Ahu Tongariki is the name of the platform with the 15 mystic statues placed with the back to the eastern coast of Easter Island. No visit to the island is complete without coming to see the ‘skyline’ of these figures. Continuing a few kilometres in northerly direction, you arrive at the breathtaking Anakena Beach which features another ahu of 5 moai. Anakena is also the location where seafarers and explorers have gone ashore throughout the last centuries.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 24 JAN 2020
One of the must-sees on the Polynesian Easter Island is the renowned Ahu Tongariki on the other side of the island at a short distance from Anakena Beach. It is a row of 15 impressive moai elevated on a platform, or ahu in the Rapa Nui native language, and it is one of the famous top sights on the island and an intriguing mystery! Why were they raised, how were they raised and … how did the era collapse?
We are on a 3-day visit to the renowned Easter Island to see the thousand-year-old remains of the aboriginal culture brought to the island from an unknown Polynesian location. In its heyday, it was an industrious and thriving culture with carving of gigantic stone figures and other artifacts. The enormous moai sculptures were erected on ahus around the island and played an important role in the old Rapa Nui culture.
The ancient remains are of uncertain age, though believed to date from the period from 1000 to 1600. In 1995 UNESCO declared Easter Island and its Rapa Nui National Park a World Heritage Site.
During our visit we stay in a cabaña in the island capital, Hanga Roa, with a Rapa Nui family, descendants of the ancient moai carving people. Our cabaña is a cosy place with decorations like feather costumes on the wall in the living room. This is the traditional costume of Polynesian origin. Our part of the house includes a small kitchen as well as two bedrooms. The cabaña is named Cabaña Tongariki after the iconic Ahu Tongariki!
On our second Easter Island day, we are touring the island in our hosts’ four-wheeler. We have been lucky enough to rent a car directly from our local host family which saves us the trouble finding a rental car at an agency and at least 25%. There aren’t any of the well-known car rentals such as Hertz or Avis operating on the island. Therefore, we haven’t really been able to book a car before coming.
Since no visitor in general has a rental car waiting upon arrival, it is customary that the hotels or hosts come to pick you up at the airport. To arrange this we have had some communication with our hosts already before coming … and now we are driving around in their solid four-wheeler!
Awe-inspiring Ahu Tongariki
Already a while before arriving at Ahu Tongariki, we spot the historic statues in the distance. When approaching we are pleased to see only a few cars in the parking area. It is a matter of arriving at a quiet time of the day, so that you can have it very much for yourself to take photos! And even better if you can make it at sunrise when the first sunrays magically strike the figures. We are unfortunately not that lucky … since today is a cloudy day!
Nevertheless, the view is absolutely fascinating. Standing in front of the 15 spectacular moai, we sense the presence of history. The Ahu Tongariki outnumbers all other ahus on the island. Most spectacular are the individual characteristics of the figures. Some are tall, some small, some slim and some more stylised than others. The distinct properties are probably due to different time periods, as well as different craft groups and models.
This ahu is, together with the ahu on Anakena Beach, among the few places on the island where moai have been restored with their red topknot hats. The red volcanic accessories are carved at the quarry of the volcano Puna Pau.
The Ahu Tongariki is not only the largest ceremonial platform on the island, but even the most significant structure in entire Polynesia! The ahu is believed to have been the religious centre of one of the two big island clans.
Our host tells us later that the clan community on the island absolutely still exists. He and his family are members of an island clan which counts around 1000 Rapa Nui’s. They are actively politically engaged and fight for the rights of the Rapa Nui population on Easter Island.
The moai carving era
During recent years the ahu and its colossal, carved stone figures have undergone restoration. Towards the last years of the moai carving era, the statues ended up on the ground. It has been subject to thorough research and investigations what the true reasons were. For many years it has been argued that the moai carving culture collapsed due to tribal conflicts and that the fighting clans each deliberately turned the moai of the other clan over and down from their ahus.
Recent research contradicts this, stating that the Rapa Nui people was a peaceful and interacting people with social skills, helping each other in the small community. They needed to collaborate at a high level to produce the great number of moai monoliths which were raised around the island. There are indications that the society had a well-functioning sociopolitical structure. Based on these findings, the theory of the collapse has now been revised.
According to a recent documentary we have seen about the Rapa Nui ancient culture and its collapse, there are in fact now several theories. The flourishing moai culture may have been brought to an end because of a shortage of the scarce natural resources on the island due to over-exploitation. An abundance of Polynesian rats also seem to have eaten the palm nuts and caused the palms to die out. A third theory is connected to slavery. Slave traders from Peru took in 1862 between 1,500 and 2,000 Rapa Nui’s. The few of the survivors who came back, brought disease to the island and brought about the downfall of the culture. All but 110 islanders died!
Additionally, the Chilean earthquake in 1960 (with a magnitude of 9.5 on the Richter scale) created a tsunami which stroke Easter Island and significantly devasted the moai structures on the eastern coast. Among others the Ahu Tongariki where the moai were scattered up to some hundred meters inland because of the tsunami wave. Some of them weighted up to 70 tons, so the tsunami forces were immense! It has taken quite a few years afterwards to renovate the platforms and their moai.
Ahu Tongariki near Anakena Beach
Now that we are standing in front of the impressive megalithic statues, we cannot be anything else than overwhelmed by the technique that has been required to raise these giants. Not to speak about transporting them to their final spot.
We have fun taking photos of all of us arranged in a straight line with the row of moai in the background!
Probably what happened in 1960 and again in 2015, when the island was hit by tsunamis, has reminded the present-day population of what could happen at any time. Although no casualties in 1960 or in 2015, people are now prepared in the event of a new tsunami. We see the clear signs in the streets of Hanga Roa indicating in which direction to evacuate in case of a disaster! The airport building and its parking area are among the more elevated locations, and that was also where people were recommended to gather in 2015.
Filled with impressions from the legendary Ahu Tongariki, we continue by car a few kilometres northwards, along the coast road.
The idyllic Anakena Beach is one of the few sand beaches on the island – and the biggest one with pristine, white coral sand. It is quite paradise-like with its fine sand, crystalline, turquoise waters, coconut palm trees and several restored moai.
Anakena Beach is pretty empty when we arrive – it is off season! Even if it is winter here now, people swim in the sea. It is still around 20 degrees centrigrade during the coldest winter month! We have read that due to the special water and temperature conditions, it is sometimes even possible to observe gold fish swimming around your legs in the water!
Besides being an ideal place for swimming due to the year-round relatively high sea temperatures, Anakena is also a location for history and native culture. An ahu with 5 moai rises just in front of the beach making it really postcard-like! And a few wild horses in between the coconut palms only contribute to the breathtaking scenery.
The absolutely pristine sand turns out be a bit different when I take a closer look. At first, I think it is green and blue grains of sand coming from different shades of corals or rocks. Studying it a bit more closely reveals that it in fact is tiny pieces of plastic! When I look around, it is like that everywhere.
It is hard to believe that this remote and sparsely populated Anakena Beach paradise has been irrevocably affected by the world plastic pollution. Easter Island is near one of the immense garbage patches in the South Pacific Ocean. Since the island has a rocky coast line, the plastics are constantly turned into microplastic when the waves hit the rocks. The sad result is what we now observe on Anakena Beach. It is seemingly an increasing problem on the island and obviously nearly impossible to do anything about, once the sand has been mixed with microplastic.
Between Ahu Tongariki and Anakena Beach we see some of the Rapa Nui petroglyphs at Papa Vaka. The Rapa Nui term papa means stone and the term vaka means canoe. Papa Vaka is therefore the big main motive of a large 12-metre long double canoe carved on one of the stones. According to some theories, it may depict the canoe originally used by the first settlers to arrive on the island. It is the largest petroglyph found on Easter Island.
The people came here to worship. They carved elaborate motives of giant tuna, canoes, octopuses, crabs, birdmen and sea turtles. In addition to the interesting stone carvings, we are thrilled to watch a couple of beautiful birds of prey, circling around the area. The isolated island is also a paradise for birds and other wildlife!
Back in the cabaña I have a chat with our hosts. She shows me examples of the souvenirs her niece sells to the tourists. All kinds of souvenirs, right from fridge magnets to small moai statues and tools with petroglyphs. Copies of the sacred tablets with rongorongo glyphs. Items with religious symbols resembling artifacts kept and found in the secret caves belonging to the ancient Rapa Nui families.
She tells me that today nearly everyone on Easter Island works within tourism. Either you work in hotels and restaurants, work as a guide, have a souvenir shop or rent out your house – as she does. The whole island lives by serving the tourists flying in from Santiago de Chile once a day.
Nevertheless, they still have their traditional culture. That’s what we unexpectedly get to experience Saturday night. We are tired after a whole day of sightseeing and have gone to bed. Then, little by little, our attention is caught by music and song coming from one of the other houses. It is not the western music we are used to. It is traditional rhythms and melodious songs. Even if tired, we find it awesome to be kept awake by this traditional Saturday night gathering. They really know how to party!
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