Easter Island was at the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember, because like most people, I really wanted to see those giant heads! Well, after three years of working my ass off to afford going to the remote island in the Pacific, I finally went, and can tell you that Easter Island is A LOT more than just those heads.
For starters, the heads have bodies, and there is a very logical (and significant) way that they were built, that did not, I repeat, DID NOT, involve aliens. Furthermore, the fact that they are on a gorgeous tropical island, with equally as gorgeous locals, seems to get extremely downplayed, but don’t worry, I’m here to give you a lot of visuals.
Speaking of visuals, the reason why I claim I can explain Easter Island easily, is because I got a lot of photos that help explain the history and culture, that I’ve never seen before on any publication! Also, since I was traveling solo and not there on “official journalist business”, I made friends with locals who answered all of my bizarre, slightly ignorant questions.
I’m not saying I’m an expert, and I’ll definitely throw it out there that my “facts” probably aren’t as accurate since many came from a local at a bar, and one that had a huge crush on me. But this is the way I’d explain it to someone like me before I actually went and traveled solo to Easter Island!
If you’ve been living under a rock, you might not know about the famous face-shaped rock that can be seen anywhere from movie screens to your iPhone emoji library. If you’re reading this though, you probably have heard of it, and probably know that they can only be found on Easter Island.
By the way, those giant statues have a name, they’re called “Moai”, and the people of the island are called “Rapa Nuis”.
Easter Island (also known as Isla de Pascua) is literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in between Tahiti and the coast of Chile. It’s a about a six hour flight both from Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti, and those are its closest neighbors.
That being said, yes, the flights are very expensive, and there’s no way around it.
Easter Island, like most islands, especially in Polynesia, was formed by oceanic volcanoes that rose out of the ocean, and then became dormant. That’s why you can climb to the rim of the three main volcanic craters on the island, which each play a very important role in the culture, history, and creation of the Moai statues.
I’m not entirely sure how aliens automatically get credit for giant statues being on a remote island, when all it takes is common sense to know ancient civilizations built them. Well…and seeing the half carved Moai in the side of Rano Raraku (volcanic crater) which served as the “Moai-making factory” also makes things immediately obvious.
In a nutshell; the statues were carved horizontally from the porous volcanic rock of an extinct volcano, then stood upright. They were then carried to various areas of the island by all of the super strong people…but for a hefty price. That price was usually a certain amount of chickens, fish, or “beautiful fertile women”…at least according to the very animated local guy at the bar.
The Moai statues aren’t just there for decoration. They’re existence, also known as “megalithism” began in order show the importance ranking of people on the island. If you were important, you got a statue, and you also got one statue per generation in your family. Hence why you’ll see most of the restored Moai in a row.
Interestingly though, the platform or “ahu” that the statues stood on were the main important structure that signified importance. You can’t tell now, but they used to be adorned with white coral and red stone decorations. Later on they also became graves…
The location of the Moai statues also designates the area where the different families/tribes lived. So imagine little ancient houses surrounding the giant statues.
Perhaps the most famous Moai photos are of the heads that appear to be half buried in the ground. For the longest time, I thought the statues were just heads. Then I thought it was a groundbreaking phenomenon when I heard scientists dug deep and found actual bodies attached to them.
Then I saw the half-carved, but full-bodied Moais in the crater side at Rano Raraku, and talked to a local, and realized that it’s really no mystery at all. You can clearly see the statues have bodies without having to dig them up.
So why did some get buried like this?
According to my very expressive local Rapa Nui friend who kept insisting on sharing a caiprianha, “Rano Raraku was like the factory. People order the Moai from the factory, but then if people can’t pay to have the Moai moved (pay in fish, chicken, beautiful women), the Moai stay at the factory. Then after a while, the ground covers the Moai.”
Makes total sense. What’s cool is that there are also dozens of Moai IN the actual crater…but I have a feeling those might have just been too difficult to carry out…
Carving giant statues from volcanic rock is explainable. But moving a multi-ton rock is not as easy to figure out. Scientists have tried finding evidence, and have even attempted moving them using different techniques, but no luck.
In my opinion, if you take a look at how big and strong the Rapa Nuis are/were, it’s not so hard to believe they all got together and carried or dragged them. Their backs are flat which might make it easier to slide across dirt, so the only question after that would be how they stood them up right. Keep in mind some of them are two stories tall.
Most of the Moai statues you see in photos and in real life, are restored from ruins. There are equally as many sites on the island with unrestored Moai, but since they just look like crumbled rocks, they are easy to overlook. They were destroyed during wars between tribes, which ultimately led to the end of the megalithism/Moai era.
Obviously the ones stuck in the ground weren’t destroyed because they didn’t belong to anyone or represent any specific tribe or family. So they were just left where they were to either topple over or get covered by the Earth.
Some Moai that were kept by later generations were also stolen, and imagine that! If a bunch of sailors can move a massive Moai statue, locals that lived off the land definitely could! Sailors are also responsible for destroying the last houses built on the island so they could steal the artwork (petroglyphs) from inside of them.
Hundreds of years later, a new existence of natives created a belief known as Tangata Manu, which translates to, “Bird Man”. It was a sacred religion that basically included a certain flock of seabirds’ migration, fertility, and an ancient Ironman competition.
Essentially, when the flock of birds returned annually to a smaller island off the coast, a super strong man (the leader or a representative) from each tribe climbed down the cliff, swam across the (shark infested) ocean, and competed to find the first egg of the season.
Whoever got the egg was the island’s most powerful person for the remainder of the year. The benefits that came along with it, from my understanding, were in the form of fertile women…hence the competition for “the egg” (I may or may not have been referred to twice as “the egg” when I was there), and power which was often abused over the rest of the tribes.
There’s also talk that the leading tribe used the opportunity for revenge…which may have been in the form of cannabalism. When I asked my Rapa Nui bar buddy about that he said, “Yes! You no have fish, you not beautiful woman, you not have kids, you food.” So glad we’re past that now.
Anyway, the symbols you’ll see on Easter Island that look like a bird head with a human body represent The Birdman. You may see other symbols as well including an ancient vagina, and you can even get a souvenir egg with all the symbols etched in it! I 100% did.
According to the cute, young Rapa Nui native I met, there aren’t many of them left. Today there are only about 5,000 Rapa Nui natives, and then about 5,000 Chilean/other country expats on the island. The guy I met introduced me to about twenty of his cousins, so I had to ask if they’re all pretty much related, and he said yes. Keep in mind that the island is tiny (so small that I could drive around it in a day), and there is only one main town called Hanga Roa.
Most natives will also blatantly tell you that they don’t like the Chileans that live there because they come and make money off of their culture, without actually caring about it. They will also say that Easter Island is NOT a part of Chile.
What makes a giant, iconic statue even more breathtaking? Having it situated with bright blue waters, cliffs, green grass, and palm trees in the background! Not to mention, the frequent free-roaming heard of chestnut colored horses and their babies!
Don’t forget that Easter Island is still an island…which means stunning views and nature all around!
…and so are the Rapa Nuis
Maybe I’m just a sucker for tan skin, muscles, and tattoos, but it’s hard not to be when you’re surrounded by it! I nearly drooled when I went to a traditional Kari Kari dance show and the guys came out wearing just a string and some feathers. One of them literally looked like a Polynesean Zac Efron, and it must have been my very lucky day because they picked me to allllllll dance around.
The women are of course beautiful too with their long dark hair, tan skin, and ability to belly dance like a dashboard hula doll. That all being said, don’t bother falling in love, because there’s a good chance no one on the island is actually single!