Six of the fifteen moai at Ahu Tongariki are stone platforms. Varying greatly in layout, many were reworked during or after the huri mo’ai or statue-toppling era; many became ossuaries; one was dynamited open; and Ahu Tongariki was swept inland by a tsunami. Of the 313 known ahu, 125 carried moai‚ usually just one, probably because of the shortness of the moai period and transportation difficulties. Ahu Tongariki, one kilometer from Rano Raraku, had the most and tallest moai, 15 in total. Other notable ahu with moai are Ahu Akivi, restored in 1960 by William Mulloy, Nau Nau at Anakena and Tahai. Some moai may have been made from wood and were lost.
The classic elements of ahu design are:
– A retaining rear wall several feet high, usually facing the sea
– A front wall made of rectangular basalt slabs called paenga
– A facia made of red scoria that went over the front wall (platforms built after 1300)
– A sloping ramp in the inland part of the platform, extending outward like wings
– A pavement of even-sized, round water-worn stones called poro
– An alignment of stones before the ramp
– A paved plaza before the ahu. This was called marae
– Inside the ahu was a fill of rubble.
On top of many ahu would have been:
– Moai on squareish “pedestals” looking inland, the ramp with the poro before them.
– Pukao or Hau Hiti Rau on the moai heads (platforms built after 1300).
– When a ceremony took place, “eyes” were placed on the Statues. The whites of the eyes were made of coral, the iris was made of obsidian or red scoria.
Ahu evolved from the traditional Polynesian marae. In this context ahu referred to a small structure sometimes covered with a thatched roof where sacred objects, including statues, were stored. The ahu were usually adjacent to the marae or main central court where ceremonies took place, though on Easter Island ahu and moai evolved to much greater size. There the marae is the unpaved plaza before the ahu. The biggest ahu is 220 meters (720ft) and holds 15 statues, some of which are 9 meters (30ft) high. The filling of an ahu was sourced locally (apart from broken, old moai, fragments of which have also been used in the fill). Individual stones are mostly far smaller than the moai, so less work was needed to transport the raw material, but artificially leveling the terrain for the plaza and filling the ahu was laborious.
Ahu are found mostly on the coast, where they are distributed fairly evenly except on the western slopes of Mount Terevaka and the Rano Kau and Poike headlands. These are the three areas with the least low-lying coastal land, and apart from Poike the furthest areas from Rano Raraku. One ahu with several moai was recorded on the cliffs at Rano Kau in the 1880s, but had fallen to the beach before the Routledge expedition.
Stone walls – One of the highest-quality examples of Easter Island stone masonry is the rear wall of the ahu at Vinapu. Made without mortar by shaping hard basalt rocks of up to seven tons to match each other exactly, it has a superficial similarity to some Inca stone walls in South America.
Stone houses – Two types of houses are known from the past: hare paenga, a house with an elliptical foundation, made with basalt slabs and covered with a thatched roof that resembled an overturned boat, and hare oka, a round stone structure. Related stone structures called Tupa look very similar to the hare oka, except that the Tupa were inhabited by astronomer-priests and located near the coast, where the movements of the stars could be easily observed. Settlements also contain hare moa (“chicken house”), oblong stone structures that were used to house chickens. The houses at the ceremonial village of Orongo are unique in that they are shaped like hare paenga but are made entirely of flat basalt slabs found inside Rano Kao crater. The entrances to all the houses are very low, and entry requires crawling.
In early times the people of Rapa Nui reportedly set the dead out to sea in small funerary canoes, as did their Polynesian counterparts in other islands. They later started burying people in secret caves in order to save the bones from desecration by enemies. During the turmoil of the late 18th century, the islanders seem to have started to bury their dead in the space between the belly of a fallen moai and the front wall of the structure. During the time of the epidemics they made mass graves that were semi-pyramidal stone structures.
Petroglyphs are pictures carved into rock, and Easter Island has one of the richest collections in all Polynesia. Around 1,000 sites with more than 4,000 petroglyphs are catalogued. Designs and images were carved out of rock for a variety of reasons: to create totems, to mark territory or to memorialize a person or event. There are distinct variations around the island in terms of the frequency of particular themes among petroglyphs, with a concentration of Birdmen at Orongo. Other subjects include sea turtles, Komari (vulvas) and Makemake, the chief god of the Tangata manu or Birdman cult. Petroglyphs are also common in the Marquesas islands.
Caves – The island and neighboring Motu Nui are riddled with caves, many of which show signs of past human use for planting and as fortifications, including narrowed entrances and crawl spaces with ambush points. Many caves feature in the myths and legends of the Rapa Nui.
Sample of rongorongo
Rongorongo – Easter Island once had an apparent script called rongorongo. Glyphs include pictographic and geometric shapes; the texts were incised in wood in reverse boustrophedon direction. It was first reported by a French missionary, Eugene Eyraud, in 1864. At that time, several islanders said they could understand the writing, but according to tradition, only ruling families and priests were ever literate, and none survived the slave raids and subsequent epidemics. Despite numerous attempts, the surviving texts have not been deciphered, and without decipherment it is not certain that they are actually writing. Part of the problem is the small amount that has survived: only two dozen texts, none of which remain on the island. There are also only a couple similarities with the petroglyphs on the island.
Wood was scarce on Easter Island during the 18th and 19th centuries, but a number of highly detailed and distinctive carvings have found their way to the world’s museums. Particular forms include:
Reimiro, a gorget or breast ornament of crescent shape with a head at one or both tips. The same design appears on the flag of Rapa Nui. Two Rei Miru at the British Museum are inscribed with Rongorongo.
Moai kavakava, grotesque and highly detailed human figures carved from Toromiro pine, representing ancestors. The earlier figures are rare and generally depict a male figure with an emaciated body and a goatee. The figures’ ribs and vertebrae are exposed and many examples show carved glyphs on various parts of the body but more specifically, on the top of the head. The female figures, rarer than the males, depict the body as flat and often with the female’s hand lying across the body. The figures, although some were quite large, were worn as ornamental pieces around a tribesman’s neck. The more figures worn, the more important the man. The figures have a shiny patina developed from constant handling and contact with human skin.
21st-century culture – The Rapanui sponsor an annual festival, the Tapati, held since 1975 around the beginning of February to celebrate Rapanui culture. The islanders also maintain a national football team and three discos in the town of Hanga Roa. Other cultural activities include a musical tradition that combines South American and Polynesian influences and woodcarving.
How to Get There
LAN airlines can take you eastward to Santiago de Chile, Lima, Peru or westward to Tahiti. If you are departing for a foreign country from the airport, there will be a small exit fee, which must be paid in cash.
If you’ve managed to sail to Easter Island on your own, a logical next stop would be the Pitcairn Islands of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame, one of the island’s “nearest” neighbours and a much better contender for “most isolated”, with no air access and no tourism at all.
Due to its extreme geographic isolation, many people assume that only the highly intrepid traveller can get to Easter Island. In fact, the island is accessible by regular commercial air service to Hanga Roa, Chile (IPC), and tourism is the main industry of the island. Still, it is rather “out of the way” for most people, with a minimum of more than 5.5 hours in the air from the nearest continent, and very limited routes to get there. The only regular flights are via LAN Airlines, daily to Santiago de Chile, twice weekly to Lima, and once per week to Tahiti. With no competition for fares on an objectively lengthy and obscure flight, fares range between US$300-US$1200 round trip from Santiago.
About the only scenario in which Easter Island is “conveniently located” is on a round-the-world voyage, in which it provides an interesting stop on the way between Polynesia and South America, and will help bolster others’ perception that you went “everywhere”.
If you want to take the intrepid route, the “tall ship” Soren Larsen sails to Easter Island from New Zealand once a year. The voyage takes 35 days, crossing the point on earth furthest from land.
LAN flights to and from Lima, Peru operate on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Depart Lima 01:20m, Arrive Easter Island 06:55, Sunday/Wednesday
Depart Easter Island 18:20, Arrive Lima 23:10, Sunday/Wednesday
LAN flights to and from Santiago de Chile, Chile operate on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturdays.
Easter Island is extremely small, so it is possible to get around fairly easily. There are rental cars, generally jeeps, available from a few rental agencies in Hanga Roa, as well as a few dirt bikes. With a car, it’s possible to see most of the sights on the island in a few hours. Most hosts will also rent out their jeep to you (at a very competitive rate) if you simply ask. Be aware, you will not get insurance with your car hire. Bicycles can be hired on a daily basis. For those on a tight schedule, a rental car is really quite advantageous, and sometimes not much more expensive than other options and offering more independence for more curious or adventurous visitors than an organized tour. Bicycling may be tried, but note that aside from the main paved roads in Hanga Roa or the single smooth paved road to Anakena, roads to many main sites are of dirt and sometimes quite uneven and potholed, so the benefit of a car cannot be overstated for some parts of the island. Note that for motor scooters and motorbikes, a valid driver’s license specifically for these vehicles is required. Otherwise, driver’s licenses for cars will allow the use of cars or 4×4 quad bikes. Some example prices are as follows (all in CLP).
Bicycle (24 hours): 10000, (8 hrs) 8000
Motor Scooter (8 hrs): 23000
Small Jeep/car (8hrs): 20000
Larger cars (8 hrs): 25000-40000
One reliable, friendly, and relatively cheap rental location is “Paomotors”, found next to Supermarket Eixi. It seems the closer you get to Farmacia Cruz Verde, the higher the prices for various rentals.
Four-wheel drive vehicles are also available for rent. Prices are very reasonable and the place is very clean.
Accomodations – There are a few properties of international standard on the island. Most of the rest of the accommodations on Easter Island are “guest houses”. Representatives of the guest houses will generally come to the airport to greet travellers who may wish to stay with them. Rates are usually quite reasonable. The proprietors of these guest houses will be happy to help you find places to eat, drink, hire cabs, and generally get around.
A number of guest houses describe themselves as hotels, and certainly would pass for them elsewhere in the world as well. These hotels frequently have restaurants offering at least breakfast, and often dinner as well.
Excellent accommodation close to the center of the town, but not on the main street.
Adventure To Easter Island • Locations & Activities