The Easter Island moai statues represent a unique Polynesian culture. They were skillfully carved from volcanic stone. Still today, the statues in the Rano Raraku quarry stand or lie on the lush hillsides of the volcano as they were left hundreds of years ago. On the rim of one of the other extinct volcanos, Rano Kau, you can reach the remains of the later Orongo village, known for its mystic Birdman Cult which succeeded the moai era.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 24 JAN 2020
Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean is the only rocky island in the Polynesian Triangle. The mysteries around the great megalithic sculptures located around the island have been subject to comprehensive research and investigations during the last centuries.
We have for many months planned a stay on Easter Island to see the legendary moai statues as well as the other sites linked to the ancient culture: Rano Raraku, Anakena, Orongo, Rano Kau, Ahu Tongariki and a few more! We seized the opportunity to come here as we had already planned a one month trip to South America. It suddenly seemed both obvious and real to incorporate a round trip to Easter Island into the total flight package!
We have arrived on the island in mid-July which is winter in the southern hemisphere. Despite the season it is pleasant to be here since the climate is subtropical and mild. Temperatures in summer and winter don’t really differ that much here.
Staying in a local cabaña, the Cabaña Tongariki, with the owners next-door is our unique chance to get our own angle and a few local impressions in addition to experiencing the outstanding Easter Island moai statues and the cultural sites related to them.
View from Orongo, Rano Kau
On our first day we get up early, since we have a whole island to cover in our rented car! With only 3 days on the island, we have planned to reach all major places, that are not within walking distance from our cabaña, in just one day. In this way we will only need to rent a car for one whole day.
Our host brings us a bag of local guava fruits so that we can squeeze our own juice for breakfast. It is a welcome supplement to the island fresh water which has an extremely strong taste of metallic minerals. It is said to be healthy enough, but we definitely have to get used to the taste!
Their daughter, living in the house next-door, has given us useful advice on Easter Island and suggested an appropriate itinerary to get to the various moai statues, both considering daylight angles and anticipated tourist groups.
Leaving Hanga Roa, we drive past the, at this time of the day, absolutely empty airport. There is only one flight between Easter Island and Santiago de Chile in each direction every day. Catching the narrow, winding road towards the top of the impressive, extinct volcano, Rano Kau, we are full of expectations on our way to the southernmost point of the island.
The extinct volcano Rano Kau
Rano Kau was together with the the rest of the island the result of volcanic activity and eruptions. The oldest eruptions date to about 3 million years ago! Today Rano Kau features, as one of only three of the extinct volcanos, a fresh water crater lake at the interior bottom.
As for all other cultural sites on the island, you need the national park ticket to be able to visit the remains of the old village Orongo on top of the volcano. Contrary to what is the case for most other sites, which you can visit as many times you want, Orongo as well as the quarry, Rano Raraku, can be visited only once. This is the way the Chilean government tries to keep down the number of visitors, and hence the wear and tear on these sites.
We follow the narrow path on the rim of Rano Kau to the left, and the steep, rocky coast falling over 300 m (1000 ft) on the other side. The view is absolutely magnificent. Gazing down into the water-filled crater basin is a breathtaking sight. The fresh water lagoon of Rano Kau is huge and picturesque with totora reeds growing on the surface forming small islands. It is similar to the floating reed islands on the Lake Titicaca in Peru – but here they are just small-scale and not inhabited!
Rano Kau features the old Orongo village
The Rano Kau crater lake, located around 200 m or 650 ft from the edge, is estimated to be about 10 m or slightly more than 30 ft deep. The lagoon has been born from rain water, accumulated throughout the years. For many years it has been one of the main fresh water resources on the island.
The protected slopes inside the crater Rano Kau provided excellent opportunities to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Among others the volcano has been used to grow avocados, fig trees, guavas and bananas!
Now that we stand atop the caldera, which is over a kilometre or nearly a mile in diameter, some purple vegetation along one of the sides attracts our attention. It is a proof of the rich plant life of the immense crater bowl.
The Orongo cult village
For several hundred years Easter Island featured a thriving culture with the erection of gigantic moai statues. Towards the end of the 1500’s, the moai carving era was replaced by the Birdman Cult era. The old moai carving lifestyle ended up taking too many of the limited natural resources on the island, and maybe along with tribal wars (however, this is questionable according to recent theories), the previously so flourishing culture slowly came to an end. Instead, a new culture sprang into life: the Birdman Cult was born.
Continuing along the path, we arrive at the remains of the old, ceremonial village, Orongo. It is located at the narrowest part of the ridge where the rocks abruptly fall towards the sea on one side, and the deep crater basin is revealed on the other.
Orongo is the old cult village where the Birdman competition annually took place in order to find the king for the next 12 months. The Birdman Cult era replaced the former moai carving era and new rituals arose. The competitors would have to climb down the steep rocks, swim out to the Moto Nui islet just off the coast, find a freshly laid egg from a manutara bird, swim back and climb the rocks again with the unbroken egg.
Often participants died from falling down the rocks or by being taken by the numerous sharks in the ocean. The winner obtained the prestigious title of king. The last known Birdman competition took place as late as in 1888.
Orongo at the top of Rano Kau
The Orongo houses were built of solid stone – a suitable material to resist the occasional strong winds the houses were exposed to on the brink of the volcano. This is opposed to the material used to carve the earlier Easter Island moai statues. They were carved from volcanic, porous lightweight rock from the compacted volcanic ash – and were therefore much lighter. The first of the 54 houses were initiated around 1400 AD.
Oval houses at Orongo, Rano Kau
When we walk past the village, we get a chance to peep into one of the houses. They are oval with just one opening for the light to enter. In general you would need to crawl or creep to get inside, and once inside you probably could not stand upright.
We have to admit that they don’t look that appealing to stay in! And even then, the Birdman Cult people made beautiful paintings on the inner walls, just like in the secret caves around the island. The paintings depict the Birdman ceremony as well as the god Make-Make. A large number of petroglyphs (about 1,700) are also located around Orongo, showing motives like the manutara bird and other seabirds, fish as well as Make-Make.
The Orongo village was inhabited only during the days of the Birdman ceremony which took place during the month of September. One single moai statue of basalt rock has been found inside one of the houses, linking the ancient moai era to the Birdman Cult.
The Rano Raraku quarry and moai statues
15 minutes later we find ourselves at the entrance of the Rano Raraku quarry. The short ride is like a time portal allowing us to travel hundreds of years back in time from the Orongo period to the moai carving period.
We are now wandering around in a nearly thousand year-old and at that time probably the most important workplace on the island. This is where the extraordinary Easter Island moai statues were created by the industrious island settlers and their immediate descendants in the years to come.
Rano Raraku with the Easter Island moai statues
Overwhelmed by the size and the number of moai on the archaeological site, we study as many of the giants as we can more closely on our way through the area. Rano Raraku is the unique place to learn about the carving process since you can watch all stages of the moai figures here. Right next to the solid, volcanic rocks we see an example of a moai in process. First the front side was carved except the eye sockets. Then the back was chiseled to release the statue from the rock.
It is nearly absurd to see how the monolithic human-like structures lie or stand in all thinkable angles down the slopes of the volcano. We are deeply impressed!
After spending some time in company with the massive, immobile residents of Rano Raraku, we notice a few tourist groups beginning to appear at the site. Suddenly and unexpectedly we nearly bump into our hosts’ daughter! She obviously works as a tour guide! That is why she yesterday could give us such detailed information on how to do our tour around the island. That is what SHE does every day! Not astonishingly, since nearly everyone on the island is occupied within tourism!
Mystic Easter Island moai statues at Rano Raraku
Rano Raraku is probably the site on the island which takes us most aback!
Polynesian people created from around 1200 AD a flourishing culture with the carving of the spectacular and worldwide renowned Easter Island moai statues and other artifacts. In total 887 moai in varying states and conditions have been found around the island. Either near the platforms, the ahus, where they eventually were raised, fallen during the cumbersome transportation, or near the quarry, more or less successful and completed.
Nearly all the Easter Island moai statues were carved from volcanic rock at the Rano Raraku quarry. The rare obsidian from some of the volcanos on the island was used to produce the necessary tools. Once completed, the moai were in some way transported to their final locations which were in general along the coast, always with their backs to the ocean, overlooking and protecting the Rapa Nui people. Only the coral eyes were not carved and added until the very last moment when the figures were raised.
Rano Raraku is the birthplace of the Easter Island moai statues
It is believed that the volcanic faces represent the spirit of their ancestors. During the moai era there was a development in style of the torsos and faces. The sculptures became taller and taller, as well as the facial traits became more and more stylised.
As time travellers we return to Hanga Roa to the present-day Rapa Nui culture. Our full day adventure among the giant moai statues has really been an outstanding Easter Island experience.
When we get back to our cabaña, Cabaña Tongariki, our hosts come to our living room for a chat. We get a lot of interesting and useful information. They offer that we can also use their car tomorrow morning to go to see Ahu Tongariki at sunrise.
The Easter Island Moai statues WALKED from Rano Raraku
Throughout the years there have been a number of theories how the heavy stone structures were transported miles across the island. According to the Rapa Nui people and the legend, they WALKED! For mange years this was not really believed by anyone else.
The Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl considerably contributed to the research and investigations on the ancient Rapa Nui culture and its impressive stone sculptures. He came twice, in 1955-56 and 1986-88, to the island on expeditions and helped reveal the torsos of the giants and clarify how the enormous statues could have been moved around.
His investigations led to successful attempts to move the human figures vertically with the help of logs. With ropes and a well-prepared crew he showed that it was actually possible!
So by bringing the moai statues of Easter Island back to WALK, maybe one of the biggest mysteries in the world has been resolved! A whole network of paths around the island sloping slowly down towards the designated ahus has also been revealed. There are today numerous You Tube videos demonstrating the technique likely used to transport the imposing Easter Island moai statues!
Easter Island culture today
The present-day culture on the island involves in addition to the Polynesian Rapa Nui culture also Christianity.
The Catholic church of the Holy Cross in Hanga Roa combines in a very special way elements from the moai era, the Birdman Cult and Christianity. In their own unique manner the Rapa Nui residents have unified religions of completely distinct origins. The building itself is a mixture of Christian symbols and Rapa Nui mythology, and so is the weekly mass.
We are curious to experience this extraordinary fusion of faiths and attend the Sunday mass.
It is held by priests wearing feather headdresses. This gives together with the melodic Tahitian / Rapa Nui music and songs the Christian ceremony a profound touch of Polynesian and Rapa Nui native culture. The singing by Rapa Nui voices is exceptionally melodious. The whole experience is nothing but … absolutely outstanding! It can definitely be recommended to attend a mass, alone to experience the blended island culture.
We pass by the churchyard which is just as unique as the church and speaks for itself!
After the mass the entire street is turned into a huge Sunday barbecue where people grill meat on oil drum barbecues in genuine, high Rapa Nui spirits!
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