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Frank McGinity: Easter Island’s Enduring Mystery Assures Its Appeal

Stone statues keep their origins to themselves while tourists speculate about the why and the how

A line of moai stands at attention on Easter Island.
A line of moai stands at attention on Easter Island.  (McGinity family photo)

By Frank McGinity |

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is one of the most remote locations in the South Pacific. It is 2,200 miles from the Chilean coast and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn, the nearest inhabited island. It is only 63 square miles. So why has Easter Island become a popular destination for tourists? My wife and I arrived aboard the Oceania’s Marina ship to find out.

Sheila and Frank McGinity at Easter Island. (McGinity family photo)
Sheila and Frank McGinity at Easter Island. (McGinity family photo)

The attraction of Easter Island is primarily due to the “moai,” or stone statues, located throughout the island. There are more than 900 of them, and the oldest ones date back to 1200 AD. The statues, carved from volcanic rock, range from seven to 66 feet tall and can weigh up to 250 tons. A statue of this type is not found anywhere else in the world.

We arrived by ship and became two of more than 100,000 tourists expected this year. Tourism is the prime industry of Easter Island. Hanga Roa is the main town where most of the 5,000 inhabitants live. The most prominent “moai” are located outside of Hanga Roa. There are three prime areas, all of which we were able to visit on a one-day tour. At Ahu Tongariki, there are more than 15 statues, all facing inland toward the village where the chiefs and specialists lived.

Tadano, a Japanese crane manufacturing company is responsible for financing the restoration of this site with the help of Chilean archaeologists and a group of 50 Easter Islanders. Other sites include the actual quarry at Rano Raraku where the moai were carved and transported. About 400 moai can be found here, in different stages of carving or erected upon the slopes of the volcano. You pay a fee of $60 to enter the park and then have the opportunity to climb the mountain to the actual quarry.
The final site of interest was at the beach at Anakena. This location has an altar with seven restored moai, some with tattoos on their buttocks and four with a ceremonial hat named Hau Hitirau Moai. This is where the settlement of the paramount chief was located until 1891 and where the grandfather of King Valentine I, the present king, was born.

The big question, often discussed in periodicals and television, is how could this ancient Polynesian culture move these stone statues weighing up to 120 tons to their current locations when wood was scarce and they had no metal tools? The answers are varied. Some archaeologists believe they could be “walked” by means of ropes and a rocking motion. We had lunch with Edmundo Edwards, a Chilean resident archaeologist in Hanga Roa, who advanced the hypothesis that the moai were moved — like the Polynesian way of grounding giant double outriggers — by laying the statue on a sled with rollers on a track of palm trees, and then applying levers to move it. However they carved them and however they moved them, it was a remarkable accomplishment with few parallels in the ancient world.

But why did the Rapa Nui islanders build them in the first place? We were told they represented their deified ancestors who were the heads of the different lineages, a status symbol of their worth, endowed with a special force named “Mana” that could be obtained when it was petitioned by the chiefs, bringing fertility to nature, ensuring good crops and abundance of fish and other food resources. Perhaps this is why some people have told us that seeing the moai on Easter Island was a spiritual experience. For us, it was very special to visit a place in the world that can truly be defined as unique and with an air of mystery.

We and our cruise ship would move on to Pitcairn Island, Bora Bora and Tahiti. But we couldn’t escape the irony that this island’s principal economy is dependent upon its past greatness such as in Greece and other renowned ancient sites on Earth. Perhaps you should visit Easter Island and find out why.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

Easter Island's famed moai weigh up to 120 tons apiece. (McGinity family photo)
Easter Island’s famed moai weigh up to 120 tons apiece. (McGinity family photo)

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» on 01.28.13 @ 06:31 PM

Special thanks to Frank for sharing his trip to this amazing, exotic locale.

Whatever the origin of the buried heads, it’s very sad to relate that when Europeans
first visited the area, they found the once-thriving native population had been reduced by war and resource scarcity to near-extinction.

Whatever you think of his theories, the brilliant, multi-disciplinary scholar Jared
Diamond, included a chapter on Rapa Nui in his book “Collapse: Why Civilizations
Fail.” Engrossing reading, whether Diamond’s right or not.

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