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South America Destination Guide

Easter Island

Easter Island

Easter Island,called the "belly button of the world," is one of the most isolated islands on Earth. Officially part of Chile, it lies deep in the Pacific Ocean. Due to its extreme geographic isolation, many people assume that travel to Easter Island is limited to extremely intrepid travelers. In fact, tourism is the main industry of this Chilean territory. For the most part, visitors use Easter Island as a stop between Tahiti, and Santiago in Chile. Lan Chile, the Chilean national airline, has regular flights along this route.As a territory of Chile, the main language spoken on Easter Island is the Chilean variant of Spanish. Recent events have shown a tremendous increase of tourism on the island, coupled with a large inflow of people from mainland Chile, threatening to alter the Polynesian identity of the island. The possession of the land has created political tensions in the past 20 years, with part of the native Rapanui opposed to private property and in favor of the traditional communal property of the land.

More than 2000 miles off the coast of Chile, giant stone statues gaze arrogantly across the windswept grass of Easter Island. In the 1950s Thor Heyerdahl solved some of the mysteries of how they were carved and hauled into position, but the history of the race that produced them may never be known. Anyone who is dreaming of a trip to the moon can get a little foretaste of it by climbing about on the dead volcanic cones of Easter Island, Not only has be completely forsaken our own hectic world, which seems so immeasurably far away in the blue, but the landscape can easily give an illusion of being on the moon a friendly little moon hung between sky and sea, where grass and ferns cover the treeless craters which lie gaping sleepily towards the sky, ancient and moss covered, lacking the tongues and teeth of their fiery days. There are a number of these peaceful volcanoes in hummocks all over the island. They are green outside and green within. The time of eruptions is past and so remote that at the bottom of some of the largest craters sky blue lakes with waving green reeds mirror clouds flying before the trade wind.

Easter Island image 2 One of these waterlogged volcanoes is called Rano Raraku, and it is here that the men in the moon seem to have been most busily at work. You do not see them, but you have a feeling that they have only hidden themselves away in sealed tip holes in the ground, while you walk about in the grass at your ease and survey their interrupted tasks. They have fled in baste from what they were doing, and Ratio Raraku remains one of the greatest and most curious monuments of mankind.

Easter Island image 3 The whole mountain mass if has been reshaped; the volcano has been greedily cut up as if it were pastry, although sparks fly when a steel axe is driven against the rock to test its strength. Hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of rock have been cut out and tens of thousands of tons of stone carried away. And in the midst of the mountain's gaping wound lie more than 150 gigantic stone men, finished and unfinished, in all stages, from the just begun to the just completed. At the foot of the mountain stand finished stone men, side by side like a supernatural army, and one feels miserably small in approaching the place, whether on horseback or driving in a jeep along the ancient roads which the vanished sculptors laid down.

Dismounting from a horse in the shadow of a great block of stone, one sees that the block has features on its underside: it is the head of a fallen giant. On going up to the foremost figures, which are buried in the earth up to their chests, one is shocked to find that one cannot even reach up to the colossus's chin. And if you try to climb up on to those which have been flung down flat on their backs, you feel Lilliputian, because often you have the greatest difficulty even in getting up on to their stomachs. Once up on the prostrate Goliath you can walk about freely on his chest and stomach, or stretch yourself out on his nose, which often is as long as an ordinary bed. Thirty feet was no uncommon length for these figures: the largest, which lay unfinished and aslant on the side of the volcano, was sixty nine feet long, so that, counting a storey as ten feet, this stone man was as tall as a seven storey house. That was a burly giant, a regular mountain troll.

In Rano Raraku you feel the mystery of Easter Island at close quarters. The air is laden with mystery; while bent on you is the silent gaze of those 150 eyeless faces. The huge standing figures look down at you with an enigmatic stare: your steps are watched from every single ledge and cave in the mountain, where giants unborn and giants dead and broken lie as in mangers and on sick beds, lifeless and helpless because the intelligent creative force has left them. Nothing moves except for the drifting clouds above you. It was so when the sculptors went, and so it will always be. The oldest figures, those which were completed, stand there proud, arrogant and tight lipped; as though defiantly conscious that no chisel, no atomic power will ever open their mouths and make them speak. But even though the giants' mouths were sealed seven times over, anyone going about in the chaos of uncompleted figures up the mountain slope could learn a good deal.

The famous Easter Island heads were large enough already, standing on the slope at the foot of the volcano, but when you dug your way down along the throat, the chest appeared, and under the chest the stomach and arms continued and the whole of the huge body right down to the hips, where long thin fingers with enormous curved nails met under a protruding belly.

But this uncovering solved none of the problems of Easter Island: how, for instance, was it possible to carry up a large hat which was to be placed on the very top of the head, especially considering that the hat too was of stone, and could easily have a volume of 200 cubic feet, and weigh as much as two elephants? How can one lift the weight of two elephants to the level of the roof of a four storey house, when there are no cranes and not even a high point in the neighborhood? The few men who could find room for themselves up oil the figure's skull could not possibly have dragged an enormous stone hat up to the small flat space which was their only foothold. And although a crowd of men could stand on the ground at the foot of the statue they were mere Lilliputians, who could not stretch their arms more than a fraction of the way up the lower part of the giant. How then could they have pushed that weight high in the air, right up past the chest, and on past the towering head up to the very top of the skull? Metal was unknown, and the island was practically treeless.

Even our engineers shook their heads resignedly. We felt like a crowd of schoolboys standing helpless before a practical conundrum. The invisible moon-dwellers down in their holes seemed to be triumphing over us, asking: 'Guess how this engineering work was done! Guess how moved these gigantic figures down the steep walls of the volcano and carried them over the hills to any place in the island .

To tackle the problem at its root we first studied the numerous uncompleted figures which lay on the ledges in the quarry itself. It was clear that all the work had been broken off suddenly; thousands of primitive unpolished stone picks still lay in the open air workshop, and as different groups of sculptors had worked simultaneously on many different statues, all stages of carving were represented. The ancient stone cutters had first attacked the bare rock itself and made the face and front part of the statue. Then they had cut alleyways along the sides and made giant ears and arms, always with extremely long and slender fingers, curved over the belly. Next they had cut their way underneath the whole figure from both sides, so that the back took the shape of a boat with a narrow keel attached to the rock.

When the facade of the figure was complete in every minute detail, it was scrubbed and thoroughly polished: the only thing they took care not to do was to mark in the eye itself under the overhanging brows. For the present the giant was to be blind. Then the keel was hacked away under the back, while the colossus was wedged up with stones to prevent it from slipping away and sliding down into the abyss. It was a matter of utter indifference to the sculptors whether they carved the figure out of a perpendicular wall or a horizontal slab, and head upwards or downwards, for the half finished giants lay all over the place and leaning in every direction, as on a battlefield; the only thing that was consistent about them was that the back was the last part to remain attached to the rock.

When the back also had been cut loose the breakneck transportation down the cliff to the foot of the volcano had begun. In some cases colossi weighing many tons had been swung down a perpendicular wall and maneuvered over statues on which work was still proceeding on the ledge below. Many were broken in transport, but the overwhelming majority had come down complete that is to say, complete but for legs, for every single statue ended in a flat foundation just where the abdomen ends and the legs begin. They were lengthened busts with complete torsos.

At the foot of the cliff lay a thick layer of gravel and decomposed rock, often piled up into ridges and regular hillocks. This was the result of thousands of tons of stone splinters which bad been carried away from the quarry by the sculptors. Here the giant men had been temporarily raised to a standing position in holes dug in the rubble. Not till now did the sculptors set to work on the unfinished back and the neck and hinder parts took shape, while the waist was decorated with a belt surrounded by rings and symbols. This little belt was the only piece of clothing the naked statues wore, and with one exception they were all men.

But the mysterious progress of the stone colossi did not end here among the rubble. When the backs also were finished they were to go on to their wall less temples Most of them had gone already: only comparatively few were still on the waiting list for transportation from their holes at the foot of the volcano. All the fully completed giants had moved on, mile by mile over the whole. Island: some had finished their journey up to ten miles from the quarry and the very smallest weighed from two to ten tons. The strangest thing was that the colossi had been carried about not as shapeless lumps which could stand a knock or two, but as perfectly smooth human forms, scrubbed and polished front and back, from the lobes of their ears to the roots of their nails. Only the eye sockets were still lacking. How had it been possible to move the complete finished article across country without rubbing it to pieces? Nobody knew.

At their destination the blind stone men were not erected just by dropping them down into a hole; on the contrary, they were lifted up in the air and placed on the top of an ahu, or temple platform, where they remained, their base a couple of yards above the ground. Now at last holes were chiseled for the eyes; now at last the giants might see where in the world they were. Now they were to have 'hats' put on their beads 'hats' which weighed from two to ten tons.

Actually, it is not quite correct to talk about 'hats'. The old native name for this, gigantic head decoration is pukao, which means 'topknot', the usual coiffure worn by male natives on Easter Island at the time of its discovery. Why did the old masters lift this pukao up on top of the giant in the form of an extra block? Why could they not simply cut it out of the same stone with the rest of the figure? Because the important detail was the color of the topknot. The grayish yellow black grained stone from which the statues are carved was found only at the quarry in Rano Raraku; but seven miles away, at the opposite end of the island, was a little overgrown crater where the rock was of a very special red color. It was this special red stone they wanted for the statues' hair. So they had dragged yellowish grey statues from one end of the island and red topknots from the other, and had placed one upon the other on more than fifty raised temple platforms all round the coast. Most of these platforms had a couple of statues side by side, a great many had four, five or six, and one had no fewer than fifteen red haired giants standing side by side, with their bases twelve feet above the ground.

Not one of these red haired giants stands in his old place on the temple platforms. Even the Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, who first discovered Easter Island in 1722, arrived too late to see them all standing in their old places. But the first explorers were at any rate able to testify that many of the statues were still standing at their posts with red pukaos on their heads. In the middle of the last century the last giant crashed down from his temple, and the red topknot rolled like a blood stained steamroller over the pavement of the temple square. Today only the blind hairless statues in the rubble filled holes at the foot of the volcano still stand with heads raised defiantly.

Easter Island Hotels

Hanga Roa Panamericana Hotel - Av Pont Sn, Easter Island

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