Easter Island Wrapup and Contents

It’s now been over two months since I returned from Patagonia, Antarctica, the Falklands, Iguazu Falls and Easter Island.  Most of that time I have been writing up Easter Island, which I have now finished.  Having got home I have been processing all images and therefore posting more of them.

Easter Island especially demands explanations to go with the images and I have given quite detailed accounts of many aspects of the history and archaeology of Easter Island.  There have been 24 posts, 150 images and lots of words.

It started out just about photography.  It’s become somewhat more than that, though the images remain central.


One thing I discovered, not in other accounts, was that Easter Island had a two-stage crisis.  First was an ecological crisis that lead to starvation and warfare.  Second and only after European contact, the overthrow of the old religion and the downing of the moai.

I finished up by considering whether the history of Easter Island offers a parable for our times.  I hope many people read this because I believe we all need to understand these issues to help build a consensus for positive change.

Ahu Hanga Kio’e

Below is a list of my special topics.  These are folded into the posts which have quite different names, specific to locations, that may not reflect the content of the special topics.  Further below I also present a list of the titles of the posts and then the sources of my research.

Special Topics

Ahu Te Peu


Note that posts are not necessarily chonological because they are also combined by content.

Easter Island map – click for larger size (so you can read the place names)

You need to click on the map to get it twice as large so you can read the place names.  The maps covers 16 of the 25 place names in the titles of posts.  Of those not covered:

  • Puna Pau is shown as Maunga Vai Ohao,
  • the South Coast is the whole south-east coast,
  • Ahu Vai Teka is just to the West of Ahu Akivi,
  • Ana Kakenga is just near Motu Tautara (which you can see from the cave),
  • Ahu Hange Kio’e is near Punta Cook,
  • Hanga Taharoa is the bay near Mahatua,
  • Hanga Piko is just below the big point at Hanga Roa,
  • Ana Te Pahu is about halfway between Ahu  Akivi and Ahu Te Peu on the South side of the road
  • and Ahu Runga Vae’e is just below Ahu Hanga Te Tenga.

Ahu Tongariki


My discourse on Easter Island reflects what I’ve read, my observations and my analysis. I don’t claim to be a scientist or an archaeologist.  Apart from being a photographer, I am an economic historian (in terms of academic qualifications) who found a career as a systems developer (and I’m now retired).  Here is a list of the books and articles I used:

Easter Island

– Books

– On the Web

Ahu Hanga Poukura


– Books

  • Tim Flannery:  Here on Earth(An Argument for Hope) 2010
    • Confusingly, there seem to be several books with very similar titles.  I suspect that this is publishers’ demand for different markets.  Since this is the Australian version, it is probably the book Flannery intended to write.
  • Tim Flannery:  The Weather Makers (2005)
  • Tim Flannery:  The Future Eaters (1994)
  • Tim Flannery:  The Eternal Frontier (2001)

– On the Web

Ranu Raraku

27th April: Easter Island (Ahu Runga Va’e and Ahu Hanga Te Tenga)

We were due to leave Easter Island for Tahiti around noon but the plane was late, so we got a reprieve for half a day. We headed off towards the Eastern end of the South Coast and visited Ahu Runga Va’e and Ahu Hanga Te Tenga.

This is not the main ahu but a small ahu off to the left on the point at Ahu Runga Va’e

Google map location (green arrow).

Cook’s landing party would have walked past both these ahu on their walk back along the South Coast. They do not mention them although they do mention that another ahu has few moai standing (and this appears to be Akahanga). The moai on these ahu might have been toppled too, but since Cook’s party would have seen the ahu as they walked by, I think it more likely that the moai were still standing and that they considered this unremarkable. (For more on Cook’s visit, see the Hanga Piko post).

Ahu Runga Va’e is about 25 metres above the sea on a peninsula. Surprisingly, a large part of the cliff was artificial, built up from the bottom with large boulders, a stack that has resisted the sea and storms for many hundreds of years.


Coastal view at Ahu Runga Va’e

In the image above, the seaward wall of Ahu Runga Va’e is at the top left (where it’s dark). In the middle distance is a fallen moai. The pale buff rock directly in front is the natural cliff. After that, if you look carefully, you can see the way an artificial cliff is built up with large stones. It’s not obvious from this view but it’s about 80 feet (25 metres) high. You may need to click on the image for a much larger view to see this.


Another view past the side of the main ahu at Ahu Runga Va’e, with the sea and the coast, looking towards Ahu Hanga Te Tenga (which is out of sight)


Fallen moai at Ahu Runga Va’e. You can also see the red cylinder of a pukeo (topknot) in the distance.


View of the coast looking south-east from Ahu Runga Va’e. The headland in the far distance is part of the volcanic cone Rano Kau.

Ahu Hanga Te Tenga is quite large at roughly 80 metres long. It is just 500 metres further on from Ahu Runga Va’e though out of sight behind a headland. The Rapanui attempted to erect the largest moai ever placed on an ahu (at just under ten metres high) but unfortunately it fell over during the erection – so that honour stayed with Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura.


Ahu Hanga Te Tenga looking south-east-ish along the South Coast.


Ahu Hanga Te Tenga looking north-west-ish along the South Coast. (Click for much larger view).

Click on the image above for a much larger view that you can zoom into and out of. (Then far lower right icon for full screen; and use mouse click, mouse wheel or icons to zoom in and out)

In the image above, the ahu and several moai are at mid-left. Another moai is fenced off further back towards the right. There are ten horses wandering around near that. There are two cars parked nearby. One is our rental car; the white one is from locals who are fishing nearby (an ancient pursuit). You can see them walking to their fishing spot on the rocks below their car. Directly behind the fenced-off moai is the small volcanic cone Maunga Toe Toe. To the left of that is the top of Rano Raraku. Behind that is Maunga Pua Katiki on the Poike Peninsula.

Google maps location (green arrow).


Small ahu on the point at Ahu Runga Va’e

(Note that I have separated out Easter Island – A Parable for Our Times? from this page and the fifteen comments below relate to that post).

27th April: Easter Island (Ahu Huri a Urenga)

Ahu Huri a Urenga is just out the back of town, beside the main road to the other end of the island.  Restored by Mulloy in 1960, it is 13 metres long by 4 metres wide and has been dated to 1215 AD plus or minus 90 years.  The single moai is 3.3 metres tall by 1.45 metres wide and appears to have been recarved because it has four hands rather than two.

Ahu Huri A Urenga. Click on the image to see the extra pair of hands at the right. (The ones at the left are obscured underneath the fungal growth).

Cremation platform behind Ahu Huri A Urenga

Behind the ahu is a cremation platform (as shown at right).  This funereal method became impractical when all the wood was gone.

Many ahus were astronomically aligned and this one is a case in point.  The moai faces the winter solstice sunrise and the ahu has many cupules with solstice and equinox alignments.

There has been some debate as to whether pukeo (topknots) were placed on top of the moai after the moai were erected, or whether the moai and the pukao were strapped together on a frame and raised as one unit.  An unfinished pukao was found at this ahu, which suggests that the pukao were placed on top after the moai were raised.

Speculation:  Did the Spanish get to Easter Island in the sixteenth century?

About twenty years ago, I attended a talk by Canberra author Robert Langdon who suggested that Spanish people made it to Easter island in the early sixteenth century.  He had written several books, travelled to key places and read original documents in sixteenth century Spanish.

Ahu Huri A Urenga

His trail started when he read of the discovery in the 1970s of old Spanish cannons on a reef on an island in the Tuamoto Archipelago.

Following the return of Magellan from his trip around the world, Spain sent another similar expedition that left in 1525 with seven ships under the command of García Jofre de Loaísa.

They had considerable difficulty getting through the Straits of Magellan to the Pacific.  One ship turned around and returned to Spain and two others sunk though their crews were rescued.  Four ships made it through to the Pacific but one, the San Lesmes  separated from the rest in a storm and was never heard of again.

Ahu Huri A Urenga

It seems that after sailing for weeks or months, the San Lesmes ran aground on a reef at Amanu in the Tuamotos.  Getting off the reef required making the ship lighter so they tossed some cannon overboard, just as Cook did on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia on 11 June 1770, some two hundred and forty-four years later.

The cannon recovered from the Amanu reef were later dated to around the 1520s.  It is overwhelmingly probable that they were from the San Lesmes because very few Spanish expeditions traversed the Pacific during the sixteenth century.  This is largely because almost all such expeditions were expensive disasters, yielding little and with very few survivors making it back to Spain.

Langdon claims the ship then went to another island to refit, the crew picked up Polynesian wives and family, and they eventually dispersed to the Society Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand.

When Roggeveen landed on Easter Island in 1722, he made some observations which some might interpret as showing European ancestry.

As for their complexion they are brownish, about the hue of a Spaniard, yet one finds among them some of a darker shade and others quite white, and no less also a few of a reddish tint as if somewhat severely tanned by the sun.

One amongst these (who came on board) was an entirely white man who was wearing chocks of wood in his ears as large as one’s fist and bore a very devout appearance, so we took him to be an idol priest.

… these islanders being in colour between white, swarthy, and reddish, not thick lipped nor flat nosed, the hair chestnut coloured and limp, some have it black, and others tending to a red or cinnamon tint. … their appearance being thoroughly pleasing and tallying with Europeans more than with Indians.

Conversely, Cook saw Polynesians only, generally with black hair.

If the Spanish had made it to Easter Island in the sixteenth century, they wouldn’t have affected the Classic Culture because it was already in decline and seriously short of resources, though they might have contributed to the descent into warfare.

Ahu Huri A Urenga

Katherine Routledge who was in Easter Island in 1914-15, took back to Europe two skulls that she claimed were of quite different types.

However, the Rapanui were particularly enamoured with light coloured skin.  A cave on the Poike Peninsula, Ana O Keke (actually a lava tube and also called Cave of the White Virgin) was said to be used to sequester young women for several months so their skin became very pale and they thereby became specially attractive.  Favoured children might be kept in hare paenga (the boat-shaped houses with no windows) for the same reason.

Similarly, in the Bird Man era, the tangata manu (the Bird Man or Head Chief for a year) was tapu, secluded in a special house and not to be touched.  Something similar may also have applied to the ivi atua (priests) in the classical era, in which case their skin would have been pale for this reason.

It’s an intriguing little loose end to conjure with.  However, it simply may be that Roggeveen’s observations partly reflect the natural variation of Polynesians and partly the workings of Rapanui culture.  Certainly there is no current scientific support that the population of Easter Island was anything than Polynesians.

Some Links to Other Travellers’ Blogs

About five months before this trip, I met David and Denise Hooper at Batman’s Bay Blues Festival, where I was photographer.  David was wearing a Patagonia tee-shirt, I was heading to Patagonia and we got talking.  David gave me valuable information about El Chalten (in Argentina) and Torres Del Paine National Park (in Chile) and the logistics of travelling around by hire car.  This changed and improved our trip.

Earlier, this year, David and Denise went on their own remarkable adventure, to Mali and Ethiopia.  You can see David’s photos and comments in his blog.  Also, you can see a Mali slideshow with an African soundtrack.  Lastly David and Denise remarried in a Tuareg wedding.

View from Maunga Orito, near Ahu Huri Urenga. The slopes of Rano Kau, leading up to Orongo, are at far left. Then there is the runway where we were due to fly out later that day. Directly in front and stretching out to the right is Hanga Roa.

Also, for several days on Easter Island we kept running into someone else with “serious” camera equipment.  They turned out to be an English couple, Michael and Lisa Parker.  You can see photos and comments of his travels in South America and Easter Island in his blog.  This includes some images from inside the Easter Island museum, where I didn’t take photographs, and also some from the Atacama desert, where we didn’t go.


27th April: Easter Island (Hanga Piko)

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.

Hanga Piko in the darkness before dawn. There is an ahu and a moai in there, but you can't really see them yet.

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.

It's starting to get lighter. A car drives across as a worker arrives for work. A boat under the streetlight at the left has a light on.

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.

One of the lighters heads out to the freighter (Its navigation light is visible below and to the right of the streetlight at middle left). A few car headlights are visible across the bay.

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.

It's now past dawn. The other lighter heads off to the freighter which is around the corner to the right. You can now more clearly see Ahu Riata with its lone moai.

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 also appear to have arrived at Tongariki and Rano Rarako.

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.)

The eroded moai on the well-restored ahu

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.

26th April: Easter Island (Hanga Poukura, Vaihu and Akahanga)

Late in the afternoon of the 26th, after we had visited Vinapu, we continued along the south coast to Ahu Hanga PoukuraAhu Hanga Te’e O Vaihu and Ahu Akahanga going half of the way to Tongariki before we ran out of light.  Here are some images and brief comments in the captions.

As well as that, the following text of this post relates the experiences of the second group of Europeans to arrive on the island, Gonzales in 1770, and follows on from the First Contact discussion in the Hanga Taharoa post.

The back of Ahu Hanga Poukura (from the sea) showing one block much more eroded and therefore probably a different type of stone. The ahu is 100 metres long.

Google maps location for Ahu Hanga Poukura (Green arrow).

Second Contact: Gonzalez in 1770

Don Felipe Gonzales arrived at Easter Island in 1770 with up to 736 men and two ships.  Gonzales’ log seems only to contain navigational details but there are two  anonymous accounts, one probably by Don Francisco Antonio de Agüera y Infanzon (Chief Pilot) and another probably by Don Juan Hervé (Pilot).  Gonzalez, incidentally, was 68 when he came to the island, was still sailing ships across the Atlantic at the age of 80 and died aged 90, still in the Spanish Navy.

Sea coast north of Ahu Hanga Poukura

As the ships approached Easter Island, about 12 kilometres south of the Poike Peninsula, Don Francisco Antonio observed many moai, presumably through a telescope.  He talks of many moai inland as well as on the coast.  This might mean that those inland moai were along the whole of the south coast, perhaps along the moai roads, but I suspect it is more likely that he was looking at Ahu Tongariki and the coast to the west of that, so that the inland moai were the moai of Ranu Raraku.

Sea coast looking north from Ahu Hanga Poukura

Gonzalez’ expedition landed at Anakena.  As they rowed to the beach,  “more than 800” Rapanui observed them from the shore.

… There must have been more than 800 people, divided in batches, all wearing cloaks of a yellow colour or white.  There was not the least appearance of hostility, nor of the implements of war about them; I only saw many demonstrations of rejoicing and much yelling.

He also relates later of over 400 Rapanui visitors on board the frigate to the extent that they had to send some away to make way for more.

Remains of small ahu with eroded moai beside the sea at Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu

On shore, Antonio measured one of the moai and commented that there were larger ones on the east coast (such as the one at Ahu Te Pita Kura).  They also found other moai “widely distributed about the countryside in the interior” that were somewhat smaller than those on the beach.  Moai were still objects of worship.

The sculptural forms are called moay by the islanders, who hold them in great veneration, and are displeased when we approach to examine them closely. (Antonio)

They were also shown a human paperbark figure about four metres high, called a kopekaThey further observed numerous pyramidical ahu, burial sites capped with a skull-like white stone.

Paina or ceremonial stone circle in front of Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu

Intra-island warfare had clearly been taking place although, as with the earlier visit by the Dutch, the Rapanui were not hostile and produced no arms.

in some we observed sundry wounds on the body (due to obsidian spear points)

most of the natives on the island dwell in underground caves with narrow and inconvenient entrances, i.e. fortified against attack.

A closer view of Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu with fallen moai and pukao (topknots). The ahu is 100 metres long by 12 metres deep.

The Spanish were on the island for five days and sexual encounters were certainly available.

… the women go to the length of offering with inviting demonstrations all the homage that an impassioned man can desire.

The log doesn’t say this was forbidden and it could be that such encounters occurred.  Since the Dutch were only on shore for a few hours in 1722, this may mark the first point of contact for the Rapanui with infectious European diseases, from the common cold to syphilis.

Eroded carved pukao, Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu. (Some localised flare from raindrops on the lens)

Don Felipe Gonzales sent two launches to row and sail around the island and to map it.   Don Juan Hervé was in one of these launches and provides an account of that voyage.  Also, Don Francisco Antonio provides a short account of a launch voyage, probably of the other launch.

At one place Hervé encountered two small canoes, which he thought may be the only ones on the island.

We saw two little canoes that were coming out … with two men in each.  … These canoes are constructed of five extremely narrow boards (on account of there being no thick timber in the country) about a “quarta” in width (nine inches or 23cm) ; they are consequently so crank that they are provided with an outrigger to prevent them from capsizing; and I think these are the only ones in the whole of the island.

The description of where they saw the canoes (half a league before Cape San Antonio) sounds as though they came out of Ana Kai Tangata, which fits our previous description of the cave:

In the era when wood was scarce, the Rapanui also used the cave as something like a boatshed, a place to build vaka ama, which were small canoes of sewn planks.

At the right end of Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu, this looks to me very much like a mooring for a boat, with what could be a groove worn by mooring rope in the rocks below to the red scoria hook. Of course, this could be a relatively recent use of a fragment of an old pukao.

Hervé’s launch stayed overnight at a small cove which by the description appears to be near Vinapu, where today a small road comes down to the sea below the oil refinery.   They report a cave with furrows “of various tints” where the Rapanui obtained their pigments.  The men had been warned not to harass the Rapanui and on a walk of about nine kilometres, saw abundant cultivations.

… we stood in towards a smooth patch of foreshore about a league away to the N.E. of Cape San Francisco. (i.e. 4.2 kilometres from Orongo).  Here we decided to bring up the night….

The officer, Don Cayetano de Langara, issued orders to our people that no one, under pain of a severe flogging, should accept any article from the islanders without giving something equivalent in return, or something of greater value than that which they received, since it was known there was a disposition to exchange articles; and such in fact was put in practice.

We walked about two leagues, (9 kilometres) and at that distance (throughout which many islanders accompanied us) we saw a plantain garden which stretched about a quarter of a league in extent, and was about half that distance in breadth. (equivalent to 1 x 0.5 kilometres).  There were other small plantain gardens and several plantations and fields of sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, white gourds, and plants like those whose leaves are employed at the Callao for making mats. (Hervé)

By contrast, Antonio’s account suggests less abundant cultivation.  This probably indicates the other launch visited other locations that may either have been less suited to agriculture or else were affected by warfare or hardship.

The fields are uncultivated save some small polts of ground, in which they sow beds of yuca, yams, sweet potatoes and several plantations of plantains and sugar cane…

Antonio also makes the unsurprising observation that wood was scarce.

… throughout the island not a single tree is to be found capable of furnishing a plank so much as six inches in width…

Sea coast near Ahu Hanga Te'e O Vaihu

Antonio also describes the dwelling of an ariki (chief) which is the hare paenga as described earlier (eg Tahai Complex) and also the dwelling of an Ivi Atua (priest) located close to the ahu.

Others (whom I believe to be their ministers) occupy dwellings close to the statues; these are built of earth below, but with an entrance way or porch of very roughly hewn and clumsily set up stones, after the fashion of a wall, with a certain number of steps for passing from one platform or surface of ground to another on different levels.

Remains of large hare paenga at Ahu Akahanga. There are the remains of a large village here.

On returning to the ship, Hervé compiled the following map from their measurements (click for larger size):

1770 Map of the Island, South at the Top (from Wikipedia)

On the last day, a party journeyed from Anakena to erect three wooden crosses on the three small cones on the Poike Peninsula, a distance of about 10 kilometres.  This journey is what the lower part of the map above represents, from right to left on that map (and roughly ESE in direction).  The map shows moai (presumably representing intact ahu) near Ahu Hekii, Ahu Rai’i and Ahu Mahatua (the last being an ahu in Hanga Taharoa).

At the same time, a diversionary party of 230 men also went ashore proceeding to the West side of the island.  This was so that huge crowds of onlookers would not impede erecting the crosses.

The Rapanui seem to have been suitably impressed by the religious rituals of the two Spanish priests who accompanied the crosses.  Antonio reports that the women cried out Maca Maca as the priests walked past, incanting.  I presume their call was actually Make Make (perhaps in the sense of “Praise be to God”) and this could be a marker of the gradual replacement of the traditional religion with the newer one of Make Make.

They seem to me to have ministers or priests for their idols; because I observed that on the day which we erected the crosses, when our chaplains went accompanying the holy images, clothed in their cassocks and “pelliz”, chanting the litanies, numbers of natives stepped forward on the paths and offered their cloaks, while the women presented hens and pullets and all cried “Maca Maca”, treating them with much veneration until they had passed beyond the rocks by which the track they were following was encumbered.

When the Spanish had planted the crosses, they conducted a ceremony whereby Spain claimed the island.  They obtained “signatures” of available Rapanui, presumably to demonstrate their acquiescence, though the Rapanui can have had no idea what they were affixing their marks to.

A large moai toppled on the ahu at Akahanga. It's still in one piece. Setting sun in the background. (Sorry but the image is out of focus, no point zooming in).

26th April: Easter Island (Vinapu)

At mid-afternoon on the 26th we went to Ahu Vinapu O Tahiri, which is famous for its fine stone work, as you can see here.  (You can also click the image above for a much larger view.)

Alternatively, here is a detail.

This is probably the head re-erected by Thomson in 1889.

Here is another part of the ahu wall, which is 80 metres long by 12 metres wide.  People often wonder “How did they cut those stones?”.  Carving the moai from volcanic tuff using granite tools is one thing but ahu facing walls were often granite.  Perhaps the simple answer is they didn’t carve them, for the final fit at least.

My guess is that they put one stone on top of another (easy to say), perhaps with a wooden frame around the top one, and hauled on ropes to move the top stone back and forth and slowly grind the edges to match.  That way, there’s also no requirement for right angles.

Vinapu was cited in the past (for example by Heyerdahl) as evidence of Inca influence but the current consensus of archaeologists is to discount that.  For one thing, the technique is different.  Whereas the Incas used solid stone blocks, these are facing blocks for rubble fill.  You can see this from the side view, here.

Also, the average weight of the blocks here is about 7 tonnes and the largest 10 or 12 tonnes; the largest blocks in the Inca Sacsayhuamán fortress weighted somewhere between 120 and 360 tonnes!

Stepping back a bit, here is a side view of the ahu with toppled moai.   (You can also see in the distance the carpark and also the refinery poking its ugly head up between the moai and the ahu.)

Curiously, there is a dwelling space at the front of the ahu,  created after the fall of the moai, using the fallen moai itself as part of the roof.

There are actually two ahus at Vinapu. We have been looking at Vinapu I which paradoxically is the later of the two.  The image above and the next one is from Vinapu II, which has been dated as far back as 900AD.

The reason the numbering of the ahus is the wrong way round is because Thor Heyerdahl thought that the one with the finer stonework was made by South Americans prior to the arrival of Polynesians on the island but this has been refuted by carbon dating of charcoal buried under or around the ahus.

The ring of stones around the moai head in the foreground is not ancient; it is just to keep people back.

In the distance we can see the fallen moai on Ahu Vinapu II and over to the right a pukao or topknot.

In the front is a most unusual moai.  It is made of the soft red scoria, like the pukao, and is now greatly eroded.  Fortunately there is a description from the early nineteenth century when its form was still visible.  It was a female moai, with a vulva visible near the ground and lacking the usual male loincloth.  It also had two heads and had a special use for funerary functions.

They would wrap one or more dead bodies in bark cloth and suspend them on poles that rested between the two moai heads until the flesh rotted away.  Then the bones were washed and deposited inside the ahu.

The Rapanui also used cremation, uniquely for Polynesia.  There are, for example, cremating platforms behind Ahu Akivi and Huri A Urenga. The burial practices associated with this moai may therefore have been a later practice, after the supply of wood ran out.

Google Maps location (green arrow).

26th April: Easter Island (Ahu Hanga Kio’e)

Ahu Hanga Kio'e

We arrived at Ahu Hanga Kio’e before dawn, with only a few horses for company.

Ahu Hanga Kio'e

This is reputedly the last ahu built, in the mid 1600s.  The moai is in reasonably good repair and appears to have eye sockets so presumably the ivi atua (priests) would have inserted eyes on special occasions.

Ahu Hanga Kio'e

There is also a second, smaller ahu here with a fragment of a moai.  I haven’t featured it here but the rounded bump on the far right skyline is that moai fragment.

Ahu Hanga Kio'e

Moai contemplating the dawn.

Ahu Hanga Kio’e means ahu on Kio’e Bay and kio’e is rat so it’s the ahu on rat bay.  To us that might sound like noxious rodent ahu but the Rapanui were particularly short of meat and rats were part of their diet so maybe it was more like the ahu on fast food bay.

just behind the ahu

Just after dawn, a couple of riders ushered about 50 horses past on the road.  Ahu Hanga Kio’e is on the northern edge of Hanga Roa.  I am taking this photograph from beside the ahu so you can see how close some of the houses are.  The volcanic cone in the background is Maunga TangaroaMaunga Puna Pau, where the Rapanui excavated the pukao or topknots is probably visible but off frame to the right.

We are not far here from where we found some petroglyphs at the side of the road, unheralded on flat pieces of lava.  Lots of horses wandering around obviously accelerate erosion of the petroglyphs.

25th April: Easter Island (Ahu Te Peu)

A lone moai head beside the ahu

Ahu Te Peu, about 8 kilometres north of Hanga Roa , was once the focus of a significant community.  The main ahu is 70 metres long by 3 metres wide.  It was unfortunately damaged by the Thor Heyerdahl expedition in 1960 when they undermined the intact ahu during excavation.


Ahu Te Peu from the sea side


Looking out to sea from Ahu Te Peu, as the sun sets


After sunset …


The fall of the moai and the ahu

You have probably heard of the colourful account of Easter Island history that there was a revolution, the long ears against the short ears, with a climactic battle at the Poike Peninsula where the long ears got trapped in a ditch and all burnt.  Just another myth, actually.  Even the division between long ears and short ears appears to arise from a linguistic misunderstanding.  The terms probably mean fat people and thin people and refer to a class distinction rather than an ethnic or cultural one.  In any case there were many long-eared people into the late nineteenth century when the missionaries suppressed the practice.

There is also a theory that settlement may have been as late as 1200AD, that there may have been no population collapse in classical times and that all chaos and carnage was engendered by European contact, mainly in the nineteenth century.  I do not find this view credible and will stick to what I regard as the well-grounded view.

Ahu Te Peu – stonework at the ahu


Classical Easter Island society reached its apex about 1500, when environmental constraints became increasingly felt as we saw in an earlier post.  Most of the trees were chopped down and there was no wood left for canoes so fishing was restricted.  All the sea and land birds on the island had been killed and eaten apart from a few on small offshore islands. Soil erosion undermined the productivity of the agricultural land.  Clearing of the forests must also have exacerbated water retention and water supply because Easter Island has porous volcanic rock.  Burgeoning population threatened to overwhelm productive capacity and there was nowhere to migrate to and no capacity to do so.

In classical Rapanui society, the ariki mau (or paramount chief) had a direct line to the Gods, was in fact directly descended from them.  So to a lesser extent were the ariki of the clans and the ivi atua or priests.  They and their ancestors guaranteed the prosperity of the society, which in turn justified the huge effort of building ahu and moai dedicated to them.  The society had clearly been one without major conflicts because their monumental structures were places of worship rather than military fortifications.  This contrasts, for example, with New Zealand Maori who lived in fortified hill pas.  Erosion to the economic basis of Easter Island society not only undermined the credibility of the ariki, it set in motion fundamental social changes and civil war.

Ahu Te Peu – some of the stonework is particularly fine.


Rather than a sudden collapse, it was a slow process during the huri moai or decadent period, from 1500 to 1722, and maybe beyond.  While the pace of construction slowed after 1500, construction continued on ahus and moai possibly as late as 1680.  Inclusion of older and often broken moai into foundations of later ahu shows that the periods of construction and destruction overlapped.  At the same time, increasing shortage of resources led to destructive competition between tribal groups.  The warrior class matato’a, also known as tangata rima toto (the men with bloody hands) came to prominence and the mana (power, prestige) of the ariki declined. Archaeological sites from this period have a high incidence of very sharp obsidian spearheads (mata’a) that were lashed to wooden shafts.  Middens from this period also show a very high incidence of charred and fractured human bones, many from juveniles, which may indicate cannibalism.

Tribal conflicts and blood feuds overturned the moai of rival clans and despoiled their ahus.  Overturning moai also sought to eradicate the mana of the ariki ancestors, since these represented a now oppressive system that had failed to deliver prosperity.   Most moai were overturned onto a pile of stones designed to break them in half.  Moai overturned on their backs could have their eyes or eye sockets hacked out.  Actually, in most cases, the moai would not have had eyes at this stage for it is generally thought that there were few sets of eyes and they were inserted for special ceremonial occasions only.  Either way,  the clear intent was to destroy the mana of the moai.

Moai head at Ahu Te Peu, 15 minutes after sunset


When the first Europeans arrived in 1722, most or all of the moai were still standing and the last one (Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura) was overturned sometime between 1838 and 1864. The Rapanui appeared well fed and peaceful, though admittedly this was a  fleeting visit to a single location.  By this time perhaps half the population had died but they appeared to have stabilised with a new dominant religion and presumably a greatly modified social structure.  The classical society was overturned yet the ravages to the population and culture had barely begun.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, due to the impact of external contacts, the population was around one percent only of what it had been at the peak of the classical era and much of the cultural memory was erased.

Ahu Te Peu

25th April: Easter Island (Ahu Te Pito Kura)

We arrived at Ahu Te Pita Kura in the morning of the 25th, after visiting Ovahe at dawn and then Papa Vaka. The moai here was the largest ever moved to an ahu at nearly 10 metres tall and weighing approximately 82 tonnes.  As well as that, its pukao (topknot) weighed a further 12 tonnes.


… and this is Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura and its pukao.

I did read (though I’m not sure where) that the moai was commissioned by the widow of an ariki (chief) to commemorate his memory.  Moai became larger as moai construction became increasingly competitive so this moai would date from near the peak of the classical period.  In this period the competition became focused between Western and Eastern confederations of the clans.  Ahu Te Pita Kura was with the western group, even though Ahu Tongariki was not far away and the main focus of the eastern group.

You can also click on this link for a digital reconstruction to see what Moia Paro would have looked like.


This is the back wall of the ahu, from the seaward side, featuring massive closely fitting blocks.  In its prime, the ahu was over 75 metres long by 30 wide.


Here is a view from just south of Ahu Te Pita Kura looking north.  Clicking on the image takes you to a much larger view in another tab.  (Then click the bottom right icon for full screen and use mouse button, mouse wheel or the other icons to zoom in and out).

I presume the rectangular structure in the middle is a tupa (tomb) or hare moa (chicken house).  (See the Tahai Complex post for more detail on that).  Moai Paro, its pukeo and the ahu are on the far left.  There are many structures visible.  There is a large manavai (walled garden) in the middle distance and several pipi horeko (boundary markers – the small stone towers).


I wandered on to check out a structure on the skyline of the previous image.  It had an entrance to a small chamber.  Perhaps a tomb or a chicken house or a resting place under an observation platform; I’m not sure which and it could have changed over time.


This is the same structure from the other side, facing away from the sea.


Walking back to the ahu, I encountered Te Pito te Kura, after which the ahu is named.  This is the large stone, 1 metre in diameter, which according to legend was brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a from the original homeland.  It is however, Easter Island stone.    The four additional stones were not present in classical times.


The climax of the classical period

Ahu Tongariki, along probably with the Tahai Complex at the other end of the island, represents the peak of the classical period.  Presumably so does Ahu Te Pito Kura.  What then can we say about the society of the time?

There were around eight clans, based on an original ten mata or descent groups.  You can see Routledge’s 1914 map of the clans here, though later versions may differ and no doubt it changed over time.

Initially, Rapanui clan groups constructed an ahu in each major bay as the central ahu for their clan. This may have helped to control the scarce marine resources while the houses and cultivations of the ordinary people stretched out into the interior.  Over time, sub-groups built other ahus at adjacent locations on the coast and later, towards the climax of the classical period, there was a concentration into two main groups.

The moai were massive monuments to dead ariki so clearly it was a hierarchical society in which the ariki as well as the ancestors were highly important.  Ariki women could also be influential even though this was primarily a patriarchal society. There was also a paramount chief or ariki mau, based at Anakena, the original landing point.   The ariki mau was the person most closely descended from the founder leader Hotu Matu’a and was the spiritual leader for the island.  Even so, most ceremonies were performed by ivi atua (priests, literally “bones of the gods”) who were drawn from the nobility.

The matato’a or war leaders, who could be of noble or common ancestry, were influential as well as the ariki.  The common people were called hurumanu and there was a lower class kio of landless individuals and refugees.  Moai were carved by maori (experts, not to be confused with the Maori people of Aoteoroa) under the direction of a tangata honui maori (head carver).  Leading ariki commissioned carving of the moai and paid the carvers with costly foods including lobster, eel and tuna.

Estimates of population vary but the population probably built up to around 10,000. For eight tribes that corresponds to 1,250 per tribe. Assuming 60% of the population were children and the old, that leaves about 20% for fit young men, or 250 per clan, less in earlier periods.

Clearly this was a society with a substantial agricultural surplus. Food included chickens (called moa, which they brought with them), fish (diminishing as supplies of wood for canoes diminished), birds (diminishing as they were killed off) and numerous cultivated fruits and vegetables (kumara or sweet potato, yam, taro, sugar cane, yams, figs, bananas and ti or Tahitian cabbage tree). Early European visitors describe the cultivation as orderly and well laid out and as much as 85% of the land area was under cultivation.

Concerted communal activities by the clans first focused on agriculture, including preparing and organising land. Building ahus and moai could only be possible where there was a substantial agricultural surplus that did not require the labour of all the workforce at many times of the year.

Forty people can pull an average moai across level ground but they require another 300 to 400 in support, producing food, rope and other required materials. (Van Tilberg).  The average  moai  weighed 12.5 tonnes whereas  Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura weighed 82 tonnes.  This may have required 90 men to carve the moai and its pukao, probably taking about a year, 90 men to move it on prepared moai roads (or 1,500 to drag it, or 600 using rollers) taking around two months, then another three months to erect it. (McLaughlin/ Mulloy).  This presumably does not include construction of the ahu.

22nd April: Easter Island (Ahu Akivi and Ahu Vai Teka)

Ahu Akivi

Ahu Akivi was the first ahu to be restored, by William Mulloy in 1960.  It is 33 metres long and inland, north of Hanga Roa.  It contradicts the often expressed view that all ahu are on the coast and face inland.  This is simply because they typically face the village of their associated tribe or sub-tribe.

Ahu Akivi

Moving the moai here would have been a significant task because the ahu is nearly 15km from Ranu Raraku and the moai weigh up to 13 tonnes.

Google maps location.

Ahu Vai Teka

Quite close to Ahu Akivi is the much smaller Ahu Vai Teka with a single small eroded moai torso.  William Molloy restored this ahu at the same time as Ahu Akivi.  This appears to be the frontal view.  We are looking south to Hanga Roa with our backs to the road.

Ahu Vai Teka

This is the view from the back, looking towards the centre of the island.  The green circle on the right is probably a manavai (an area for growing plants protected by a stone wall). To the left of that is the ahu and the moai.  Behind and to the right of the moai are a couple of pipi horeka (boundary markers or possible observation platforms).

Google maps location.