Easter Island Visit

Easter Island: Beyond the Surf Zone of Rapa Nui


It was too dark to see anything, even at seven in the morning when I arrived on Easter Island, but there were the insinuating smells of muddy roads and dam dog fur, wet grass, brine air, and the sounds of barking and cockcrows, the crash of surf, and people speaking in Spanish and Polynesian. The Customs Inspector had been drinking. Someone muttered "Borachito" - tipsy.

On winter days on Easter Island the sun rises at eight in the morning and by five-thirty in the afternoon the light has grown to crepuscular there is not enough to read by - not that anyone reads much on this lost island of damaged souls. Long before sundown, the horses are tethered (there are few vehicles); the motor-boats are moored (there are no canoes, and haven't been for a hundred years); and anyone with money for a bottle of pisco - hooch - is quietly becoming borachito.

The island goes cold and dark, and except for dogs barking and the sound of the wind in the low bushes, there is silence. There are not many trees, there is only one town - a small one, Hanga-Roa - and as for the moai, the stone statues, no one goes near them after dark. They are associated with akuaku - spirits - and are the repository of the island's secrets. Many, many secrets, you have to conclude, because there are hundreds of stone heads on the island - upright and starting, lying down and eyeless, shattered and broken, some with russet topknots, others noseless or brained - more than Boo altogether. They are also known as aringa ora, "living faces." I passed through the airport building, which was just a wooden room with signs in Spanish, and went through Chilean customs (Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, is part of a province of Chile). An attractive woman, obviously Polynesian approached me. She said, "May I offer you my residence?"

It takes an hour to fly from Rarotonga to Tahiti, and five and half from Tahiti to Easter Island. But connections in Oceania are seldom neat. I had two days to kill in Rarotonga, and three days in Papeete before I could head to this little island, the easternmost outpost of Polynesia. My traveling time must be compared with that of the original migrants to Easter Island. They might have sailed from Rapa -- now called Rapa-Iti - in the Austral Island, 2,500 miles away. Or it might have been from Mangareva in the Gambier group. In any case, the journey in double-hulled canoes took them 120 days. This was sometime in the seventh century (though some archaeologists have dated it earlier). On the other side of the world the Prophet Mohammed was fleeing to Medina (in the year 622), the start of the Moslem Era. The Dark Ages had taken hold of Europe. The glorious Tang Dynasty had begun in China. In the Pacific, people were on the move, for this was the most active period of Polynesian expansion, which one Pacific historian has called "the greatest feat of maritime colonization in human history."

Before I left Tahiti I had called on the airline representative. He was Chilean. We conversed in Spanish. He spoke no other tongue.

"The plane is half full, maybe more," he said.
"All those people going to Easter Island!"
"No. Only four passengers are getting off there. The rest are going to Santiago."
"Will the weather be cold on Easter Island?"
"Sometimes. Especially at night." He flapped his hand, equivocating. "You have a sweater? That's good."
"What about rain?"
"It can rain at any time. And wind. You will have some wind. But not too much." He smiled at the ceiling and he blinked for effect as he chanted, "Sun. Cloud. Sun. Cloud."
He was trying to encourage me.
"Now the hotels are interesting," he said. "I know you don't have one. You never have one before you go. But at the airport, the island people will look at you and offer their houses to you. You will see them and talk to them. That way you can find the most economical one."
He then searched for my reservation.
"Your name is not on the passenger list," he said. "But come tomorrow. If you don't have a ticket we will sell you one. There is space. There are always seats to Easter Island."

That was my preparation for the journey - that and a vast tome entitled The Ethnology of Easter Island, by Alfred Metraux, and the writings of other archeologists, and much colorful and misleading information by the enthusiastic Thor Heyerdahl, who is regarded by many Pacific historians and archeologists as of minimal consequence to serious archeology. Scientifically, his books have as little value as those of Erich von Danniken, who theorized that the Easter Island moai were carved by people from outer space.

I found a place to stay, a guest-house, and agreed on a price - sixty-five dollars a day, which included three meals a day. I planned to camp, too - no one seemed bothered, as they had an other islands, by the threat of my pitching a tent. Stretching my legs after arriving, I walked to the Easter Island Museum. It was one mute room on a hillside at the edge of town. There are some carvings, and some dusty skulls with drawings scratched on the craniums, and artifacts, but no dates have been assigned to anything in the room. There are old photographs of melancholy islanders and hearty missionaries. There are ill-assorted implements - axes, clubs, knives. One exhibit shows how the moai had carefully fitted eyes, most of them goggling - the sclera of the eye made of white coral, the iris of red scoria and the pupil a dish of obsidian, which gave the statues a great staring gaze. Many of the moai had been ritually blinded by the islanders themselves. The archaeologist JoAnne Van Tilburg mentions how "specific, probably ritual damage was done to only certain parts of the figures, in particular the heads, eyes, and occasionally the right arms."

That first day, I ran into an island woman who was secretary of the Rapa Nui Corporation for the Preservation of Culture, known locally as Mata Nui o Hotu Matua o Kahu Kahu o Hera ("The Ancestral Group of Hotu Matua of the Obscure Land"). She confirmed various stories that I had read about the island. Hotu Matua was the leader of the first migration to Easter Island. Descended from ancestral gods, this first king had mana, great spiritual power, and is credited with the founding of this civilization. Much of the early history is conjecture - there are so-called wooden rongo-rongo tablets, with strange figurative script incised on them, but no one has ever been able to decipher them. In spite of this, most of the stories regarding Hotu Matua agree on the salient points. That he sailed from an island (Marae-renga, perhaps Rapa) in the west, commanding two ninety-foot canoes. That he brought with him "hundreds and hundreds" of people. That some of these people were nobles (ariki) and others skilled men and women (maori) - warriors, planters, carvers - and still others commoners. That the captain of the second canoe was a noble named Tuu-ko-ihu. That on board these canoes they had "the fowl, the cat, the turtle, the dog, the banana plant, the paper mulberry, the hibiscus, the ti, the sandalwood, the gourd, the yam" and five more varieties of banana plant. (Later generations gave Hotu Matua credit for introducing animals which early explorers introduced, such as pigs and chickens).

After sailing for two months in the open sea, the voyagers came upon the island and they sailed completely around it, looking for a place to land. After their tropical home, this windy treeless island must have seemed a forbidding place: then, as now, black cliffs being beaten by surf. They found the island's only bay, its only sandy beach. They went ashore there, and named the bay Anakena, their word for the month of August. It was an island of seabirds and grass. There were no mammals. The caters of the volcanoes were filled with totora reeds. Another happy incident, which occurs in all versions of this first-arrival story, is that shortly after Hotu Matua's canoe reached the shore of the island, one of Hotu Matua's wives, named Vakai, gave birth to a baby boy, Tuu-ma-heke, who became the island's second king. The cutting of the infant's navel cord caused the place to be called Pito-o-te-henua, Navel of the Land. The woman who was telling me these stories said that she was a teacher of the Rapa Nui language. But was there such a language? She claimed there was, but linguists said that the original tongue had been lost and that the language spoken on Easter Island now was the Tahitian the Christian missionaries had brought - because that was the language of their Bible and hymn book. Because this Tahitian had many similarities to the old Rapa Nui it had displaced it. Easter Islanders were identified as Polynesians when they boarded Cook's ship in 1774. As soon as they spoke, Cook recognized that their language was similar to Tahitian.

Looking for a place to launch my boat I walked down the main road of the town, a dirt track called in the local language Navel of the world Street, past grubby little bungalows - they had the shape and dimensions of sheds: flat roofs, single walls - to Hanga-Roa harbor. It was not like any harbor I had ever seen, and it explained why if you totalled the time all the early explorers spent ashore on Easter Island, it would amount to very little. Few of the nineteenth-century explorers, Metraux says, "stayed on the island for more than a few minutes." Some of the explorers having made the 2,500-mile run from Tahi8ti (and it was nearly as far from south America), were unable to go ashore - too windy, too dangerous, too surfy. In 1808, for example, Captain Amasa Delano of Duxbhury, Massachusetts (and of Melville's story "Benito Cereno") arrived at the island and sailed around it, but could not set foot on the island, because of the heavy surf off Hanga-Roa. Some ships did land, to the sorrow of the islanders. In 1804, the men on an American ship, the Nancy, kidnapped twelve men and ten women from the island after a fight - the intention was to use these captives as slave-labourers at a seal colony on Mas Afuera, a rock halfway to Chile. When the islanders were allowed on deck after three days at sea, they jumped off the shi and began swimming in the direction of their island, and all drowned. Whaling ships plying the southern oceans often abducted Easter Island girls, for their sexual pleasure.

"In 1822 the skipper of an American whaling ship paused at Easter Island long enough to kidnap a group of girls who were thrown overboard the following day and obliged to swim back to the island." Metraux writes. "One of the officers, simply for amusement, shot a native with his gun." After more raids of this sort the islanders became hostile to any foreigners. But the foreigners persisted, either fighting them or employing more devious means to subvert the islanders, using gifts as bait, as in this raid in 1868: "the raiders threw to the ground gifts which they thought most likely to attract the inhabitants and ... when the islanders were on their knees scrambling for the gifts, they tied their hands behind their backs and carried them off to the waiting ship." The King, Kaimakoi, was kidnapped with his son and most of the island's maori (experts). These and later captives were sent to work, digging on guano islands, where they all died. 

The history of Easter Island in the nineteenth century is a long sad story of foreign raiding parties (mainly American and Spanish), of slavery and plunder, leading to famine, venereal disease, smallpox outbreaks, and ultimately the ruin of the culture - the place was at last demoralized and depopulated. In 1900 there were only 214 people living on Easter Island, eighty-four of them children. A hundred years of foreign ships had turned Easter Island into a barren rock. The island had flourished by being cut off, and then it became a victim of its remoteness. Since the earliest times, it had never been easy to land on it, but it was so far from any other ort, and in such a rough patch of ocean, that every ship approaching it took advantage of it in some way - looking for water or food, for women, for slaves.

How was it possible for even a small ship to land here? In fact it had never been managed. No more than a scooped-out area, with boulders lining the shore and surf pounding beside the breakwater, the harbor was a horror, and it was difficult even to imagine a ship easily lying at anchor offshore, with a whaleboat plying back and forth with supplies. Problem one was mooring a ship in the wild ocean off Hanga-Roa, problem two was getting the whaleboat through the surf to shore and, since there was nowhere to land, steadying it long enough to unload it. I saw that I could paddle through the surf zone. But it was usually easier to get out than to paddle in  The danger here was that the surf was breaking on large rocks at the harbor entrance. Even if I surfed in I might be broken to smithereens on the rocks. The most ominous sight for a potential kayaker was that of Rapa Nui boys surfing into the harbor on big breaking waves. This surfing, locally known as ngaru, had been a sport here since the earliest times, and was the only game that had survived all these years. They had abandoned the ancient games of spinning tops, flying kites and going to the top of volcanoes and sliding down "tracks on which they had urinated to make the path more slippery." But surfing had been useful in the early innocent days of foreign ships anchoring off Hanga-Roa in a heavy sea. Surprising the seamen, the islanders swam out to the ship, using "swimming supports" - a plank or a rush mat. Some of the islanders were observed surfing back to shore afterwards, riding the waves and using the planks as surfboards.

In the Rapa Nui language there was a complete set of surfing terminology, which described the board, the surfer's waiting for the wave, allowing the wave to crest, and settling on the wave; what in current surging jargon would be the banana of the pig-board (or sausage-board), the pick-u and take-off, the cut-back on the hump, hotdogging, hanging ten and walking the plank. In the olden days there had been surfing contests and some men, real Rapa Nui beaches, had gone far from shore to surf a long distance on the large ocean swells. But the sight of surfers convinced me that this was not a good area to paddle from - and it was the harbor! A place called Hanga-Piko, a rocky bay farther along, looked slightly more promising, but studying it closely - I walked along the shore and watched the breakers for about twenty minutes - I saw that it would be tricky here, too, because of big rollers - they tumbled in from the deep sea without anything to stop them or modify them .

I walked another mile to Anakai Tangata, an ominously named cave (meaning "The Cave Where Men Are Eaten") with petroglyphs on the walls, and nearby some stone foundations of ancient houses still existed. The stones had holes in them, where poles were inserted, for the tall tent-like structure which was then thatched. Below this place were sea-cliffs, and beyond was the volcano Rano-Kau. In the sky here and all over the island were hawks - the cara-cara, which the Chileans had introduced to rid the island of rats. The hawks were numerous, and highly competitive - they flew close to the ground, they perched fearlessly, they swept down on anything that moved, they were intrepid raptors. There were groves of thin peeling eucalyptus trees rattling in the wind on the lower slopes of the volcano. These had been planted by the Forestry Commission. I followed the dirt road that would through them, seeing no one, only hawks. At the top I had a lovely view of the crater, and because this volcano was at the edge of the sea, beyond the crater's rim was the blue ocean. In the depths of the crater was a lake, with totora reeds, papyrus thickets and steep walls, and in the most protected part of the crater - the lower edge, out of the wind - there were banana trees and an orange grove.

Orongo, the site of the Bird-Man cult, was at the lip at the far side of the crater, high above the sea. That was another mile onward, and on the way I ran into a Rapa Nui man, Eran Figueroa Riroroko. Riroroko was about thirty, a handsome stocky man, who lived in a hut near Orongo and passed the time carving hardwood into animals shapes. In halting Spanish, he explained the Bird-Man cult - how in the ancient times the men gathered on the cliffs here every September (the austral spring). At a given signal they went out to the island, Motu Nui, about two kilometers offshore. It was not far, but the water was notorious for sharks.

"They went in canoes?"
"Swimming." Nadando.

Every ship; that called at Easter Island in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remarked on the brilliant swimming skills of the islanders, but these hopu, candidates for the title Bird-Man, had to bring food with them. They scrambled up the ledges of Motu Nui to bivouac and wait for the first sooty tern's egg of the season. When the fist egg was laid and seized, the lucky man who held it called out his victory, and then tied it to his head in a little basket and swam to shore. He had no fear of sharks or waves, for the egg contained powerful mana. And his capture of the sacred egg meant that for a year he was Bird-Man - he had great authority, he lived in a special house, gifts were brought to him, and with this sudden assumption of power he settled any old scores he had - I'm the king of the castle, and you're a dirty rascal, as a schoolchild might put it - for now, with this mana, he had warriors on the side, who would do as he bid.

Bird-Man petroglyphs - a beaked creature of grotesque strength - were incised in the boulders and cliff faces all over Orongo, along with portraits of the great god Makemake, who was on Easter Island what Tiki or Atua were elsewhere in Polynesia. Smaller, broken ovals cut into the rock were depictions of vulvas - all over the island, on cliff faces and in caves, there were old carvings of vulvas (komari), which were cut by priestly elders when a girl reached puberty. These priests comprised a special class and were given the title ivi-atua, "kinsmen of the gods." The Bird-Man cult, with its eggs, and the vulvas, and the solstice, all suggested that Orongo was associated with sexuality and fertility. On the bluff at Orongo there were also small stone dwellings built into the cliffs, dry-stone burrows and pillboxes with crawl-in openings, in which people had lived when this cult flourished.

"Do you get frightened at night up here b the ghosts?" I used the local word for ghosts - akuaku.
Riroroko said, "yes, there could be akuaku here. Devils, I mean."
"Are you a Christian?"
"Yes. Catholic."
"Have you traveled away from the island?"
"I have been to Tahiti. To Santiago. To Venezuela."
"Were you tempted to stay at any of those places?"
"No. Tahiti was unbelievably expensive," he said (tremenda-menda caro). "But I was just looking. I just wanted to get to know them. I would never live in those places. Santiago is full of people, traffic, and had air. I needed to come back here where the air is clean."
"What language did you speak in Tahiti?"
"I spoke Rapa Nui and people understood me. Tahitian is very similar - close enough so that they can understand. I liked the people."
I walked down the volcano, five miles, taking a short cut through the eucalyptus plantation, but on the outskirts of Hanga-Roa I was footsore, and now from every roadside but a crazy hostile dog ran at me.
A beat-up jeep, with music blaring, shuddered along the road. I stuck out my hand.
"I'm Rene," the driver said. "He's Mou."
They were two grinning wild-haired youths.
"You speak Spanish?"
"Yes. But Rapa Nui is better."
"What's that music?"
"AC-DC." An Australian rock group.
They dropped me on Navel of the World Street and sped away.

When night fell at six or so, the island went black, and apart from wandering boys and homeward-bound drunks, no one stirred. I went to bed early and listened to my short-wave radio in the dark. The news was of floods in south China, which had drowned two thousand people. That was the entire population of Rapa Nui.

The west coast seemed as unpromising for paddling as the south coast. There was a heavy swell, and high surf dumping on black bouldery shores.  The islands marked on my chart were not islands at all, but like Motu Nui in the south - slick black rocks, washed by foaming breakers. God help anyone who tried to land a boat on one. I hiked along a road that narrowed to a path, which degenerated and lost itself among the grass on the high cliffs. But I liked the island's obscurity. It resembled the Marquesas in having no signposts, no information at all. Half a mile from town there was an ahu with a line-up of five heads. I knew this was Tahai because of the paddling chart I had with me. Farther on there were more moai and some of them had had their eyes reinserted and were staring inland - in fact, all the statues on the island had their backs turned to the sea. They were carved from brownish volcanic stone, they averaged five or six tons apiece, some had topknots or hats carved from red scoria.  

Their size would have been overwhelming enough, even if they had been badly carved. But these were brilliantly executed, with long sloping noses and pursued lips and sharp chins. Their ears were elongated, and the hands clasping the body had long fingers, the sort you see on certain elegant Buddhas. Some of the statues had a mass of intricate detail on their back. And although there were similarities among the statues' profiles, each one had a distinctly different face. When the first Europeans came to this island in 1722 all these "living faces" were upright. The first chronicler (Caerl Beherns, who was on Roggeveen's ship) wrote, "In the early morning we looked out and could see from some distance that (the islanders) had prostrated themselves towards the rising sun and had kindled some hundreds of fires, which probably betokened some morning oblation to their gods ..." And this veneration might also have been related to the face that the islanders had just had their first look at a Dutch ship and a mass of pale jog-eared sailors.

A little more than fifty years later, Cook recorded that many of the statues had been knocked over. And by 1863, all the statues were flat on the ground and broken - a result of warfare, competition, and an iconoclastic frenzy that periodically possessed the islanders. Stranger than the towering statues that stood and stared were the enormous fragments of broken heads and faces, tumbled here and there on the cliffs - just lying there among the cowshit and tussocky grass. Every rock on Rapa Nui looks deliberate, like part of a wall or an altar or a ruin. Many of them are carved or incised - with mystical symbols, with images, with vulvas. Most are black basketball-sized boulders and have the character of building blocks, as though they have been shaped for some structural purpose. I wondered whether it was ignorant of me to imagine this. Hiking alone all day can inspire fanciful thoughts. But at lunchtime, sitting among a mass of boulders, I saw that they led to a cave entrance, and I crawled into one that was walled, big enough to hold three people. (Islanders had hidden in these caves to escape the attention of slavers, the so-called "blackbirders").

I walked along the high cliffs of the west coast, to Motu Tautara and the caves near it in which lepers had once lived, and beyond to where the island's highest volcano, Mount Terevaka, sloped to the sea. There were moai on this northwest coast, too - isolated heads, some of them fallen and broken. Heads like these, looking complete and final, were so far from any habitation that they had that hopeless and rather empty gaze of Ozymandias. You come to a place you have read about your whole life, that is part of the world's mythology of mystery and beauty, and somehow you respect it to be overrun - full of signs and guidebooks and brochures, and other similarly rapt pilgrims and individuals. That very anxiety can forestall any real anticipation, and so you might procrastinate, fearing that it might be another Stratford-upon-Avon with Willy Shakespeare souvenirs, or Great Wall of China packed with tour buses, or Taj Mahal, entrance fee ten rupees. Instead of risking disappointment, isn't it better to stay away?

But Easter Island is still itself, a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, littered with hundreds of masterpieces of stone carving blown by the wind, covered in grass, and haunted by the lonely cries of seabirds. It is not as you imagine it, but much stranger, darker, more complex, eerier. And for the same reason that it always was strange: because it is so distant and infertile an island. Late in the afternoon there was a sudden downpour, and as the heavy rain persisted I ran for shelter, taking refuge under a cliff. I crouched there for about twenty minutes before it dawned on me that other people had done exactly what I had done: I was crouching in an ancient shelter, which had been hollowed from the cliff and decorated with petroglyphs, and the sides shored up by bouldery walls. If it hadn't rained I would not have found it. Walking up this west coast, looking for an ancient canoe ramp or a place to launch my boat, I marveled at the emptiness of the island, and lamented the decline of its ancient culture. It is not as though it was swept away. The material culture was so substantial that now more than twelve hundred years after the first moai were carved (Tahai I, just down this coast, was dated and shown to have been in use around A.D. 690) they still exist and still look terrifying, their expression sneering, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I didn't find a place on this coast to launch from but I was heartened none the less by the utter emptiness - just me, and the staring heads, and the soaring hawks. On my way back to Hanga-Roa I took an inland route and first met a man herding cows who said hello in Spanish, and then ran across a younger fellow, a Rapa Nui named Iman, about twenty-five or so, who had recently arrived back from Paris where he had been supervising his grandfather's business. He had agreed to look after his aging parents on the island.
"How do you like Rapa Nui?"
"I hate it."
I asked him why.
"There is nothing here," Iman said. "Nothing to do. Nothing happens."

Near sunset we walked towards town. There were cacti and palms growing near some of the houses, and others had banana trees in their gardens. In spite of these plants the island did not feel tropical. It could be warm in the day, but it was cool at night. Always there was the smell of damp or dusty roads and the stink of dog fur. We came across the carcass of a horse. The thing had died on the road and it had lain there all day. Children were itching stones at it, but timidly, as though at any moment they expected the corpse to scramble to its feet and neigh at them.

"Look at that," I said.
"it is a dead horse," Iman said. "It collapsed this morning. It belongs to the man Domingo. I saw it fall over."
"And yet you say that nothing happens here."

I rented a jeep and drove with my tent and collapsible boat to the top of the island, to Anakena, where Hotu Matua and the first canoes had arrived, where the first true Rapa Nui person had been born. It was a lovely protected bay, with a sandy beach, and just above the beach seven moai, some with cylindrical topknots, others decapitated. Camping there I dreamed of the writer Jerzy Kosinski, who had killed himself a few months before, how he laughed when I told him that I liked camping. Perhaps the dream had come to me because I had read an article about him recently. The piece said that he had had no writer friends. But I had known him and regarded him as a friend. He seemed a bit paranoid and insecure, and vain in an unexplainable way. One night in Berlin he had gone back to the hotel and put on a type of male make-up, giving his pale Polish complexion an instant tan. What was that all about? He told me that he was afraid of assassination attempts, of being the object of sinister plots. But it was the opposite that he feared - no notoriety. He was afraid of being ignored, not taken seriously; he could not stand being regarded as insignificant, or of his gifts being belittled. 

"He likes to camp," Jerzy said to his then girlfriend (and, later, wife), Katarina. His polish-Jewish accent made what he said sound like sarcasm, but I didn't mind. He seemed to find my life negligible. I found his horrifying. Oh, well. He could not understand my incessant travel. I could not understand his need to be a Yale professor, hurrying u to New Haven to give lectures on the evils of watching television. He needed to be an intellectual. East European writers use that word all the time to describe themselves. I hated the word. He liked power. He wanted to be respectable. When he ceased to be respected - in the end he had actually been mocked for being a lightweight and suspected plagiarist - he killed himself. I woke up in my tent under the palms at Anakena thinking: A traveler has no power, no influence, no known identity. That is why a traveler needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery. Generally, the traveler is anonymous, ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among. The traveler might be known as "The American" or "The Foreigner" - the palangi, the papaa, as they said here in Rapa Nui. But there was no power in that.

A traveler was conspicuous for being a stranger, and consequently was vulnerable. But, traveling, I whistled in the dark and assumed all would be well. I depended on people being civil and on observing a few basic rules. Generally I felt safer in a place like Anakena than I would have in an American city - or American camp site, for that matter (mass murderers were known to lurk around camp sites). I did not expect preferential treatment. I did not care about power or respectability. This was the condition of a liberated soul, of course, but also the condition of a bum. A small Rapa Nui boy watched me setting up my boat later that day on the beach at Anakena. I pointed to the seven carvings on the huge aku and asked him in Spanish, "What do you call those?"

"Moai," he said.
"Are they men or gods?"
"Gods." Dios.

The water at Anakena was no cooler than that in Cape Cod Bay in July. Because there was no one here to tell me anything about the hazards - the current, the tides, the submerged rocks, the sharks - I paddled out in stages, to test the current and the wind. There was a light northerly wind blowing onshore, into the bay, and moderate surf. I made it to the opening of the bay and paddled east for a few miles and saw only waves crashing against the black rocks of the island. Once past Ure-Mamore Point (Punta Rosalia on my chart) I could see all the way to the far eastern headland of the island, more high cliffs rising to another of Rapa Nui's four volcanoes, this one was Pukatike on Poike Peninsula. There was a surf break nearer shore, which meant that I had to stay about a quarter-mile from the island to avoid being tipped over and dashed against the rocks. But still I felt pleased having come this far, and justified in having brought m boat.

I have water and food in the boat, but the sea was so rough - the wind bashing my beam - that I could not put my paddle down long enough to eat anything. Instead, I went out farther (it was a safe wind: if I had tipped over I would have been blown back in the shore) and then in a westerly direction, past Anakena again, and onward, blundering toward another headland, Punta San Juan. The wind picked u and the sea was filled with breaking waves and cross-winds, and once again, looking along the whole coast toward another corner of this triangular island - Gabo Norte - I was amazed b what a rocky, inhospitable shore it presented nowhere to land, nothing but breakers and black boulders. I was listening on my Walkman to a Charlie Parker tape, "Apex of Bebop" - it suited the surf, the tumbling clouds, the chop, the waves, every soaring bird: Craizeology and Tardbird Suite and Out of Nowhere and Bird of Paradise. Standing in the sunshine on the grassy slope of a volcano, among big-nosed stone heads, sniffing the heather, I had had no real idea of what an intimidating island this could seem. It was cows and meadows and huts, and smashed statuary. It was bleary-eyed and rather grubby Polynesians, and Chileans from the mainland.  

From my boat the island seemed truly awful and majestic, a collection of grassy volcanoes, beaten by surf, and surrounded by more than two thousand miles of open water. It was not like any other island I had seen in Oceania. Tanna had been rocky, Guadalcanal had been dense and jungly, the Marquesas had been forbidding - those deep valleys, full of shadows. But Rapa Nui looked terrifying. The tide was ebbing in the late afternoon when I returned to Anakena - the water had slipped down to reveal protruding rocks. I beached my boat and saw a woman walking along the beach. Her name was Ginny Steadman, and she was a painter, who had come here with her husband, Dave, an archeologist, who was digging near the aku above Anakena. I talked a while with Ginny - about islands we had visited - but I found it hard to concentrate, because all the while I was thinking of how about six or eight months previously I had had a premonition of this exact moment - the way everything was positioned: how the sunlight hit the water, the slope of the beach, the angle of the boat, Ginny herself, the sight of the bay, even the air temperature and the swooping birds, so vivid a deja-vu - I have seen this before, I thought - that I resisted telling her, afraid the poor woman would be startled.

Dave Steadman was up to his neck in a symmetrically stepped pit. He talked without interrupting his digging and sifting and sorting. He had spent years traveling the Pacific, looking for the bones of extinct birds. Later, I read about him, how he had discovered new species of rails, of gallinules, of parrots, and as one of the world's authorities on the extinction of species he had published many articles - Extinction of Birds in Eastern Polynesia, Holocene Vertebrate Fossils in the Galapagos, and others. He told me he was looking for bone fragments, but he said he picked up anything that looked interesting.

"Here's some flakes of various kinds - obsidian - and a drill."
It was a chipped stick of stone, about two inches long.
"That was for drilling wood or bone - or making tools."
he had small plastic bags of sorted bird bones.
"These might be shearwaters or petrels." He pointed to the pit he had dug. "There's lots of extinct birds down there. Not many u here on the surface. What have you got here? No tress. Hardly any birds. The caracara was introduced. They've got that gray finch. A few terns. Masked booby. Frigate bird. That's about it."
He did not stop digging, and now Ginny was sifting through the sand he shoveled into mesh-bottomed boxes.
"You can always tell what a place was like when you dig," Dave said. Polynesians got to an island and they started eating. And they didn't stop. Within a hundred years or so they ate everything - all the birds are gone. That's the first level - extinct birds. At the next level you find different bones - dogs, pigs. Then another level and, hey" - he glanced out of the pit, just his head showing -"they start chowing down on each other."
"Was thee much cannibalism here? I asked.

Metraux had said there was, but he had done no digging. He had collected old stories about the kai-tangaia, "man-eaters," on Easter Island; the way that victorious warriors ate their slain enemies after a battle, though sometimes people were killed to provide a special dish for a feast. Human fingers and toes "were the most palatable bits." On at least one occasion some Peruvian slavers were ambushed and eaten.

"Yes. Human bones have been found here, mixed together with fish bones and bird bones," David said. "There was cannibalism all over Polynesia. In the Cooks, in Tonga, the Marquesas. Everywhere. You see the evidence when you dig. As soon as the population gets to a certain level people start chowing down on their neighbors."

He had returned to his digging, but he was still talking.

"Some guy's taro patch is bigger than yours? You want his mana? You kill him and you chow down." After a moment, he added, "Cannibalism was big here in the sixteenth century."

Inevitably, our discussion turned to Thor Heyerdahl.

Dave, who as an archaeologist was the straightest talker I had met, as well as the most down-to-earth, said, "Thor Heyerdahl is perhaps the most fanciful adventurer to hit the Pacific."

This made Ginny wince, but then she smiled and nodded agreement. "Many things he says about Easter Island are incorrect," Dave said. "He dreams something one night, makes a connection, and the next day he puts it into his book. See, he already has his theory. He just looks for ways of proving it. That's not scientific. And he commits the worst sin of an archaeologist - he has been known to buy artifacts from the locals as well as carrying out digs. If you dig them  you get provenential information. But when you buy them you know nothing."

He dumped another bucket of sand for Ginny to sift.

"I guess you could say that because of him, Easter Island is on the map," he said. "There's been more archaeology done here than on any other single place in the Pacific. But want my opinion of it? It's shitty archaeology. It's some of the worst excavation in the Pacific. No one knows anything here. They get a big bag of bones and chips, and they don't know where the stuff comes from. It's all a mystery."

Dave pointed with his trowel at the ahu with the seven moai on it, their backs turned to us.
"Look at that ahu. To rebuild it, they had to move tons of sand - right here, a whole mountain of it. What was in it? Where did it go? Think of all the information that was lost! And you can't criticize the guy who did it, because he's an archaeologist."
"What about the reed-boat theory?" I asked. "That as disproved, wasn't it?"
"Yes. By Flenley's pollen studies. He proved that the reeds in the crater are 18,000 years old. How could they have been brought by South Americans? And the thing is, Heyerdahl was here when Flenley read his paper. He just sat there. He didn't say anything. It was ridiculous."

But closely questioned, Dave became less rambunctious and more scientific. He even stopped shoveling to explain.

"See, the lake sediment contains pollen, and the anoxic mud preserves the pollen  So you do a core, for a number of meters, and then you radiocarbon date it. They're good tests. They're real diagnostic."

The Steadmans covered their hole and left, and when they were gone it began to rain. Then the clouds blew past, and I was alone in pink late-afternoon sunshine. And I thought that, even without the moai, it would be a lovely island, because of the volcanoes - the craters and hornitos - and the long grassy sweep of their slopes. The sunset, purple and pink, altered slowly like a distant fire being extinguished, and then cold black night fell for thirteen hours. Everyone goes home and shuts the door when darkness falls, and at Easter Island I had a sense of great suspicion and separation, of distinct household, of a competitive, feuding society, full of old unresolved quarrels, in which there was quite a lot of petty theft, suspicion, envy, evasion, and insincerity. The toughness and self-reliance of the people made these traits even more emphatic.

The next morning I went across the island, into town, to send a fax. It was simple enough. It went through the only phone in town, at the Entel/Chile communications center, where there was a large satellite dish. It was also possible to receive a fax there, for a dollar a page, or to make international phone calls (Easter Island was in the same time zone as Denver). Every day that office received by fax the news pages of the Santiago newspaper, Las Noticias, and these pages were tacked to the wall of the office: this wall newspaper was the nearest Easter Island got to having a paper but, in any case people only read it when they were making a long-distance call.

The Steadmans were back at Anakena, digging again the following day, sifting for bird bones and chips, and they seemed to me among the unsung heroes of Pacific archaeology. Their fieldwork, like most scientific research, was laborious and undramatic, but it yielded indisputable results. And nearly every shovelful had something of value in it. Dave picked up a small bone from the screen. He blew the dust from it.

"This is a bone from the inner ear of a porpoise."
"Did it swim here?"
"No. someone chowed down on it. This is a habitation site," he said, gesturing at the pit he had dug. "It's all food here. And there's enough organic material in that bone to date it."
"Is this what you've done in other places in the Pacific?"
"Pretty much so. We dig, we collect what we can. Most people ignore us. We don't care about that."
Ginny said, "Except for Tonga."
"We got some hostility in Tonga," Dave said. "'Fucking palangi" - that stuff. We kind of like the cooks."
"Women don't get hassled in the Cooks," Ginny said. "They left one alone."
"There's a rain forest in Eua, in Tonga," Dave said. "When we were there in eighty-seven we said, "Take care of it. Eco-tourism is the big thing now. People will want to come here and experience this rain forest.' They said, 'Yeah. yeah. Great idea.'"
He was digging again - digging and talking.
"We went back two years later. Now some Japs are planning a hotel and golf course in Eua, right in the rain forest."

It was pleasant to talk with people as widely traveled and knowledgeable as the Steadmans. I proposed that they write a Book of Extinct Birds. They said they had thought of it already, and might just do it. I asked Dave about the megapode birds I had seen in the Solomons. He was full of information, and had seen megapode skeletons - an extinct one as big as a turkey - but never a live bird. I described for him the pleasure of eating a megapode-egg omelette. He found the Easter Islanders an even greater riddle than their artifacts, but in their own way just as ruined.

"I've seen more hard-core debauchery on this island than anywhere else in the Pacific."
"Like what?"
"You name it."
it was the drinking most of all that alarmed him. A bottle existed to be emptied. Even a full bottle of whisky was gone by the following morning.
"Their attitude is, 'If you've got 'em, smoke 'em.'"

After I had chosen a spot and set up camp, I saw that I was only a half a mile from the famous moai quarry at the volcano Rano-Raraku. I walked there and spent the rest of the day wandering among the stone heads. From a distance, the heads look like the stumps of enormous trees, but walking closer you see how distinct they are. Most of them were two or three times my height. I counted thirty of them, then walked a bit farther and counted a dozen more. There are over a hundred of them here, on the slope of the volcano, from which they were carved. They have enigmatic faces, highly styliz3ed, like the characters in old Virgil Partch cartoons, or like attenuated Greeks, or gigantic chess pieces. On these slopes, they are standing, lying on their faces, on their backs, broken, and seemingly walking down the slope - some have a whole trunk, a thick upper body, attached to them, buried underground. The inside of the crater had a number of them. And outside, some are half-sculpted, lying horizontal in a niche in the side of the volcanic rock. One of these was forty feet long - a head and body, lying like an unfinished mummy. Another was a kneeling figure. Yet another upright moai had a three-masted schooner carved on its chest.

There were no other people at the site, which made the experience eerie and pleasant. It was without any doubt one of the strangest places I had ever been. From the height of the volcano, I could look south and see more figures, twenty or thirty, strung out along the meadows, as though making their way towards Haga-Roa. The questions are obvious. Why and how were they carved? Who are they? How were they moved? Why were so many destroyed?

The long Norwegian shadow of Thor Heyerdah falls across every archaeological question on Easter Island. Even the simplest people I met on the island had an opinion about their history, and they all had views of Thor Teyherdahl. Drunk or sober, nearly all were skeptical about the man. The drunkest was Julio, a fisherman who, because of bad circulation brought on by his continual state of inebriation, was always shivering, and this in spite of wearing a winter coat and wooly hat (with earmuffs). Although the rest of the men went around in shorts or bathing-suits, I never saw drunken Julio take off either the thick hat or the coat.

"You have heard of Thor Heyerdahl?" he demanded. "I worked for him for six months. I don't like him. Listen, he gets publicity all over the world and what did I get for six months' work? Nada!"

Anna, a young mother in a torn T-shirt, also had views. She spoke a little English. She had been to Los Angeles in 1982, but hadn't liked it. "Too many Mexican people." We were near Rano-Raraku, in view of the quarry, and so I asked her about the moai. She said she had taken her little daughter to see them and that the little girl had wondered how they had been moved.

"What did you tell her?"

"Thor Heyerdahl says that the statues 'walked' - that the people used ropes and lines to move them, while the statues were upright. But the stone is very soft and Tahai is nineteen kilometers away. So they would never had made it. I think Heyerdahl is wrong. There are palm trees here at one time. They could have used those trunks as sleds. The people must have pulled them that way."

In Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, Heyerdahl writes how a man telling him that "the statues walked" made perfect sense. (It was an island legend, this walking walking by means of the divine power of mana: Metraux heard the same tales.) Of course, ropes must have been affixed to upright moai and the great things rocked back and forth, one set of ropes yanked, then the other. Heyerdahl experimented, moving one moai twelve feet. This is something less than fifteen miles, but the more convincing argument was put in the magazine Archeology by Professor van Tilburg, who examined all the statues for "wear patterns" on the bases, necks and upper torsos and found none. If ropes had been attached to this soft stone and the statues joggled for fifteen miles the stone would have been abraded. Much more likely is the sledge theory - the figures were dragged "on a frame or a sledge, to which ropes were attached ... using a crew of approximately 150 individuals, over specially prepared transport roads." Metraux's conclusion is similar, though he says that skids must have been used, Tongan style, as they had when the forty-ton pillar so the trilithon had been moved across Tongatapu. the average weight of the Easter Island heads (because the stone is so porous) is only four or five tons.

Thor Heyerdahl is shrill but mistaken in many of his assumptions. Far from solving the Easter Island mystery, he has succeeded in making the solution more difficult for qualified scientists and made something of a fool of himself in the process. He is as amateur, a popularizer, an impresario. With a zoology degree from the University of Oslo. And his efforts in the Pacific greatly resemble the muddling attentions of, say, the hack writer of detective stories when faced with an actual crime scene - someone who ignores the minutia of evidence, hair analysis, or electrophoresis (for typing bloodstains) and in blundering around a crime scene, muttering "The butler did it!", makes a complete hash of it for the forensic scientists. The mention of Heyerdah's name in academic circles frequently produces embarrassment or anger, and even villagers on Rapa Nui find Heyerdahl ridiculous. The Rapa Nui know they are the descendants of Polynesian voyagers and regard themselves as the creatures of the monumental figures, which they claim are representations of various prominent ancestors. The figures are not gods, but men. (Forster, who went with Cook, claimed that the statues were of "deceased chiefs.") Historians back up the Rapa Nui beliefs, even if Heyerdahl sneers at them. In an important article in Scientific American in 1983, "The Peopling of the Pacific," P.S. Bellwood writes, "At least one thing is now quite certain: the Polynesians are not of American Indian ancestry, in spite of some evidence for minor contracts with the Pacific coast of South America."

"There is absolutely no hard data known from the cumulative effort of nearly 100 years of investigation," Professor van Tilburg writes, "which would archeologically link the island to the mainland." 

This view is supported by other Pacific historians and scientists, by Professor Sinoto of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, who has carried out excavations throughout French Polynesia and who has studied Easter Island, by P.V. Kirch in The Evolution of the Polynesian Chieftains, regarded as the best documented study of Polynesian settlement; indeed, the view is supported by almost everyone except Heyerdahl himself, who clings to his absurd theory that Peruvian voyagers carried their culture -0 their stonework, their gods, their sweet potato - into the Pacific. Polynesians came later, he says, and brought these thriving cultures to an abrupt halt. What about the totora reeds upon which Heyerdahl places so much emphasis in attempting to prove his reed-boat theory" As David Steadman said, pollen studies such as John Flenley's have proven that the reeds have been growing in the craters for about thirty thousand years. Thor Heyerdahl claims that they were brought from south America about a thousand years ago, and this is one of the cornerstones of his reed-boat theory - that South Americans with reed-boat technology sailed to Easter Island bringing sweet potatoes and crating masterpieces of stonework.

Why, you may ask, does the authoritative Encyclopaedia Britannica disagree with the botanists and support the conclusions of Thor Heyerdahl? The Encyclopaedia Britannica text supports all of Thor Heyerdahl's assertions: "boggy crater lakes are thickly covered in two imported American species." The answer is that the lengthy entry on "Easter Island" in Volume 6 of the Macropaedia bears the initials "Th.H." and was written by the Norwegian. Probably the most obnoxious aspect of Heyerdahl is that he appears to display a contemptuous bias against Polynesian. In Fatu Hiva, he maintains that the Marquesans are too lazy to have created the ambitious stonework and carvings on Hiva Oa. In Akuaku, reflecting on the stonework of Easter Island, he writes, "One thing is certain. This was not the work of a canoeload of Polynesian wood carvers ..." In The Mystery Solved, he rubbishes the Rapa Nui people even more. "No Polynesian fisherman would have been capable of conceiving, much less building, such a wall." Too lazy, too uncreative, too stupid.

This extraordinary prejudice is not only without foundation, but is the opposite of the truth. A review of the last book in the magazine Archeology called it "a litany of hypocrisy, superciliousness, and prejudice against Polynesians in general and the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Rapa Nui, in particular." One of Heyerdahl's most offensive theories is that the Rapa Nui were brought to Easter Island, from another island, possibly as salves, by ancient Peruvian navigators who were cruising and being artistic elsewhere in Oceania. In a lifetime of nutty theorizing, Heyerdahl's single success was his proof, in Kon-Tiki, that six middle-class Scandinavians could successfully crash-land their raft on a coral atoll in the middle of nowhere. That book made him a folk-hero. And it focused attention on the Pacific. I have not read an article or met a scientist that did not regard Heyerdahl as a nuisance, an obstruction and a pest. Heyerdahl's theory has also been disproved by scientists studying human genetics and DNA.

"In the Pacific there are two distinct branches (of the human family_," started Dr Steve Jones of University College, London, in the BBC Reith Lectures for 1991. "One - the peoples of New guinea and the Australian Aborigines - is genetically very variable, and differs greatly from lace to place. They have been there for a long time. The other - which fills the vast area of the Pacific Islands - is more uniform and is related to east Asians. These people arrived after the origin of agriculture, a few thousand years ago. In site of Thor Heyerdahl's crossing of the Pacific on a raft, there is no evidence of any genetic connection between Pacific Islanders and Peru. Population genetics has sunk the Kon-Tiki."

In the face of this scientific evidence, once could easily reach the conclusion that Heyerdahl, in clinging to his silly theory that Hagoth-like voyagers set sail from South America to civilize Polynesia, is in the pay of the Mormons.

Meanwhile, Easter Island remains a mystery.  .

An extract of the text from THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA by Paul Theroux, published in London by Hamish Hamilton, 1992. 

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 30th November 2006)

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