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After Truck Topples Easter Island Statue, Mayor Calls for Traffic Restrictions

The incident, which happened over the weekend, remains under investigation but may have involved faulty brakes

A pickup truck collided with a moai statue and platform on Eastern Island. (Ma'u Henua community via Facebook)
smithsonianmag.com

Easter Island’s iconic collection of moai—massive stone monoliths built by the outcrop’s first inhabitants many centuries ago—now stands one fewer.

On Sunday, a runaway truck careened down a hillside before crashing into and toppling the statue, causing “incalculable” damage, reports Juanita García for El Mercurio de Valparaíso. In the days since, officials have arrested an island resident and charged him with damaging a national monument.

The investigation into the incident remains ongoing. It appears to have involved a case of failed brakes, according to El Mercurio. In response to the crash, Easter Island Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa has called for motor restrictions to be put in place across the area.

Built to honor the ancestors of the indigenous Rapa Nui population, the moai, which first appeared around the 14th or 15th century, endured a period of decline in the late 1700s, when European explorers arrived at Easter Island to find several of the monoliths in ruins. Today, about 1,000 moai remain; the Rapa Nui cherish the figures, viewing them as living incarnations of people past and present.

Easter Island moai
The ceremonial platform Ahu Tongariki in the southwest of Easter Island, as seen in July 2019 (Photo by Denis Düttmann / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

“As people know, the moai are sacred structures that possess a religious value for the people of Rapa Nui,” Camilo Rapu, president of the Ma’u Henua community, which cares for the moai, tells Sam Jones at the Guardian. “Something like this isn’t just dreadful. It’s an offense against a living culture that has spent the last few years fighting to regain its historic and archaeological heritage.”

Faulty breaks or no, the crash may not have been an accident, Rapu tells the Guardian. If that’s the case, the incident won’t represent the first instance in which Rapa Nui culture was suppressed, silenced or deliberately targeted. Beginning in the 18th century, mainland visitors began to regularly sweep ashore Easter Island, bringing disease, destruction and death. Popular narratives may have also twisted Rapa Nui history, painting them as wasteful exploiters of ecosystems when the island’s people in fact thrived.

Speaking with El Mercurio, Edmunds emphasizes that the need for better traffic control isn’t a new issue. He previously told the paper that the Rapa Nui had long been concerned about the island’s blossoming population—which has grown by 50 percent since 2012—and its monthly influx of 12,000 tourists. Eight years ago, the community rallied behind legislation that would have restricted vehicle access around the moai, but the measure failed to pass.

“They didn’t listen to us,” says Edmunds, “and this is the result.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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