Explore the myths and legends that surround the isolated island of Rapa Nui

By Tania Moffat

Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) may be small but it is rich in mystery.
Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) may be small but it is rich in mystery.
Moai under the Milky Way at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui.
Moai under the Milky Way at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui.

Mysteries and myths prevail around one of the world’s most isolated islands. It is a place of many names. Natives once referred to it as Ti Pito O Te Henua (the navel of the world) and Mata Kiterage (the eyes that look up to the sky). Sailor John Cook made reference to the island as San Carlos during its Spanish rule. Today, it is most commonly known as Easter Island, a name it received from Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeween, who discovered it during the Easter of 1972. It’s also known as Rapa Nui, the name of the people who originally inhabited it.

This tiny island is shrouded in even more mysteries than names. Much speculation has been made about the construction and placement of some of the most interesting archeological relics ever found — the moai. What are these giant statues, who did they represent, why and how were they placed over the entire island? Who built them, and did their construction lead to the demise of their makers? Is this a site once occupied by an advanced ancient race, evidence of alien architecture or is it perhaps the lost city of Atlantis? Who were the original inhabitants — when and how did they first arrive? While many of the wilder theories have been disproven, Easter Island remains a land of myth and legend.

Visitors, archeologists and scientists from around the world come here, to study and gaze in awe at the architectural structures that have stood on the island for centuries. There is no doubt that Rapa Nui is beautiful, but it is its history and almost 1,000 strange statues that draw people to it.

Much of Easter Island has been set aside as the Rapa Nui National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pathways and guide rails have been set up to help preserve its rich history.
Much of Easter Island has been set aside as the Rapa Nui National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pathways and guide rails have been set up to help preserve its rich history.

The land

The monumental maoi can be up to 10 metres high and weigh up to 82 tons.
The monumental maoi can be up to 10 metres high and weigh up to 82 tons.

The island is located between Tahiti and Chile, and is a modest 103-square-kilometres of Chilean territory. The land was formed by a series of massive volcanic eruptions millions of years ago by the three active volcanos situated at the triangular points of the island. Over 70 eruptive centres still cover the island; however, there has been no known volcanic activity over the last 1,300 years.

Mauga Terevaka, the highest and first point of the island, rises 551 metres (1,674 feet) above sea level. It is surrounded by two other mountain tops and offers a rare scenic view of the entire island.

The effects of time and erosion can be seen at the Poike, the oldest and most unique volcanic structure on the island. There is much to explore on this island’s second point. Maunga Vai a Heva, located on the southern side of the Poike, is a sculpture in the shape of a giant gargoyle that faces the peak. Petroglyphs and five moai made of the area’s white trachyte can be viewed to the north. Adventure seekers can explore some of the historic caverns with a guide, one of which served as a cemetery, as well as the infamous Ana O Keke which was used to initiate noble young virgins.

The third angle of the island is graced with Rano Kau, the volcano which gave birth to most of the island’s nearly 1,000 moai. Ancient artisans are estimated to have worked the volcanic stone between 1000 AD and 1680 AD producing the giant statues. While most of its seaside cliffs have eroded over time, visitors can wander the slopes of Rano Kau. The volcano is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rapa Nui National Park. Here, you can view some of the 397 moai, many buried, and contemplate the meaning of their existence. Rano Kau’s crater lake is one of only three natural bodies of fresh water on the island.

Jagged cliffs and rocky shorelines cover much of the island, but a few unspoilt beaches of white sand are welcome spots to enjoy the azure waters and coconut trees. Anakena beach is the most popular with locals and travellers alike. It is also a site of historic significance as it is likely the beach that welcomed settlers over the ages, including King Hotu Matua, and home to two archeological sites, Ahu Ature Huki and Ahu Nau Nau.

A panoramic view of Anakena beach showing an ahu in the background featuring numerous moai.
A panoramic view of Anakena beach showing an ahu in the background featuring numerous moai.

Who were the original inhabitants?

Like the moai, the history of the original inhabitants of the island is largely unknown. The stated origins of the people and their time of occupation are mainly speculative and based on studies of island lore; it continues to be a point of debate among researchers. It is estimated that the island was first settled in the fourth century, but by whom is anyone’s guess.

Some theories have the first settlers arriving from Polynesia or South America. Others postulate that two invasions occurred after the first settlement that shaped the culture and the people. This theory holds it was this second invasion, which led to the destruction of many moai and the cessation of the creation of these marvels.

Another tale tells of the arrival of seven sailors, all following the instructions of a clairvoyant, bringing items (such as a moai and, yes, yams) to the island, but only one man remained. When King Hotu Matua arrived, the moai and yam were already present on the island. Were these seven men actually tribes? Did only one tribe survive? With much of the island’s history based in legend and myth, the truth may never be fully realized.

Easter Island sculptures

Rapa Nui’s ancient civilization has left tantalizing legends about its elusive past.
Rapa Nui’s ancient civilization has left tantalizing legends about its elusive past.
There are hundreds of abandoned maoi in the quarry pit at the Rano Raraku volcanic crater.
There are hundreds of abandoned maoi in the quarry pit at the Rano Raraku volcanic crater.

The moai are themselves a conundrum. The timing of their construction cannot be pinned down exactly, and again legends vary on how the first head arrived on the island. The majority of the moai are male torsos with heads bearing long ears, and are thought to represent ancestors with supernatural powers. There are sculptures made from basalt, trachyte and red slag, but the majority were carved from the Rano Raraku volcano. The figures evolved over time from smaller effigies to the larger, long-eared ones that are most familiar to people today.

They are all similar, with the sole exception of one male figure that is sitting. Legend holds that this moai was built and buried so that it would be discovered at the end of the millennium. Oddly enough, it was discovered a distance from the other statues by archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl’s team in 1955 on a part of the Rano Raraku quarry.

Over the centuries several moai have fallen over and been destroyed by war, waves or erosion. In fact many of them have been buried, leaving only their heads exposed. Others lie partially carved in the side of the volcano. Most average a height of four metres, but there is one moai over 10 metres high on the north shore and one in the quarry 22 metres tall.

Once created, how were these sculptures moved around the island? Barring the extraterrestrial theories and the lore that states they “walked” to their final spots on the island, it is likely safe to say they were moved by people, most likely along wooden rails. Several ancient roads strewn with broken moai cross the island, providing validity to this theory. Other theories remain though, including the thought that they were transported by sea.

The ahu are the ceremonial platforms on which the moai were placed, most of them built at the edge of the ocean. There are 272 ahu on the island, yet few of them held statues. They were an incredible engineering feat for their time. They, too, evolved, becoming bigger and more complex over time.

Ahu with moai were situated at all corners of the island and once formed an almost unbroken line along the coast. The majority of the moai face inward toward the island in order to watch over the inhabitants and protect them with their supernatural power or Mana. Once they were installed their eye sockets were opened and eyes of white coral or obsidian added.

Each moai is different: some are painted and some have huge cylinders of red lava rock, known as pukao, on their head. Many moai had these headdresses which now lay fallen beside them. Why they were created with these adornments is a mystery. Of all the stone sculptures in the world made by Polynesians, none is similar to the moai.

The final chapter

The remains of a stone house that was part of the Orongo ceremonial village near the Rano Kau volcano crater.
The remains of a stone house that was part of the Orongo ceremonial village near the Rano Kau volcano crater.
Petroglyphs and cave paintings have been found in many of the island’s caves.
Petroglyphs and cave paintings have been found in many of the island’s caves.

When westerners found the island, it was desolate and treeless, yet evidence from the crater lakes indicate the island was once heavily forested with a now extinct giant palm. It seems the islanders produced the moai to the extent of their own downfall, deforesting the island in their construction. The deforestation led to erosion and the loss of the nutrient-rich topsoil. Crops began to fail and the people turned on one another, resorting to cannibalism. The lush tropical paradise was destroyed along with their civilization.

Petroglyphs can be found all over the island.
Petroglyphs can be found all over the island.

It is speculated that with no wood to build boats, they were stranded with few resources with which to live. At this point in history the Birdman practices took over as the dominate religion. Leadership was determined based on a grueling task where the strongest would scale the slopes of Rano Kau from the village of Orongo, then swim out to the three small islets in shark infested waters to bring back the unbroken egg of the sooty tern. The winning swimmer would present the egg to the leader of his tribe, who then became Birdman and leader of the tribes for one year.

Orongo has hundreds of petroglyphs of the Birdman and Make-Make, the omnipotent creator god, carved into the basalt. A moai with Birdman symbols carved into it was found at Orongo; maybe the two groups had found a way to coexist. Perhaps that new culture would have survived.

In 1862 slave traders arrived and took all the healthy individuals, so we will never know what their fate would have been had they remained as settlers on the island. Left only were the sick, injured and diseased until a final blow arrived that would completely destroy their culture.

Brought by the missionaries, thousands of wild horses now wander the island.
Brought by the missionaries, thousands of wild horses now wander the island.

Missionaries came and converted the remaining island inhabitants to Christianity. Their “salvation” came at a high price. The invaders destroyed their way of life, dress, wooden sculptures, buildings and religious artifacts. The missionaries’ most destructive act was the ruination of the people’s Rongo-Rongo tablets which contained a record of their now lost language. The key to their history was destroyed, wiping the truth away forever. So few of these tablets remain that no one has yet been able to decode them. The people were forced onto one section of the island, and the rest became ranch land. All pure Rapa Nui natives died out.

The Rapa Nui were an amazing people. The first arrivals would have found a lush island to live on with rich volcanic soil. Living in such a remote area they began to take on different characteristics and form a completely unique culture. They built a highly organized and efficient society on a tiny island out of little or nothing. In the few hundred years it existed, their civilization created an enigma that has puzzled the world ever since.