By MARIA TERESA HERNANDEZ
RAPA NUI, Chile – The Rano Raraku volcano hill in Rapa Nui looks like a place frozen in time.
Embedded 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.”
Where is he?
You have to look closely at a map of the Pacific to find Rapa Nui, a small triangle covering about 63 square miles.
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 quickest way to get there is a six-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, 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.
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 foreigners had disastrous 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 helping to administer Rapa Nui National Park; it 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.”
the fire itself
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 approximately one square kilometer. 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. When an important Rapanui died – 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 image. 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.
The Moai weren’t meant to be forever. When they collapsed or needed to be replaced, their remains were used to erect a new one in the same place.
Between the arrival of Europeans and the mid-19th century, all moai erected on platforms were toppled, possibly due to environmental factors or neglect. Major restoration projects and new archaeological surveys, carried out by foreign experts, began in the 1960s and 1970s.
At that time, said Rapanui historian Christian Moreno, many islanders did not understand why foreigners were so fascinated by the statues, which no longer served a specific religious or cultural role.
Gradually, Moreno said, the community began to delve into their collective memory, talking to elders and, little by little, reclaiming the history of the moai.
“Then the Rapanui understood again that the moai represent the ancestors who walked through the same land as us, who breathed the same air as us, who saw this ocean,” Moreno said.
Now, in Rapa Nui, people can trace family history simply by knowing their surname and where the moai named after their ancestors were placed.
Tourism, the future
In 18 years of operation, Te Ra’ai has welcomed up to 120 foreigners a day, but from March 2020 to last August, there were none. To protect the community from COVID-19, the mayor banned foreigners from entering the island, whose economy is 80% dependent on tourism.
The mayor of Rapa Nui is Pedro Edmunds, brother of Carlos Edmunds. Unlike other mayors eager to embark on new projects, he doesn’t even add streetlights without first consulting the community’s ancestors.
“Incorporating heavy machinery into ancestral territory is a violation of the protective spirit of the place,” he explained.
Edmunds, the mayor for 25 years, is worried about the future but also hopeful.
“Our daughters and our sons have not lost the essence of being Rapanui and this guarantees that this culture will have a future,” he said. “We are a company that respects its environment and is extremely protective of its culture”.
This culture includes the Rapanui language, which has only 14 letters. Yet a single word can simultaneously incorporate metaphor, parable and philosophy. A single name can express who you are, what you do, what you love.
“I have often asked people from other countries: who are you? And they all tell me their name,” says Jean Pakarati. “When someone asks me this question, my answer is: ‘I am Rapanui.’ ”