Mysteries in Stone

South Pacific: Easter Island is famous for its intriguing statues, but Polynesia's most remote outpost offers other wonders as well.

June 11, 2000|By Fred J. Eckert | Fred J. Eckert,Universal Press Syndicate

It is the land of those mysterious stone giants. That's pretty much all I knew about Easter Island.

That's practically all most of us know about it -- vague impressions that we have formed from the images that we have seen of those strange stone statues known as "moai."

It is a very different place from what I expected.

"That's a pretty scene, isn't it? Those horses out in the field," my guide, Yan Araki, remarked as we headed toward a spot called Ahu Akivi. Yan is a British-educated 28-year-old son of a Chilean doctor father and an Easter Island mother.

We were driving down a narrow road lined with stone walls and looking out at splendid horses grazing on green-yellow fields among rolling hills. Except for the yellow hue, it seemed more like Ireland than a South Pacific island.

I had anticipated a small, remote, not particularly attractive island that happened to have these world-famous, colossal stone statues.

"Well, it is small," Yan said.

Approximately 64 square miles, it is only about 14 miles long and at no point more than seven miles wide.

"And it is remote," he added.

Rapa Nui -- that's what its Polynesian natives call Easter Island -- is, in fact, the most remote inhabited island in the world. It sits in the Pacific 2,300 miles west of Chile, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away -- tiny Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.

Its original Polynesian settlers called this island "Te Pito o Te Henua" -- "the navel [center] of the world." There's a small, round stone monument here that marks what they thought was the center of the world.

Easter Island may be remote, but it's easy to get to. LanChile, the national airline of Chile, flies jets here twice weekly from Santiago, Chile's capital, and twice weekly from Tahiti. The island has been claimed by Chile since 1852.

(The landing strip here is excellent because the U.S. space agency NASA upgraded the existing one to serve as an emergency landing facility for the space shuttle.)

There is no coral reef surrounding the island -- unusual for a South Pacific island -- and there are only two small white-sand beaches. Its coastline is rugged. Here, too, the scenes are more like Ireland than the South Pacific.

But what makes Easter Island so terrific is not just what you see here, but also how you feel here.

Walking slowly along while looking up at the row of seven colossal moai at Ahu Akivi, I had an elusive sense of solemnity and mystery. It still lingers. It's the same sort of feeling one gets while visiting a favorite place of worship or one of the great wonders of the world.

Sacred Spaces

One of the largest "ahu" on the island -- an ahu is the platform on which the moai sit -- Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place. Folklore holds that its seven moai represent seven young explorers that, according to legend, Polynesian King Hotu Matu'a dispatched from across the seas, probably from the Marquesas Islands, to find this new homeland. They are among the few moai that face the sea.

These seven stone giants may well symbolize those seven explorers, but no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows what any of the moai really represent or why only a few of them face the sea.

The generally accepted theory is that these majestic stone statues were built to honor Polynesian gods and deified ancestors such as chiefs and other figures important in the island's history. Most of them are attributed to the 14th and 15th centuries, although some were erected as long ago as the 10th century.

Their function, it is believed, was to look out over a village or gravesite as a protector. They may also have been status symbols for villages or clans.

They're gigantic. The seven at Ahu Akivi each stand about 16 feet high and weigh about 18 tons. The tallest moai on the island exceed 30 feet. Moai in the range of 12 to 20 feet are common. Even the occasional tiny moai that you come across are at least 6 feet high.

The ahu of Easter Island vary in length -- the longest one is 300 feet, while some that hold one moai are only several feet long. Each ahu has a stone masonry base that slopes upward to a high terrace on which the moai rest. Some terraces are as high as 15 feet above ground level. All are fairly wide -- the bases of the moai that stand on them measure as much as 10 feet long by eight or nine feet wide.

Understanding why the inhabitants of this tiny remote island built these mysterious stone statues is one thing; how they built them is quite another.

They had tools, but only primitive ones. The island's volcanic rock from which the statues were carved is softer and lighter than most other rock, but even the smallest moai weighs several tons. Some of the moai have been estimated to weigh as much as 80 to 90 tons.

Heavy lifting

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