Before dawn on our last day on Easter Island, we turned up to the island’s tiny port at Hanga Piko (which means place of action). Here there is a well-restored ahu (Ahu Riata) with a lone eroded moai on top.
This is essentially a man-made port with spare anchorage for the odd small yacht or two and fairly dangerous to come into so it requires a pilot for that. Until only about fifteen years ago, cargo ships came annually only and supermarket stocks could get quite tight if the ship were delayed. Now they come more often and they offload their cargo onto small tenders from this small port.
There are two tenders that unload freighters, moored under the street lamp at the far left. In the post of the Tahai Complex, in the images of the boat ramp and the hare paenga, you could see a small ship out to sea which was a freighter offloading supplies. You probably can’t see the tender alongside the ship in those web images, even if you click to enlarge them, though it is there in the full-sized image.
Early visitors such as Captain Cook did not anchor here, rather off the north-east coast of the island, which is the lee of the island and offers more secure anchorages on sand as well as an easier landing on a sandy beach.
Third Contact: Cook in 1774
Captain James Cook was the third European visitor to the island in 1774, with one ship and 112 men. They stayed for four days.
“Some hundreds of natives” assembled to watch them land at Anakena.
The country appeared barren and without wood; there were nevertheless, several plantations of potatoes, plantains and sugar canes; we also saw some fowls and found a well of brackish water.
On the second day, Cook sent off a landing party to tour round the island, though since he was recovering from sickness, he felt obliged to remain at Anakena. The touring party set off at nine in the morning and returned by seven in the evening. Cook received an account from Lieutenant Pickersgill and Mr Wales.
Soon after they departed, they were joined by an ariki (chief) who walked along in front of them to guarantee their clear passage.
… a middle aged man, punctured from head to foot, and his face painted by some sort of white pigment, appeared with a spear in his hand, and walked alongside of them, making signs to his countrymen to keep at a distance, and not to molest our people. When he had pretty well effected this, he hoisted a white piece of cloth on his spear, placed himself at the front, and led the way with his ensign of peace, as they understood it to be.
They took a path that led across to the south-east side of the island and encountered some prime farming land.
Towards the highest part of the south end of the island, the soil, which was a fine red earth, seemed much better, bore a longer grass, and was not covered with stones as it was in other parts; but here they saw neither house nor plantation.
I think this means they have walked to Vaitea, the agricultural heartland of the island, much of which is unfortunately now covered in eucalypt forest (Tasmanian Blue Gum). The disuse of this land is likely to be a sign of reduced population since the climax of the classical period.
They came to a place beside the sea on the South Coast where they encountered three platforms of partly or fully overturned moai.
On the east side, near the sea, they met with three platforms of stonework, or rather the ruins of them. On each had stood four of those large statues; but they were all fallen down from two of them, and also one from the third; all except one were broken by the fall or in some measure defaced.
There are not many places in this part of the South Coast where there would be three fairly large ahus together. I think most likely they were at Akahanga. This is the first report of the deliberate destruction of moai on an ahu.
Next they turn around and go back up the coast towards the Poike Peninsula. The land was barren at first.
From this place they followed the direction of the coast to the north-east, the man with the flag still leading the way. For about three miles they found the coast very barren, and in some places stript of the soil to the bare rock….
After about three miles, the land became fertile, though good water remained scarce. This would be the area around the small volcanic cone Maunga Toa Toa, which may well have been good farm land. You may recall that when Roggeveen arrived in 1722, some islanders wanted the Dutch to come over to a part of the island near here where all their food supplies came from.
Beyond this they came to the most fertile part of the island they saw, it being interspersed with plantations of potatoes, sugar canes and plantain trees, and these not so much encumbered by stones as seen before; but they could find no water except what the natives twice or thrice brought them, which, though brackish and stinking, was rendered acceptable by the extremity of their thirst.
Around this time they shot and wounded with buckshot an islander who had stolen the bag of one of the party. After a period of confusion, their old ariki escort reassured the islanders and led the party further on. They had no further problems of this kind.
Shortly after this they had a kind of changing of the guard and acquired a new escort. They appeared to have met the chief of the island, the ariki mau himself.
As they passed along, they observed on a hill a number of people collected together, some of whom had spears in their hands; but, on being called to by their countryman, they dispersed; except a few, among whom was one seemingly of note. He was a stout, well-made man, with a fine open countenance; his face was painted, his body punctured, and he wore a better Ha Hou or cloth than the rest. He saluted them as they came up, by stretching out his arms with both hands clenched, lifting them over his head, opening them wide and then letting them gradually fall down to his sides. To this man, whom they understood to be the chief of the island, their other friend gave his white flag; and he gave it to another, who carried it before them for the remainder of the day.
They found a well with the only good quality water they encountered. This was towards the eastern end of the island, therefore probably on the Poike Peninsula. They observed that the islanders compromised the water by bathing in it as well as drinking it. (This might become an unfortunate practice at times when infectious diseases were endemic.)
They observed that this side of the island was full of those gigantic statues so often mentioned; some placed in groups on platforms of masonry; others single, fixed only in the earth, and not that deep; and these latter are in general much larger than the others.
They found that all of their party of 30 was able to fit under the shadow of a moai at 2pm. This was probably one of the moai leaning over in the earth at Rano Raraku which would cast a longer shadow at that time of day than a standing one.
They stopped to eat and climbed a hill where they were able to see both north and east coasts of the island. I don’t think this hill would be Rano Raraku because they don’t mention the crater lake and they were very interested in water. Perhaps they had gone back to Maunga Toe Toe or else inland to Maunga Te Olrena.
Here islanders brought them actual salt water to drink which they declined but they report that some islanders drank of this copiously. This certainly suggests desperation and a critical shortage of water on the part of the islanders. Consequently, the party returned to the one good well they had found. By this time it was 4pm so they set off overland directly back to the Resolution.
On the way back they found a cache of several pukao (topknots) in a small hollow in the highest part of the island. They were larger than previously encountered, in other words, their final carving was yet to come when they reached their intended ahu. (Mr Wales suggested there was a quarry there, which could not be the case unless they were at Puna Pau, far to the South. I have considered whether they might have taken an alternative route from Akahanga down the coast to Vinapu instead of up it to Tongariki but this doesn’t seem to fit the descriptions.)
Cook also related a couple of pages of descriptions of the Rapanui, which I will not say much of here. His estimate of the population was surprisingly low.
The inhabitants of the island do not seem to exceed six or seven hundred souls; and above two-thirds of those we saw were males.
This is much lower than the figures by Roggevein and Gonzalez (in both cases around 3,000) and it may be understated. Cook was unable to traverse the island himself, his land party didn’t visit the Western side of the island and much of the population might have been hiding away in lava tubes from the men with spears.
Cook finds a complete absence of the active veneration of the ancient gods that Roogeveen witnessed on the ahus.
The gigantic statues often mentioned are not in my opinion, looked upon as idols by the present inhabitants, whatever they may have been in the days of the Dutch; at least I saw nothing that could induce me to think so. On the contrary, I rather suppose that they are burying places for certain tribes or families. I, as well as some others, saw a human skeleton lying on one of these platforms, just covered in stones.
He also reports on significant numbers of pyramidical ahus.
Besides the monuments of antiquity, which were pretty numerous, and nowhere but on or near the sea-coast, there were many little heaps of stones piled up in different places, along the coast. Two or three uppermost stones in each pile were generally white; perhaps always so, when the pile is complete. It will hardly be doubted that these piles of stones had a meaning. Probably they might mark the place where people had been buried, and serve instead of the large statues.