In 2018, the government of Chile made an unprecedented move when it decided to limit tourism numbers to Easter Island. "Rapa Nui is a magical island, we all want to visit it, but it is also a fragile island and therefore we have to take care of it," said Chile’s President, Sebastian Pinera. The government’s answer to over-tourism was to limit the maximum length of stay from 90 to 30 days for all tourists – including Chileans who are not part of the native Rapa Nui population.

It is not only the magnificent moai sculptures which are at risk, but also the environment. The island is overpopulated, with twice the number of residents it used to have. This has resulted in a strain on resources and the generation of tons of garbage that are threatening environmental stability. As stated by UCLA archaeologist and Director of the Easter Island Statue Project, Jo Anne Van Tilburg, “On an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 (people) is a mob.”

Is History Repeating Itself?

Easter Island is best known for its collection of over 900 male-shaped moai (sculptures), some of which can be found face-down instead of gazing out at the magnificent landscape before them. The fallen statues were purposely thrown down, indicating that important events took place that made the islanders destroy the images they had worked so hard to create.

They are symbolic of the human penchant for self-destruction that continues to this day. Every country, region, or island wishes to profit from tourism, but at what cost? Rapa Nui is only 162km2 in size, yet it receives over 50,000 visitors a year. The government attributes the boom in tourism to the Island’s nomination in the New Seven Wonders of the World contest, which has led to predicted estimates of 200,000 visitors annually by 2020. Greater efforts to protect Rapa Nui must be established, but tourists can start doing their share to protect the island’s treasures today.

The Selfie Culture Ends in Tears

Despite the fact that Easter Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors often show little respect for its value. According to Van Tilburg, this sacred site is being degraded by visitors who climb the moai statues, walk over tombs, and enter protected areas – all in an effort to get a ‘better selfie’ than the next person. You may have also seen Instagram shots featuring tourists holding a finger up to the nose of the statues – an act, says the archaeologist, which shows great disrespect. “I am troubled by the lack of genuine tourist interest in the island and its people. There is a lack of appreciation for the Rapa Nui past. It seems that many wish only to insert themselves into history by taking a selfie with the timeless statues.”

Making a Connection

For Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the fate of the island very much depends on both scientists and tourists stepping up their game. Tourists, she feels, should “study and learn” before stepping onto the island, in order to “remove their selfies from the landscape and learn to appreciate the past.” It is indeed very enriching to learn about Easter Island’s history, the careful excavations that have revealed striking secrets, and the proper etiquette to adopt when visiting sacred sites.

The Moai are Just the Jewel in the Crown

The moai gaze proudly at the island, their backs turned to the Pacific Ocean, from within the lush Rapa Nui National Park. Easter Island was colonised close to the end of the first millennium by settlers from Eastern Polynesia, whose culture expressed itself in colossal statues (the moai – which represented their ancestors). The first settlers are thought to have arrived around 400AD, but to this day, historians are still uncertain about who they were. Some believe there was an extra-terrestrial connection, but there is no strong evidence either way.

More than a Pretty Face

One important thing to know about the moai is that the ‘Easter Island Heads’ actually have bodies! Almost a decade ago, UCLA archaeologists excavated two of these moai, finding that the heads were connected to far bigger shapes that were covered by shifting soils and erosion. With an average weight of 20 tonnes and a height of around six metres, these statues were carved lying down on a quarry, moved to their intended site, and subsequently placed upon an ‘ahu’ or platform. Some moai have red topknots obtained from a specific quarry called Puna Pau – which produces red stone (red was considered a sacred colour). Once placed into cavities in the ahu, the sculptures were given eyes made of coral and red stone. The larger the statue, the greater the importance of the chief who commissioned it.

Putting the Moai in their Place

The statues were carved on three sides then lowered into their intended slot. Once this was done, the last side was completed. The statues that currently stand by the Rano Raku volcano are incomplete, since work was required on them before their transportation to their ahu.

How were the Moai Moved?

Transportation of the moai was difficult work. First, deep holes had to be carved into the rock. Trunks were placed into the holes for greater stability, and the statues were slowly lowered down a 45º slope with ropes. Many scholars think that ropes were also used to haul the statues from one side of the island to another. The theory that they might have been moved on wooden rollers has been debunked, because the road beds are too concave to allow for smooth delivery.

What Happened to the Native Population of Rapa Nui?

Scholars have long wondered why a population that worked so hard to erect its famous moai statues should have disappeared from their sacred land. The recent documentary, Easter Island: The Truth Revealed has an interesting answer: rats! Previously, it had been postulated that the Rapanui were forced to leave after decimating the land. According to this theory, the forest area was destroyed. Since wood was required to make the wooden sledges and log rails that would be used to transport the massive statues across the island (as mentioned above, this theory has been questioned), the scarcity of this material led the natives to move to greener pastures.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology has put this ‘ecocide’ theory to rest, arguing that the demise of this civilisation was caused by two main factors: rats, and slavery. Archaeologists believe that rats, who feed on palm nuts, nibbled away too voraciously at the precious commodity, thus preventing palm trees from reseeding.

Slavery and diseases contracted from Europeans were another big blow to the native population. In 1862, slave traders from Peru abducted up to 2,000 natives (half the island’s population), allowing only 15 victims to return to the island. Sadly, these natives infected the rest of the population with diseases they had contracted, thus leading to the eventual demise of this fascinating culture.

A Social Perspective

Jo Anne Van Tilburg believes that another reason for the downfall of Rapa Nui’s natives was social inequality. The wealthy made all major decisions, deciding how the lower classes should live and forcing them to harvest food for the entire population. They also decided all matters pertaining to the moai – including how they should be built. Van Tilburg told UCLA’s Jessica Wolf that the natives were highly skilled at farming and fishing, but they were less adept at managing their resources. Social inequality, combined with environmental fragility and the advent of the slave trade, made them unable to defend themselves sufficiently.

Ahu Tongariki

As inspiring as the statues are the platforms they stand on. Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial structure built on Easter island and is considered the most important megalithic monument in Polynesia. The central platform measures almost 100 metres and it is topped with the greatest number of moai (15) on the island, with statues varying in height.

The Poike Volcano Speaks

When you first encounter the stately moai, you are taken aback by the stillness and spirituality they exude. However, step a few metres back from the row of giants and you will behold a site of great natural beauty – including the Poike Volcano (the oldest volcano on the island), whose eruptions resulted in the formation of the eponymous peninsula. The top of the volcano is covered by a lush eucalyptus forest, while its southern end comprises majestic cliffs that descend to the cove of Hanga Nui.

A Legendary Battle

It was on the Poke Peninsula that the mythological battle between the ‘Long Ears’ and the ‘Short Ears’ took place. According to this narrative, the ‘Long Ears’ were domineering and haughty, leading the ‘Short Ears’ (who were charged with the most laborious tasks) to rebel. In order to defeat their foe, the ‘Long Ears’ dug deep ditches, filling them with branches. The intention was to light the ditches with fire and force the ‘Short Ears’ to fall into this trap. In fact, the joke was on them. A ‘Short Ears’ woman married to a ‘Long Ears’ man warned her people about the devious plan, and while the ‘Long Ears’ slept, the ‘Short Ears’ set the ditch alight and attacked. The ‘Long Ears’ revealed that their strategic abilities were not as great as the size of their flappers, falling into their own ditch and succumbing to an agonising death by fire.

The Ceremonial Village of Orongo

This emerald hued village is easily one of the most spectacular sites on the Island. Located on the southwestern part of the Rano Kau volcano, it was inhabited by the chiefs of the ancient tribes, who hoped to collect the first sacred egg of the manutara bird in the spring season. This celebration had a deep religious significance; it was held in honour of Makemake, the God of Creation. The chiefs and important tribe members built low-lying homes from laminar basalt slabs. Around 54 houses were built on the edge of the Ranu Kau crater. Unlike the houses on the rest of the island (which were made of vegetable fibres), solid walls were built to resist the lashing of the winds.

If you are visiting Easter Island, the Rano Kau volcano area is indeed a must-see site. Its deep azure crater lake is a scene of great serenity, perfect for spending a few hours on a sunny day. The area also has a short hiking trail which ends with a towering view of the Pacific Ocean.

Many Things to See

If the mystery of caves are your thing, then head for the Ana Te Pahu site – home to so many caves that are within a short distance from each other. Remember to bring a powerful torch; it can get very dark in there! If you love swimming, don’t miss Anakena Beach, which is very close to the moai sculptures and graced with swaying palm trees. If you prefer to explore under the surface, there are local diving centres that will guide you to some of the most impressive underground water features. Ovahe Beach, surrounded by cliffs of reddish volcanic origin, is known for its fine pink sand – the result of a blend of volcanic slag and eroded coral.

Where to Stay?

One of Easter Island’s highlights is its collection of eco lodges. Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa is conveniently close to the main village of Hanga Roa, and boasts a construction that is inspired on the ceremonial village of Orongo. The resort has a stunning outdoor pool, luxurious spa, and fabulous activity list that includes visits to the beach, bicycle rides, and trekking. It makes an ideal choice for travellers who like to blend fun and adventure. Also highly rated is Posada de Mike Rapu, ensconced in the midst of a nature-filled paradise bearing trees and prairies, and boasting a panoramic view of the Pacific. This resort offers a host of programmes focusing on wellness, archaeology, and photography. There are many things to see and explore on Easter Island but the best way to do so, is with a guide – so that your visit comes to mean much more than taking a humorous selfie!