The Secrets of Easter Island

The more we learn about the remote island from archaeologists and researchers, the more intriguing it becomes

The legendary Moai statues have fascinated modern civilization since their discovery. (Arian Zwegers)
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But some scholars, and some islanders, say the new forms have less to do with ancient culture than with today’s tourist dollars. “What you have now is reinventing,” says Rapa Nui archaeologist Sergio Rapu, a former governor of the island. “But the people in the culture don’t like to say we’re reinventing. So you have to say, ‘OK, that’s Rapa Nui culture.’ It’s a necessity. The people are feeling a lack of what they lost.”

Even the oldest and most traditional of artisans, like Benedicto Tuki, agree that tourists provide essential support for their culture—but he insisted, when we spoke, that the culture is intact, that its songs and skills carry ancient knowledge into the present. Grant McCall, an anthropologist from the University of New South Wales in Australia, concurs. When I ask McCall, who has recorded the genealogies of island families since 1968, how a culture could be transmitted through only 110 people, he tugs at his scruffy blond mustache. “Well, it only takes two people,” he says, “somebody who is speaking and somebody who is listening.”

Since many families’ claims to land are based on their presumed knowledge of ancestral boundaries, the argument is hardly academic. Chilean archaeologist Claudio Cristino, who spent 25 years documenting and restoring the island’s treasures, frames the debate in dramatic terms. “There are native people on the island, and all over the world, who are using the past to recover their identities, land and power,” he says. Sitting in his office at the University of Chile in Santiago, he is not sanguine. “As a scientist, I’ve spent half my life there. It’s my island! And now people are already clearing land and plowing it for agriculture, destroying archaeological sites. Behind the statues you have people with their dreams, their needs to develop the island. Are we as scientists responsible for that? The question is, who owns the past?” Who, indeed? The former mayor of Hanga Roa, Petero Edmunds, who is Rapa Nui, opposes the Chilean government’s plans for giving away land. He wants the entire park returned to Rapa Nui control, to be kept intact. “But they won’t listen,” he says. “They’ve got their fingers in their ears.” And who should look after it? “The people of Rapa Nui who have looked after it for a thousand years,” he answers. He becomes pensive. “The moai are not silent,” he says. “They speak. They’re an example our ancestors created in stone, of something that is within us, which we call spirit. The world must know this spirit is alive.”

UPDATE: According to the UK Telegraph, two British scientists have uncovered new research answering the riddle of why some of the megaliths are crowned by hats carved of red stone.

Colin Richards of the University of Manchester and Sue Hamilton of University College London retraced a centuries-old road that leads to an ancient quarry, where island inhabitants mined red volcanic pumice. They believe that the hats first were first introduced as a distinctive feature between 1200 and 1300, a period when the island’s brooding, mysterious statues were created on a scale larger than before, weighing several tons. The hats, the British experts theorize, may represent a plait or top knot, styles which would have been worn by chieftains then engaged in an epic struggle for dominance. “Chieftain society,” says Hamilton, “was highly competitive and it has been suggested that they were competing so much that they over-ran their resources.”

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