Easter Island, Rapa Nui, Chile

Easter Island moai on Ahu Tongariki at sunrise, Chile

Moai to the max at a typical cloudy Tongariki sunrise on Chile’s Easter Island  in December.
This is the largest shrine on the island and the work of several centuries.

Why travel all that way out to Easter Island?

Not much of an activity centre and a long, expensive trip from the mainland but Chile’s Easter Island (annexed in 1888) is little developed, has a small Polynesian population and displays some of the world’s oddest artefacts in a barren, volcanic landscape along with a bizarre, apparently self-destructive history. This destination is definitely a must-see, if you can afford it.

Easter Island moai rainbow, Rano Raraku, Chile

A view of Rapa Nui’s Rano Raraku quarry on the left where most moai were extracted and carved. On the right is one lone moai a hundred metres from the Tongariki set.

A little Rapa Nui history

Tongariki a little later, with one of many overturned moai.

Pollen samples indicate the existence of forests of trees, including huge palms around 200 AD, and human habitation from somewhere between 300 AD and 800 AD depending on who you listen to. Large fishing canoes, palm shelters, edible nuts and wood fires would have comfortably supplied the people with the necessities of life.

What are Moai?

Easter Island, Anakena beach and moai, Chile

Anakena beach, the best of the two on the island.

More than 200 statues once stood along the island’s coast on ahu (ceremonial platforms), transported up to 10kms (6 miles) from the crater of Rano Raraku – probably by sleds lubricated with sweet potatoes – where they were quarried from volcanic tuff (porous rock). There are about 400 statues still in the quarry, inside and outside the crater.

Moai range in size from barely a metre to up to 11m (33ft) and weighing 82 tonnes, though there is one still in the quarry that is 20m long and would weigh around 250 tons (pictured later).

Moai were constructed from about AD 500, probably as a form of ancestor recognition or worship by five differing clans that shared control of the island; the inland-looking aspect of most of the moai indicates that the clans thought that the moai were watching over and protecting their people.
Peak moai production was in AD 1400 when the island population was as high as 20, 000 and moai size had become highly competitive.

First thoughts the collapse of the Rapa Nui culture

Archeologists found no evidence of natural disaster (volcanic eruption, tidal wave) and thus concluded that Easter Island is a fine example of human habitat self-destruction.
Due to the demands for wood for moai construction and transport in addition to the the increased demands for shelter and boats for the larger population the island became deforested.
Fishing boats became smaller and less efficient, soil eroded and crops became stunted. Result: starvation and inter-clan war, a verdict supported by archeological discoveries of sudden increase in obsidian (a hard stone) weapons in the 17th century, corpses that had been beaten to death and caves used as sanctuaries.

Easter Island genocide

Inside the Rano Raku Volcano, Easter Island, Chile

Inside the Rano Raraku quarry/volcano.

When the Dutch landed in 1772 all moai were standing and Rapa Nui people seemed healthy and – apart from a ‘little misunderstanding’ that led to a bit of shooting – friendly.
Two Spanish ships visited in 1770 and reported all moai standing. BUT, when British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1774 he reported that some moai were lying face down and more importantly native people appeared diseased, destitute and starving.

The thinking now is that, much like the Maya and Aztecs in central America, Europeans inadvertently introduced terrible diseases to natives with zero immunity. Smallpox and Tuberculosis epidemics wiped out hundreds of islanders. But this was just the start. . . .


The next crushing blow to Rapa Nui society was the arrival of slavers over the years 1805 -1860 from North America and Peru who at times abducted up to half of the population of the island , taking the strongest and healthiest they could find including the chief and heir who were among the few who knew how to read and write the the only Polynesian script ever found, rongorongo.

Sheep Farming

By the mid 19th century the native people were few and weak and a Frenchman, Dutrou-Bornier, bought up most of the island with a little money and a lot of force. He imported 70, 000 sheep onto the island that ate anything green and were then exported for mutton. Towards the end of the century there were just over 100 native people still living on Rapa Nui.
Sheep farming continued until 1953, latterly under the aegis of Chile who annexed the island in 1888 after ‘buying’ the sheep ranch that encompassed practically the whole island.

Rano Raraku volcano and moai quarry, Easter Island, Chile

The outside of Rano Raraku quarry, the source of almost all moai. About 400 statues in various stages of development are scattered around the outside and inside of this crater.

When the whiteman’s colossal ship arrived the islanders saw the wealth and sophistication of the ‘aliens’ and were suitably awed (according to Roggeveen’s own reports), realising the poverty of life and style in which they were living. This led to the comprehension that their ancestors were not protecting them, quite the opposite, the moai fixation had ruined the land.
And so clans pulled down other clans’ moai, or possibly even their own, and by the time Captain Cook arrived in 1774, the great statues were mostly face-down in the dirt. . .

. . . until 1955, when the first moai were re-erected by Norwegian adventurer and Kon Tiki builder, Thor Heyerdahl. Now about are 17% upright, though but erosion is taking it’s toll.

The half-man, half-bird petroglyph of Tangata Manu visible on the rock centre left, crouching unpleasantly and peering at the more distant island of Motu Nui.

After Rapa Nui locals lost respect for the moai’s powers of protection, people based in Hanga Roa created a bird-god cult and Orongo was the ceremonial centre dedicated to the god Make-Make. It is a beautifully situated stone village of 54 houses

Rapa Nui best seasons

Climate: subtropical with an annual average temperature of 20C. September to April, the drier months and summertime, is the main tourist season.

Coldest month, August/mid-winter (15C-18C). Hottest month February/summer (24C-27C).
Wettest month, May (16cm of rain). The driest month is September.

Rapa Nui is triangular, 23km long by 11km wide, and was created by the eruption of three volcanoes. The total area of is 171 sq kms. There are two sandy beaches.