Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Meeting the Moai: Dispatch 5 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Dateline: Easter Island

It is awe inspiring to see the moai of Easter Island, even if you have seen them before. Made of tuff—a compounded volcanic ash, these ancestor figures rise generally 15-40 feet high, backs to the ocean, with their somber, elegant gazes looking inland, to the people, society and land whose well-being they once assured through the transfer of their power or mana.

It is also a pleasure to see again world class anthropologists Claudio Cristino, Patricia Vargas and their colleague Edmundo Edwards. This group has been the one responsible for the research valued by other scholars and preservation of what most visitors to the island see. Faculty members at the University of Chile in Santiago, they have worked on the Island for over three decades, inventorying and mapping statues and pre-historical sites; digging for finds and dating ruins; analyzing data, formulating and weighing-in on theories of Rapa Nui’s settlement, cultural ecology and religion; recovering the island’s past; restoring various sites and also revitalizing the living culture. Great work! They presented their major findings at the Smithsonian last year and are working on another book to be simply titled, Easter Island.

Our group visited Anakena, a beach and site of the earliest moai dated by the team to about 900 A.D., and huddled under tents in the rain to enjoy local music and a scrumptious barbecue. We were then off to Ahu Tongariki, an impressive site of moai restored by Patricia and Claudio with Japanese support, and then to the quarry where the hundreds of statues were carved out of the rock of one of the island’s volcanoes.

Our colleagues—who knew and involved Thor Heyerdahl in their scholarly conferences—believe the scientific evidence is overwhelming that it was Polynesians, not ancient South Americans, who came by boat in relatively small numbers, but in successive voyages to settle the island. They ate birds, chickens, and pigs, and had ample fields for horticulture. Divided into tribes ruled by chiefs, each constructed the moai which when activated with coral eyes, represented exemplary ancestors. The population grew to somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000.

Droughts, conflicts between tribes, and the enormous effort involved in building the statues—in labor, the cutting of trees, the construction of roads—took its toll on the island economy. Believing themselves the only and last inhabitants on earth, they fought.

As resources shrunk, the gods got bigger, as chiefs and priests urged their people to carve larger statues in order to receive more of their power or mana. Finally the people lost faith and toppled the statues; the economic system was in disarray and the society fell into ruin—all before the arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century.

This served as fodder for Jared Diamond’s view of the island’s ecological collapse. And while Diamond used their research, Patricia tells a different story, one much more optimistic. She notes that the society began to reconstitute itself in terms not of the old statue building tribes, but as a cult of the birdman—evidenced in the caves and petroglyphs at Orongo. This new religion and reform movement reinvigorated the society at least somewhat, and existed into historical times. That movement was cut short by colonialism, the spread of disease, and the selling of large numbers of islanders into slavery. The island, now part of Chile, draws large numbers of tourists in essentially a cultural economy, and is experiencing a renewed interest in and revival of heritage among its 5,000 inhabitants. Quite a history!

Our day was topped off by a Polynesian dance performance of island youth—with our travelers joining in out of real appreciation for the amazing work done by this team of archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to understanding and representing Easter Island’s extraordinary culture.

Ciick here to see where Richard is on his journey.

This post is fifth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.