Monday 3 November 2014

South America Part 3: Lost Civilisation - A Visit to the Navel of the Earth, Easter Island

After visiting some of the most remote and uninhabitable parts of the South American mainland, it seemed appropriate to move onto Easter Island, the world's most remote human inhabited island. In an age of technology, including orbiting Earth observation satellites, there are very few uncharted lands or islands and there are certainly few unknown human civilizations or settlements now, if any at all. But even in the modern age, some parts of the planet are still thrillingly, and in the case of Easter Island, intriguingly remote.

I had decided very late to add Easter Island to my trip, when I realised that it was not only reachable from Chile's capital Santiago, but Santiago is the only place from where it can be reached directly other than infrequent flights from fellow Pacific island Tahiti. Even from Santiago, it five hours by plane. Realising that it might be a while before I am in Santiago again, if at all, I felt that I needed to take the opportunity to visit a such remote and very mysterious place and I was so pleased that I did for the fantastic experience I was to have.

Moai statues, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
The first time I came across Easter Island was, when growing up, being interested in astronomy, for a time I had an obsession with UFOs and aliens and read about how it was once thought that the mysterious Moai statues on Easter Island were built by visitors from outer space! In relation to Asperger's Syndrome, not that I or my family knew it at the time, I also had a tendency to be very gullible, believing just about anything read or was told, including stories about UFOs, many which turn out to be aeroplanes, satellites or unusual cloud formations as well as that some of the world's great unexplained mysteries, including the Moai statues and the Nazca Lines in Peru, were the work of extra terrestrials.

However, now that I am older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am now able to appreciate and understand that such explanations often arise out of human imagination, when there isn't an immediate obvious or logical observation for statues on an island so remote from known human civilisation or patterned lines that only have a meaning from above. Visiting Easter Island though, I found out how geographical remoteness can influence the human conciousness, including how those who inhabit such a remote island see themselves in the world.

Ranu Kau Volcano, Easter Island
Long before Dutch sailors came across the island by chance on Easter Monday in 1722, hence the name 'Easter Island', a civilisation had been in existence for over a thousand years after the earliest known settlers are said to have arrived on the island in around 300-400BC from the Polynesian islands. The native name for Easter Island is Te Pitoote Hanua, which means the Navel of the Earth. Just like the navel on the human body arises and contracts as the breath comes in and out and maybe subject to physical sensations, the earth is subject to physical sensations, including volcanoes, how Easter Island was formed.

Birdman Cave Paintings
Understandably, being surrounded by endless-looking oceans with no land mass or other sizeable islands in sight, early inhabitants of Rapa Nui must have felt they were either at the centre of the world or that the inhabited world 'stopped' at the island, Easter Island's isolation allowed the rituals of its civilisation to continue relatively undisturbed for over a thousand years, including the annual Birdman competition (tangata manu) where partipants would swim to the small islands of Motu Nuti and sea stack Motu Kau Kau to collect the first egg from returning the sooty terns (manu tara). Winners of the Birdman competition would not only be entitled to gifts of food and other tributes, but the clan they came from would have sole rights to collect that seasons harvest of wild bird eggs. Seen from the perspective of modern health and safety standards, it was a dangerous event. Many participants died falling off cliffs, drowning and some were killed by sharks.

Moai carvings at the quarry at Rano Rakuru
The Birdman competition was eventually suppressed by Christian missionaries in 1860. Meanwhile, the 887 Moai statues in place on the island today have survived the ravages of time, though the effects time has had on them are visible. Carved from solidified volcano ash deposited in Rano Rakuru quarry and mounted on stone platforms, the statues were a form of ancestor worship. Their faces face inland to watch over and protect the people with a site at Ahu Akivi, apparently seven men waiting for their chief to arrive, being an exception. Closer inspection reveals a sophisticated social class hierarchy with taller the statues and the the higher the platform it is built on meaning the further up the class system those the statues were built in memory of were. Interestingly, some of the statues also have a hat or top-knot, carved from red ash from another quarry, to represent islanders who had red hair, which was considered sacred.

Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki
When civilisation on Easter Island was first seen by the Dutch sailors in 1722, who incidentally noted that some of the islands inhabitants had red hair, for its time it must have been like finding life on another planet and for the islanders, seeing a spacecraft arrive from another planet. for me, after travelling through the other-worldly landcspaes of Bolivia's Salt Flats and Chile's Valley of the Moon, which could easily be mistaken for other planets, I almost felt the same effect seeking out a lost and mysterious civilisation on an island so remote that its existence could almost easily have been over-looked. Though it remained unknown to the outside world for over a thousand years, mysteries still remain on Easter Island, including how its earliest settlers found their way to the island, curiosity of which keeps the mind active.

Special thanks to G Adventures for their wonderful hospitality again, to tour guide Kike Munoz and to Easter Island tour guide Mata'u for his passion for his people's history.