Glutton Onboard: Getting sticky on Easter Island

There are two theories on why civilization on Easter Island nearly disappeared, all those years ago. One is that the first Polynesian inhabitants — descendants of the original explorers who had found their way to Tahiti — were used to inhabiting islands, making use of all of the island’s resources until they were cashed, and then moving on to the next one in the chain. The problem for them was that, well, Easter Island was the last of that chain, 2290 miles from the nearest land.

The second is that the original Rapa Nui’ans — inhabitants of Rapa Nui, since nobody “in the know” really calls it Easter Island — had devoted so many of their resources to making statues of their ancestors that they had neglected to spend any time doing anything else (like farming), under the mistaken belief that their ancestors would take care of everything else. What one only needed to do, they thought, was to have faith.

Of course, both theories could be simultaneously correct. There are maybe lessons to be learned in both of them. But what is very much not questioned is that when the Dutch “discovered” Rapa Nui hundreds of years after its civilization died out in 1650, they saw with their own eyes the concrete aftermath of that civilization’s beliefs, scattered throughout the island. What I’m referring to, of course, are Easter Island’s 600 stone statues.

It took a long time to figure out, but scholars eventually deduced that the statues were moai: recreations of major ancestors, writ large (indeed, no two are supposed to look alike). They had been transported to various places on the island deemed auspicious for their families by people who read the stars. However, transporting them was no easy task; these statues ranged from a couple of meters tall to 10 meters, weighing more than 80 tons. Even today, tour guides disagree on how these statues were moved, but all agree that they were transported via some combination of ropes, logs, and a whole lot of teamwork. Once they were raised to standing (some theorize by placing a stone under the statue’s forehead, bit by bit, until it could be hauled upright), the final touches were added: the red “topknot” representing the ancestor’s hair, dyed red by the local soil, and most importantly, the white coral “eyes” through which the ancestor’s power could be transported. So strong was their faith in the power of these eyes that, when surrendering to a rival family, they would topple their ancestor statues face-first into the ground so that the eyes would in effect be “deactivated”.

The original Rapa Nui’ans believed that the more ancestors erected on their behalf, the more blessings would come to their families. This belief was so strong that, by all accounts, even when the trees began to disappear and then the food, the statues were still being carved and hauled to wherever they could be manage to be taken. Even now, at the main quarry of Rano Raraku, there are statues on their backs, awaiting transport that never came, and figures carved into the mountain, waiting for the final cuts that would lift them from the surrounding stone.

I had no intention of finding something to eat on this island; I imagined a land of desolation, abandoned statues scattered throughout a barren landscape. The truth is that the land is fiercely protected by the people of Chile, of which Rapa Nui is a part; no fruit or vegetables are allowed on the island, and littering and touching the statues is strictly forbidden. People who violate these rules can be fined US$70,000. So my dreams of hugging a statue and getting transported back in time were totally dashed.

On the plus side, Rapa Nui today is a charming island, strangely full of life on an island famous for being the site of a society’s death. Small, charming houses abound in the main town of Hanga Roa, as do wild horses originally brought from Chile for work and set free by their owners. And yes, there is food everywhere: a mix of Chilean (empanadas) with Polynesian, like pil-pil.

I was not going to risk grabbing a hot snack, since our time at each site was strictly curtailed and our guide was eager to move us along. Instead, I came upon a fruit vendor (watermelons and pineapple are everywhere) who also sold “cubito helado”, which turned out to be shaved ice flavored with various syrups like pineapple, shoved into a plastic tube. The tidy and smart could simply open the top and slurp at their own leisure, but I am messy and dumb, and my attempts to eat this shaved ice ended up with me getting syrup all over my hands, shirt and face. I gave up at the middle and threw it away, but if I had had more faith, who knows what would have happened? That is the point of true faith, after all. 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “Glutton Onboard: Getting sticky on Easter Island

  1. The tube idea for shave ice seems sensible. Enjoying reading your updates. Hope you are having fun along the way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s