When you take on South America by road, there is bound to be a bucket list of must-dos in each country. So far we’ve been successful ticking ours off.
Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, in Chile.
Rapa Nui is located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the most southeastern point of the Polynesian Triangle, making it the most remote inhabited island in the world.
This destination was very high on my list, but Tree wasn’t completely sold. I gave him my best pitch with stories of tribal war, exploitation, tsunamis, overpopulation, man eating man, a cave filled with virgins, giant hand carved statues…
Honestly, I think I had him at cannibalism.
Rapa Nui is most famous for its 887 carved statues called Moai. But, really, it’s the entire story surrounding these monuments that draw intrigue from around the world.
Take a moment and read this incredible history below and how it ties into today’s coming collapse.
According to oral tradition, in the first millenium CE, a Polynesian King, who was escaping disaster on his home island, set sail with his nobel family, some slaves and all the fixings to start a new civilization (chickens, sweet potatoes, etc).
Whilst adrift in the middle of the Pacific, he sent his seven strongest men ahead in tiny canoes in search of land, and they found Rapa Nui. The first settlement was on Anakena beach, seen below.
The seven Moai below represent the navigators who found the island. They are the only Maoi that originally faced towards the ocean.
The King set up two clans, his own on one side, and his sister’s (the Queen) on the other side. In time, their population grew and more clans branched off. They developed a rich culture and religion, most evidenced by the carved moai that represented their deified ancestors.
It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead; the dead provided everything that the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune etc.), and the living–through offerings–provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world.
The moai were of course created by the slaves over unimaginable laborious hours. Without any metal on the island, the slaves used sharp shards of a very heavy volcanic rock called Toki to carve into the side of the mountain. Hundreds of slaves worked on multiple Moai at a time, slowly chiseling their shapes right out of the sides of the cliff.
Below you can see one of the unfinished statues, still embedded in the cliff…
Once completed, they used logs to roll the Moai (some of which are over 30 ft tall) across the island to their destination. This practice led to the decimation of all the trees on the island.
To this day, numerous Moai that fell during transport are scattered across the island.
Moai were also used as tombstones for important dead people, who were buried beneath the monuments. Supposedly the faces are of famous ancestors, but they all look alike to me.
As the population grew, more Maoi were created, leading to extreme deforestation and the disruption of an already fragile ecosystem. Droughts came and brought hunger and tensions to the island.
After a while, the slaves tired of this raw deal and revolted. The king’s men were armed and wiped out the slave population, easily winning the war. But, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the King, because without any slaves to exploit, there was no one to build more Moai.
As the island became increasingly overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the cult of the Bird Man.
Each clan submitted one competitor and one virgin to a competition. The virgins, aged thirteen to eighteen, spent six months before the competition in a remote cave with no sunlight, away from family and friends. (Side note: As a parent, this does not seem like a good way to discourage your young daughter from having sex).
On the day of the competition, the competitors scaled down the cliff (behind where Tree is standing in the picture below) and swam across a channel swarming with sharks to the large island. Once there, they waited for the migratory birds to lay eggs, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, subsisting off the land (or sea?) and defending themselves from their fellow competitors. When a competitor scored an egg, he then had to swim back and scale the cliff again without breaking it.
The first to do so became the Bird Man, and his clan ruled the island for one year.
Yet, as invigorating as this new power structure was, it could not restore the teetering balance. The fighting over resources eventually devolved into all-out war and even cannibalism, commencing the demise of the Rapa Nui civilization.
By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island’s population had dropped to around 2,000 from a high of 15,000 just a century earlier. The trees were gone, and nearly all of the Moai were toppled, the highest offense one clan could do to another clan.
Today Rapa Nui is doing much better. In 2007, a constitutional reform gave the Island the status of “special territories” of Chile, perhaps moving the island towards independence. Today the island has about 5,800 residents, of which some 60% are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui.
This pattern of overpopulation leading to a rapacious exploitation of earth’s resources, warfare and ultimately the demise of civilization does not seem to be–no matter how many times it’s repeated throughout history–a lesson from which we as humans seem to learn. Blithely marching onward, we are still living examples of tomorrow’s ruins – (click and read this Sprinter Life post from Copan, Honduras).
Today our religion is capitalism, and we too believe it’s symbiotic.
We give it the majority of our precious time, cogs in the wheel working from 8am to 6pm, making our jobs the biggest project (but probably not the most meaningful) of our lives. And, in return, we get what we think we need: stuff. Our monuments are not Moai but money, and we are willing to drive our planet to ruin to create more of it.
Like the Rapa Nui, we are teetering on the brink of collapse, but, again, like them, we don’t see it.
Out of all the places we’ve been, Rapa Nui is one of my absolute favorites. The island has a special energy that we fell in love with the second we arrived. Also, it gave me hope to see how the consciousness of the Rapa Nui has changed. They value their history and culture, and the lessons of the past are not lost on them.
Foreigners are unable to buy property on Rapa Nui (grossly curbing development), and the tribal committee that must okay all ventures on the island is in place to protect both the Rapa Nui heritage and future, which they agree–if on nothing else–is directly linked to the health of their land.
My hope, dream, will and desire is that all of us will come to the same conclusion that we cannot thrive as a species until we realize that the health of the planet is directly related our own health.
When earth thrives, we thrive. And when we exploit earth–our living planet, an extension of ourselves–it is like we are eating ourselves. It’s cannibalism.
If you’re looking for a unique and magical experience, visit Rapa Nui! It’s so much radder than I can even begin to explain.