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The Mysterious Rapa Nui Moai

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
What do you know about Easter Island?  A few days ago, I was listening to an update about the path of the epic Japan tsunami when I heard President Obama say that the waves from this life-changing natural disaster might be headed for - among other places - Easter Island, a mysterious Polynesian island in the SE Pacific Ocean at the southeastern most point of the Polynesian triangle.  Of course, and as always, I just had to learn more.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rapa Nui - which was named Easter Island by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722 - is the Pacific's largest body of archaeological sites located in Rapa Nui National Park.  It is the most remote inhabited island in the world.  I would love to visit one day.  #somanyplacestogo

The cultural significance of this ancient Polynesian island which is a special territory of Chile (yes, Chile!) is fascinating; mostly because of the mysteries surrounding the roots and demise of the indigenous Rapa Nui people, but also in part because Chilean culture and Rapa Nui culture are sure to have mixed over the last century due to annexation that goes as far back as 1888.  (Rapa Nui is referred to by the Chileans as Isla de Pascua, by the way.)  But all cross-cultural mixing aside,  check out what UNESCO has to say about the controversial and mysterious Rapa Nui and their beloved moai:

Rapa Nui...bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin that settled there c. A.D. 300 established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivalled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.
Photo of Moai, Easter Island
Source: Wiki / Public Domain

....[T]he moai, which are believed to represent sacred ancestors who watch over the villages and ceremonial areas...range in height from 2 m to 20 m and are for the most part carved from the scoria [volcanic rock], using simple picks (toli) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes.

A number of moai are still in an uncompleted condition in the quarries, providing valuable information about the method of manufacture. Some have large cylindrical pieces of red stone known as pukao, extracted from the small volcano Punapao, as headdresses: these are believed to denote special ritual status. There is a clear stylistic evolution in the form and size of the moai, from the earlier small, round-headed and round-eyed figures to the best-known large, elongated figures with carefully carved fingers, nostrils, long ears, and other features.

circa 1916 "Pure Rapa Nui Girl"
taken by Mr. Edmunds.  Copyright � 2004.
University of Hawaii at Manoa.
All rights reserved. [Source]

Fascinating stuff ... these ancient statues carved by ancient Polynesians out of volcanic rock.

Of course, we all hope that Rapa Nui / Easter Island / Isla de Pascua and its population of approximately 3,000-5,000 (the majority of which are Rapanui) survive the aftermath of the Japan earthquake (and the violent and ongoing disputes between the Rapa Nui and the Chilean government - see below) and that the moai and Rapa Nui's unique history and cultural artifacts are preserved and not wiped out.  Now, that would be a shame. 

About the relationship between the Chilean government and the Rapa Nui:  On December 3, 2010, "armed Chilean soldiers opened fire....on unarmed Rapa Nui civilians using automatic rifles, tear gas and shotguns as the Chilean government move[d] in to remove the indigenous owners off their land."  Evidently, the Rapa Nui would like the land given back to the indigenous peoples and Chile isn't having it. For more info about this dispute, click here and here.)


Unknown on: March 17, 2011 at 10:12 AM said...

Although the disaster continues to unfold in Japan, it appears that Easter Island was not hit. "The tsunami swept past Chile's remote Easter Island in the South Pacific, generating swells but no major waves, and there was little impact when they made landfall on Chile's coast." (


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