Pondering the mysteries of Easter Island

Associated Press Published: October 9, 2012
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Most of the moai are buried up to the neck, giving the impression that they are nothing more than heads. One, lying on its back, measures 70 feet (about 21 meters) in length. Another has a petroglyph of a European sailing ship scratched onto its belly. One depicts the moai kneeling, the only one known to have legs. Sadly, this unique sculpture is being worn away by the elements, something people here seem resigned to accept.

On subsequent days, we toured by ourselves, in a rental car or on four wheel ATVs. As we wandered around getting lost on the bumpy roads, we learned that the island is much more than moai.

We visited the site of the ancient birdman competitions, where men would scramble down a 1,000-foot-high (about 305 meters) cliff, then swim a mile (1.6 kilometers) through crashing waves to a rookery where they would camp, waiting to claim a tern egg for their chief.

We saw volcanic craters, explored a 4-mile-long (6.4-kilometer-long) lava tube, and swam off a sandy beach in the shadow of more moai. The beach was one of the few places with trees, and these palms were imported from Tahiti.

Just who is responsible for the deforestation of this once tropical island is another matter of debate. Some believe the first settlers cleared too much for farming and firewood, and inadvertently brought about the end of their civilization. Others blame the moai, believing the trees were cut to make sleds to move them. Still others think that Polynesian rats brought in the settlers' canoes ate the palm nuts and prevented propagation.

Yet another small wonder can be found at the island's tiny, and somewhat disorganized, museum. Here, one can examine copies of the wooden Rongo Rongo tablets, which are covered in an unknown script. Only 26 of these remain in existence, all overseas, and all undeciphered.

My trip was almost over and still I had found no answers. So I returned to the Rano Raraku quarry just before the park closed for one last look. There, virtually alone among the moai, I said goodbye to a fascinating place and its lost culture. I'd come to accept that the stone lips would never to give up their secrets.

___

If You Go...

EASTER ISLAND: http://www.easterislandspirit.com and http://www.easterislandtourism.com. A Rapa Nui National Park pass is $50 at the airport for non-Chileans, $60 elsewhere.

GETTING THERE: Direct flights on LAN Airlines from Santiago, Chile; Lima, Peru and Tahiti.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?: The original name of the island is lost. It is called Easter Island because the first Dutch explorer spotted it on Easter in 1721. The locals, however, call the island and their language Rapa Nui and refer to themselves as Rapanui. This name likely originated in the 19th century, and literally translates to 'Big Rapa,' which may refer to the island of Rapa in French Polynesia.


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