Rapa Nui is famous for its Moai statues, and rightly so, but there is more to this little island than you might imagine. So much of its history is still not fully understood, and probably never will be. This air of mystery is part of the allure that attracts visitors, and Easter Island holidays are a great way to unravel the past of this remote Pacific island. We take a look at some of the intriguing myths and customs of Easter Island…
Easter Island History
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, sits 2,300 miles off the Western shore of Chile in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, making it the most remote inhabited island in the world! It is believed to have been discovered by a group of Polynesian settlers, who landed on the volcanic island in giant canoes, as early as 300 AD. It was named Easter Island to mark the day that Dutch explorers found it in 1722, and was annexed by Chile in 1888, by which time the native population had been steadily decreasing. Now, approximately 60% of inhabitants are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui.
The island is 64 miles square, 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, and was created by a series of volcanic eruptions. The main industry is tourism, with visitors attracted to the 887 Moai monolithic statues which cover the island. The figures are carved out of stone and stand at around 13 feet high, with the largest statue weighing over 80 tons and measuring 32 feet in length. It is still not fully understood why the inhabitants of Rapa Nui erected these great statues, but archaeologists believe that they are representations of Polynesian ancestors, who face inland to protect the citizens and out to sea to welcome visitors.
The Moai beneath the Sea
The lack of pollution makes Easter Island one the clearest scuba diving locations in the work, with visibility of around 50-60 meters. If you’re lucky you might even find yourself swimming with a family of Green Sea Turtles or the bizarre looking balloon fish.
The most popular dive site is in Hanga Roa Bay, where you only have to descend 20 meters to find yourself face-to-face with a 22 foot Moai statue. Apparently it isn’t a genuine monolith, but a prop used for the failed 1994 Kevin Costner film Rapa Nui. Despite this, it still makes for an amazing dive and a great photo opportunity!
However, according to local rumours there is actually a genuine Moai lost somewhere in the waters surrounding Easter Island. Apparently, in 1957, a vessel named ‘Pinto’ set off with one of the statues on board, but due to bad weather the ropes securing it snapped and plunged the Moai 80 meters into the ocean near Hanga Pico, or Hidden Bay. A number of diving companies offer trips to find ‘the lost Moai’, but none have found it yet…
The Birdman Cult
For years the original inhabitants lived peacefully on Rapa Nui, but gradually resources started running low, and deforestation and famine followed, causing disruption and unease between the tribes. It is believed that in the 1680s it was decided that a different tribe would rule each year, in the hope of creating a more peaceful island. To choose which tribe would take charge, they created the birdman competition, in which one or two members of each tribe, named the Hopu, would swim out to nearby Motu Nui hoping to collect the first sooty tern egg of the year. Many died falling off the cliffs or drowning in the shark-infested waters. Whoever found the first egg would shout back to the mainland “Go shave your head, you have got the egg!”. This was a signal that the chosen birdman from his tribe should shave his head and paint it either white or red, so that upon the Hopu’s return he could be presented with the tern egg and his leadership for the next year.
The Birdman Cult was the main religion on Rapa Nui until a Christian invasion in the 1800’s suppressed it. However, anthropologists did manage to gather some details and there is still plenty of evidence of the cult in petroglyphs around the island, especially in Orongo, where the race started. These stone carvings depict winners of the competition and the God, Makemake, who cult members worshipped. It’s a worth a visit to get a feel for the culture and history of the island, and for the view of the Pacific and Motu Nui.
Rapa Nui Tattoos
For the Rapa Nui, tattoos were an extremely spiritual art and reflected their social status. The higher up you were in society the more you had, with the governors and priests at the top of the ladder covered in tattoos from head to toe, particularly on the face. The images were mainly spiritual, depicting Gods such as Makemake and the Komari God of fertility, as well as thick lines and shapes. The ink was made with either volcano ash mixed with lemon juice, or a paste of leaves and sugar cane to give it colour. A small mallet was used to hammer needles made of fish or bird bones into the skin, however this unhygienic method caused many infections and sometimes even death.
Nowadays, tattooing is still a popular way for the locals to hold on to their cultural history. Although it’s not so common to see face tattoos anymore, and the method of using bones has been replaced with the modern tattoo gun. Many tourists actually get tattooed during their Easter Island holidays, and the Birdman Cult symbol is a particularly popular design.
Tapati Festival and the ‘Queen of the Island’
The Tapati Festival is a fairly modern custom which takes place annually in early February, and celebrates the culture of the island and the Rapa Nui people. Islanders form 2 teams who compete in numerous events during the two week festival period – horse races, triathlons and canoe challenges are all popular events. In the evening there are parties and traditional dance performances, as well as plenty of local dishes being served. The parade of the Queen’s is a highlight, where beautiful women from each team dress in their best Rapa Nui costume and compete for the chance to be crowned ‘Queen of the Island’ for a year, a tradition thought to be inspired by the Birdman Cult. Another highlight is the Haka Pei downhill race on giant banana trunks, which usually results in a few broken limbs.
Although the festival is organised by locals for locals, tourists are always welcome and will be encouraged to join in, either having their face painted in the style of Rapa Nui tattoos or being pushed into a canoe for a muddy race.
Easter Island Holidays
Trips to Easter Island are a popular addition to holidays in Chile, with daily flights to and from Santiago. A few days is normally enough time to explore, and this is best booked through a tour operator, enabling you to maximise your time and learn about the Moai from a local. Also, there is no public transport system so getting around can be a pain unless you travel with a tour group.
So, hopefully we’ve inspired you to start planning a discovery adventure to Rapa Nui, home of the famous Moai!