Land of the Fallen Moais

Foreign Service LifeSouth AmericaTravel
August 6, 2012

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Saturday was our last full day on the Island and Paul of Tekarera Tours had a real treat in store for us.  He took us to Rano Raraku, which is the name of the volcanic mountain that the rock was quarried from to make the statues.

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The crater was this incredible mix of sacred and disturbing.  First off, there was no denying the holiness of this mountain.  You could feel it everywhere.  As for the disturbing, the picture above shows how the carving was simply halted in time (it is thought that an earthquake toppled all the standing statues, so progress on the unfinished ones was halted) and the statues were buried over time in varies states of completion.  It reminded me a lot of Pompeii, like someone simply froze time and turned everything to stone.

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As you’ve seen from my other pictures, the statues were quite tall.  In the quarry, most were buried up to their necks.  You might wonder why they would get buried in an upright position.  A little explanation of the process may help.  Here’s how it went:

When two first-borns married and had a child, the child was believed to have a greater-than-normal amount of mana (spirit power).  These special mana-rich people were commemorated in stone by a moai (yes, the statues were carved in their likeness and reportedly painted and tattooed accordingly).  The idea was that after you died, this statue would forever hold your mana.

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Each family had to orchestrate the carving and hauling of their statues to their designated family spot.  All of the statues from the same lineage were grouped together on different places on the island (For example, Ahu Tongariki shown in the photo above held 15 family members from a 300 year period).  Archeologists estimate that it took 20,000 man hours to carve one statue, so with 20 men working 10 hour days it would take a little over 3 months to carve completely.

The statues were carved vertically into the rock.  The carvers left a little ridge all the way down the back that they chipped away once they had the neck secured with a rope.  At that point, they dragged it over to a hill and literally slid it down the hill.  They dug a deep hole at the bottom that the statue would fall into and presto, the statue was upright!  They then dug away the front half of the hole (remember it’s been dug into an angled hill), polished it and added tattoos and then prepared it for ‘walking’.

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At this point there would be a sacred ceremony in which the mana or life force was put into the statue.  According to legend, the statue could then ‘walk’ on its own.  Most likely the statue was held by ropes by the neck and rolled from side to side on its belly to angle forward.  Here’s a picture of what it would have looked like, except Paul thinks the rope was around the neck, not on the head where it could have slipped off (photo courtesy of National Geographic):

What was most amazing was that these statue were ‘walked’ miles and miles from their origin and of the nearly 1000 created, only 50 or so had tumbled!  Finally, once they were atop their family Ahu, each statue was painted and had white coral eyes put into the eye sockets.

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Prior to coming to Easter Island, I didn’t really know any of the history surrounding the statues.  And believe me when I tell you that I’ve only told you about a 1/4th of it…

In fact, Nick and I were so enamored with the history of the statues that we decided to have one of our own made.  We hired a local Rapa Nui sculptor to create a replica of the Moai that currently is on display in the British Museum.  What I love most is that our Moai is carved from the same volcanic rock that the island’s statues are made of.  The sculptor came to our hotel and presented it to us on our last night there.  Now we just have to decide where to display it (and how to keep Nia from destroying it)!

2 thumbs up for Easter Island.  It was everything I had hoped it to be.  It’s been on my bucket list for a long time and was well worth the wait.  Rock on, Easter Island! (pun intended)

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