern is that while people can be so focused on out doing each other, we can forget that our resources are limited.
Renewables on Easter Island
I did see a couple of solar installations and a solar company, but the island primarily runs on diesel. Electric cars if they were very rugged 4WD vehicles would work fine due to the small area. The local population is not wealthy, and putting money into renewables like solar is not a high priority. These kind of communities will need to most likely generate renewable energy through government not individual efforts.
I think Eco tourism is an oxymoron. Travel uses up a significant amount of resources. But travel to some extent is also important for humans to understand other cultures in order to have a deeper understanding of the world.
I reconcile my travel by limiting my travel to one long trip annually and buying carbon offsets for the trip from Native Energy, which is recommended by the Sierra Club.
The vast majority of travelers fly in from Santiago, Chile. At the date of this post, a once a week flight is available also from Tahiti. You can sail yourself to Easter Island, but only 15 different ships with paid passengers arrive per year.
Before I went, I read that the island has limited cell service. So I opted not to get a Chilean SIM card or an international data plan. Much to my chagrin, the cell service on the island was quite good, in several remote locations I heard cell phones ring. I even found some Chileans who used it to find a remote cave. Wi-fi is rarely available primarily only in lobby areas of hotels, so I really wish I had bought a SIM card.
Easter Island has a couple of high end lodges that run about $1,000 a night all inclusive. The locals continue to protest against one of the two lodges because of a long standing issue with the Chilean government. The island also has a few mid range lodging options, but when I booked over six months in advance, none of them had any availability. The majority of lodging is very simple. The place I stayed if in the US would probably be a one or no star hotel. The rooms in my facility had no internet, TV, or air conditioning.
National Park Pass
To visit most of the archeological sites, you will need to buy a National Park Pass that costs $80 and lasts for 10 days. You can buy one at the airport before picking up your luggage with a credit card.
Many reports on the internet state that cash is the preferred method of paying for services. But in 2019, I found that almost everyone accepted credit cards: lodging, rental cars, restaurants, and most merchants. Having a small amount of Chilean pesos, US dollars, or Euros in small denominations is useful to have in your pocket.
Transportation on the Island
To see the island you have really three main options. Join a group tour, hire a private guide and driver, or see the sights on your own by driving around. An effective group tour should limit the number of clients to around 10 people, or it will be difficult to hear the guide’s explanations. Having different guides on different days is a great idea as you will get different answers (theories) to your questions.
A private tour is going to be more expensive but you will have the ability to spend your time as you please. Driving a car on your own is very feasible. All cars on the road are 4WD stick shift vehicles. The roads are a mix of paved and dirt roads, but are very uneven. I ended up spending two days with group tours, and I drove around the island for 2 full days.
Scooters and motorcycles are also available to rent, but require a motorcycle license. A very limited number of ATVs are available also. The vehicles are not in pristine shape, and you will have to pay for any additional damage out of your pocket as you cannot get insurance.
The speed limit on the island varies quite a bit. In town where the vast majority of people live, the speed limit is 30kmH, but outside of town there are speed limit signs up to 60kmH.
Bicycles are available to rent. The roads are reasonable for biking but have a fair amount of traffic. The distances are relatively long between sites, so bike touring is not particularly feasible unless you have several days.
The restaurants had good food, mostly fish, and the flavors were not particularly interesting or spicy. They would include a 10% tip, and when paying with a credit card asked if you were okay with that amount.
Throughout Hanga Roa and other locations you will be able to purchase small souvenirs such as statues and t-shirts. The island also has three art galleries. Mana Gallery focuses on local artists, and nearby is a local artist who sells his detailed wood carvings. Amaya Gallery is a local painter who works in her own gallery. The artisan market right near the church has a good selection and range of souvenirs.
I have no conclusion, only questions.
- What really happened on Rapa Nui?
- Have we and are we taking care of our planet?
- Are we living in a sustainable fashion for our current population?
- What constitutes paradise?
I wish the Moai could tell us.
I only recommend Easter Island as a destination if you find the mysteries truly fascinating and are willing to put up with some discomfort. In that case you will definitely want to read up before your trip.
Exploring the Mysteries of the Island
Jared Diamond, Collapse
The Statues that Walked, Terry Hunt
A Companion Guide to Easter Island, James Grant-Peterkin
Island Overview (young adult style book)
– you will find these and others in a public library for good overview of the island
The Lost World of Easter Island, Ronald A Reis
Easter Island, Michael Capek
Easter Island, Jennifer Vanderbees
Do I understand that the enabler of tourism today is the Shuttle Emergency Landing Strip on the island that makes commercial flights possible?
Exactly, the airstrip was lengthened by NASA for the shuttle “just in case”. On my flight with LAN Chile, we had a really big plane. I was quite surprised how many people are going to the island these days.