Easter Island bounces back after wildfire damages famous statues | Chile

The Rano Raraku volcano hill in Rapa Nui looks like a place frozen in time.

Encased in grass and volcanic rock, nearly 400 moai – the monolithic human figures carved centuries ago by the Rapanui people of this remote Pacific island – remained untouched until recently. Some are buried from the neck down, the heads apparently observing their surroundings from underground.

Around them there was a pervasive smell of smoke from still-smoldering vegetation – a remnant of a forest fire that broke out in early October. Over 100 moai were damaged by the flames, many of them blackened with soot, although the impact on the stone remains undetermined. Unesco recently allocated nearly $100,000 for assessment and remediation plans.

In this Polynesian territory that now belongs to Chile and is widely known as Easter Island, the loss of any moai would be a blow to ancient cultural and religious traditions. Each of the moai – nearly 400 on the volcano and more than 500 others elsewhere on the island – represents an ancestor. A creator of words and music. A protector.

Rapa Nui Elders Council President Carlos Edmunds recalled his emotions when he first heard about the fire.

“Oh, I started crying,” he said. “It was like my grandparents had been burned.”

One needs to look closely at a map of the Pacific to find Rapa Nui, a small triangle covering about 63 square miles (164 square km). Home to around 7,700 people, around half of whom are of Rapanui ancestry, it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The fastest way to get there is a six-hour flight from Santiago, covering 2,340 miles. Much further, to the northwest, are the most populated islands of Polynesia.

The remoteness has shaped the community’s worldview, spirituality and culture. Its small size also plays a role: it seems that everyone knows each other.

The Moai statues of Easter Island.
The Moai statues of Easter Island. Photography: Esteban Felix/AP

Rapa Nui was formed at least 750,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions. Its first inhabitants were sailors from Central Polynesia who gradually created their own culture. The moai were carved between the years 1000 and 1600.

The first Europeans arrived in 1722, soon followed by missionaries. Current religious activities combine ancestral and Catholic beliefs.

The arrival of outsiders had grim effects: Hundreds of Rapanui were enslaved by Peruvian raiders in 1862 and taken to South America, where many died in cruel conditions.

In 1888, Chile annexed the island and leased it to a sheep business. It was not until the 20th century that the islanders began to regain their autonomy, although there were no Rapanui annals written to tell their ancient history.

Without these books to preserve their heritage, the Rapanui imprinted the memory of their people in activities and traditions passed down from generation to generation. The hand of the fisherman throwing a hook carries the wisdom of his ancestors. The women’s hairstyle evokes the pukao, a reddish stone hat placed on the heads of the moai.

Even music is not just music.

“You write books, we write songs,” said Jean Pakarati, chief councilor of the Ma’u Henua indigenous community. “Dance is an expression and that expression is the story.

Pakarati’s duties include assisting in the administration of Rapa Nui National Park. She was shaken by the damage done to the moai within the boundaries of the park.

“Anything related to archaeology, as you call it, is so important,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s part of us.”

Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world.
Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Photography: Esteban Felix/AP

At 2 a.m. on October 4, when the fire was finally brought under control, those risking their safety around the burning crater were untrained volunteers using shovels and stones, cutting down trees and branches.

“Family, friends and Rapanui came,” Pakarati said. “What are you going to say to people when they are in such anguish, when they know that their volcano, where the moai were built, is burning?”

The fire covered 254 hectares (about one square mile). He was born far from the volcano, on a cattle ranch, but the wind brought flames to Rano Raraku. Some residents say they know who started the blaze, but expect no punishment due to a cultural reluctance to press charges against fellow Rapanui.

Each moai retains valuable information about its tribe. On the death of an important Rapanui – a grandfather, a tribal leader – some of his bones were placed under the ceremonial platform called an ahu and his spirit was given the opportunity to be reborn after an artisan carved a moai in his likeness. Thus each moai is unique, bearing a name of its own.

When the moai were carved, the island was divided according to its clans, but most of the statues were created in Rano Raraku. The ahu were built near the sea.

It is unclear how the moai – which average 13 feet in height and weigh several tons – were transported to their ahu. One theory is that they were moved as if standing, dragged with little turns as one would with a refrigerator.

When Chile leased the island, the foreigners who took control stripped all Rapanui tribes of their property, although several ahu and moai can still be seen on land they previously controlled.

Edmunds recently visited the Anakena moai which were carved by his ancestors; he says the protection of his loved ones never leaves him. “For us, spirits live on.”

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