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We Meet the Moai

April 21, 2019

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I knew there were hundreds of moai on the island, I assumed they were all pretty much the same. Wrong! At Rano Raraki, known as the birthplace of the moai, I discovered that the carvers imparted the heads with unique facial expressions and characteristics. More on our visit there later.

I also assumed from my reading that these giants looked out to sea. Wrong again! Only one group of moai gaze seaward; the Rapanui worshipped their ancestors, and these benevolent statues resembling important tribal elders and dignitaries were erected to look over and protect the people of the villages.

Another misconception is that the people deforested the island in order to move the statues from the carving sites to their desired spots. While the early settlers did cut down some of the trees to build homes, clear land for cultivation and provide wood for cooking, the greater damage to the palms that once abounded was most likely caused by Pacific rats brought aboard their canoes. These rats feasted on the seeds of the palm trees, to the extent that they could not propagate. Also, the Rapanui did not begin creating their moai for quite some time after they arrived.

Just outside Hangaroa, the only town, is Ahu Tahai, and that’s where we had our first introduction to the moai. This is thought to be the earliest inhabited area of the island.

The moai sit on platforms, called ahu. Once they were positioned on the ahu, sockets were carved and the eyes were placed, giving the statues their mana, or spirit. The eyes, made of white coral, always gaze slightly upward. The reddish topknot on this guy’s head is made of scoria, a different stone from the volcanic type of which the moais’ bodies are composed. Not all of the heads have topknots, which are thought to represent a hairdo (think man-bun) rather than a hat.

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Ahu Akivi, a line of seven statues standing at attention on a small hill, is a bit further inland, and we visited there in the harsh light of afternoon.

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Like many other ahu,  this one is positioned to align with the spring and fall equinoxes.

One morning we left the hotel early to catch the sunrise at Rano Kao, the largest crater on the island. Rapa Nui was formed when two volcanoes erupted, then a smaller third one joined. The lake inside the enormous crater  (1 km across) is covered with mats of grasses, and on a good day the sky and clouds create stunning reflections in the water. Unfortunately, sunrise didn’t materialize except for a brief moment, but a downpour did.

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Next up: a real sunrise!

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