As I stood and looked at the statues on Easter Island, I could agree that they looked decidedly odd. A number of enormous and silent figures, standing in a row. As our group stood on a windy plain with the sound of waves in the background, I thought of how long those statues must have been there, and wondered what they were silently looking at with such somber expressions. Their jutting jaws, thin lips and elongated noses revealed little.
According to the research I had done before my trip, these giant statues, called moai, had been carved by a people called the Rapa Nui, who had a sophisticated society thousands of years ago, then disappeared. Easter Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tiny island of just 63 square miles – all alone – far out in the Pacific Ocean, 2,150 miles west of South America. It is now inhabited by the ancestors of the Rapa Nui. We had spent time with local experts to find out their take on these statues, and learned a lot about the history of Easter Island.
The statues were carved from rock between the years 1,250 and 1,500. There are 887 of the moai statues – an astonishing number to contemplate. Equally amazing is that while approximately half of the statues are still at the main quarry, hundreds were transported and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island’s perimeter. The production and transport of these Easter Island heads is considered a remarkable creative and physical feat. The statues average 13 feet high, and weigh 14 tons, but the largest is almost 33 feet high, and weighs 82 tons. The heads are outsized compared to the bodies of the statues. We were told that the statues represented the deceased ancestors of the people, and if placed on the platforms, that might indicate living or former chiefs, and important ancestors.
So why had the Rapa Nui carved these giant statues, what was their significance, and how did they get here? I found myself asking all the questions many others had asked before me. Legend had it that the earliest Polynesian settlers had hauled their canoes ashore a thousand years ago, after navigating more than a thousand miles of open Pacific. How had they sought out and found this tiny postage stamp in the middle of the vast ocean? What drew them so unflaggingly here? I had loved mysteries and read mystery books since I was a kid – somehow I knew this was one mystery I wasn’t going to find solved in the final pages of the book. It was a uniquely Easter Island mystery.
I also thought of the Anasazi of the southwest, who had done much the same – formed a complex society and built the advanced structures at Chaco Canyon, some with navigational markers, and then vanished, leaving behind an archaeological legacy and many, many questions. Was there any connection between these ancient societies, who apparently had had such a similar path? I thought about the various theories I had heard about the origin of the statues. The local expert had smiled indulgently when one of our group asked if there was any credence to these statues signaling a landing place for aliens. He’d evidently heard that theory many times, and discounted it with a dismissive wave. But I wondered – what about crop circles and other phenomena like that? I didn’t want to dismiss theories like that too quickly. I had been to Marfa in West Texas, and I had seen lights I couldn’t explain – it had made me a shade more open-minded to outlandish theories.
It was quite a jolt to go back that night to our luxurious lodge – the Posada de Mike Rapu. The lodge was appropriate for Easter Island travel – built as an ecologically sensitive structure, on a site where there were no archaeological remains, and was like an oasis of luxury in the middle of isolated surroundings. As I opened the curtains to look out at the amazing ocean view, I laid down on the bed with my hands clasped behind my head and thought about those amazing statues. I knew I’d be awake for a while.
Margaret (Maggie) Weiss is a high energy, adventure seeking, travel-holic. She has traveled the globe looking for her next great expedition. She’s also a mom of 3 beautiful girls and wife. She writes about exotic Easter Island and more at Travcoa. Follow her on twitter @missmaggieweiss