The Elements of the End of the World

Little Rapa Nui in the Deep Blue Sea
Water. The Oceans keep secrets. They hold creatures rarely seen by man, alien-looking organisms that live beyond the reach of sunlight on the dark Ocean floor: creatures that baffle science. There are stories of sirens luring sailors to their deaths with the beauty of their song: fantastic legends. We know of Khoaj Khijir in Islam or Jonah in Christianity, the prophet swallowed by a large fish, and in Taiwan and coastal mainland China there are temples dedicated to Kuanyin, goddess of the sea. Oceans report news of shipwreck and survival; chart storms and tsunamis; and document histories of mass migration. Oceans shape human life, and nowhere is their impact greater than in the continent of sea, Oceania.

The town of Hanga Roa
Fire. With summer clouds as attendants, the sun is lowered into the deep-water Pacific. I watch as it throws its last light to the sky, like the final glow of a hurricane lamp before it’s turned down at night. There are the sorts of questions only a remote Pacific island could raise. How will the sun get out of the sea again? How will it not be extinguished by the world of water? And what force, it’s hard to say, what ingenious system of pulleys or levers or frames could shift such a mass as the sun down into the sea in the first place? Alive with wonder, a place of mythical Ocean-questions is the small island of Rapa Nui.

Water. Seemingly at the end of the world, Rapa Nui is one of the Earth’s most isolated inhabited places. Home to less than 4,000 people and with an area of just 163.6 km², the island lies in the southeast Pacific, 3,510 km west of South America and 2,075 km east of Pitcairn, the nearest populated island. All the in-betweens are water. It is indeed remote.

Earth. So far from anywhere else, Rapa Nui seems like it could be the last remaining dry land on the planet; and Rapa Nui’s residents, together with the few tourists to have made it that far must be the world’s last survivors, alone and adrift. On Rapa Nui, the end of a day feels like the end of the last day, every day.

Moai Sunset
The locals are nonplussed by the sunset. They’ve seen many last-days. They play football in a grassy field a short way from Hanga Roa, the island’s only settlement. A few tourists watch the game, the sun and the nearby wide-eyed, red-hatted moai, one of the large ancestor statues for which Rapa Nui, called Easter Island by the Europeans, is internationally renowned.

Air. The scene meditates: football players actively ignore the end of the world, tourists wonder what it means, and the moai, back turned on the Ocean, looks inland, stands committed to its small island refuge. The moai refuses to consider the bigger picture, the watery vastness of Oceania from where its makers crawled ashore.

Evening Football Match
Water. About the island’s first settlers, the only certain thing is nothing is certain. They came in simple wooden canoes and catamarans, embracing the Ocean’s temperaments to travel up to three thousand kilometres to settle Rapa Nui. They must have been brave or foolish, those early Polynesians who became the Rapa Nui people. How did they even find the little island?

They arrived some time between 300 CE and 1200 CE. Scholars disagree. They came from perhaps the Marquisas, maybe the Tuomoto or possibly the Pitcairn Islands. It is not sure. And why they came, nobody but the Ocean knows.

Another mystery involves possible links with the civilisations of South America. There are stones joined together to form a wall using the same method developed in Tihaunaco, an ancient city now in Bolivia. The Polynesian diet includes sweet potato, a native of South America, and in the crater lakes of Rapa Nui grow nga’atu reeds, the same plant called totora in South America, used in Lake Titicaca to make sturdy sailing craft.
Moai carved into rock but not yet cut out

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl was certain enough the Rapa Nui people could have South American origins that he had a totora-reed boat, the Con-Tiki, built in Lake Titicaca and sailed it from the South American coast in 1947, reaching the Tuamoto Islands in Polynesia after 101 days. There is a museum to the expedition in Oslo; although the theory the Rapa Nui people came from South America has been largely discredited.

Fallen Moai
Earth. Rapa Nui has 887 listed moai, heads and torsos of stone in a kneeling position, with hands placed curiously over their bellies, and nearly all that are standing have their backs to the Ocean. The largest erected moai, known as Paro, measures almost ten metres and weighs 75 tonnes. Almost all moai were carved from a single quarry, on the side of Rano Raraku, one of three extinct volcanic craters that dominate the island’s geography. They were made with stone hand chisels, carved from the soft volcanic tuff found at the site. Their hats were cut from red scoria elsewhere and eyes were decorated using volcanic glass or obsidian for black pupils. It is estimated a single moai took a team of five or six men a year to complete. It’s remarkable.

The moai were moved across the island for installation on stone platforms called ahu, of which there are more than three hundred. In each village, the ahu was the centre of spiritual power, with each moai representing an important village ancestor, perhaps one of the island’s ‘long-ear’ chiefs. According to archaeologists, the mass of each moai was shifted with a y-shaped sledge with cross-pieces, or by using logs as basic wheels. The statues were tied around the neck with ropes made of bark and hauled by up to 250 men.

Air. According to legend though, the moai were ‘walked’ to their ahu, using a spiritual power called mana.

Moai at the quarry ready to be 'walked' to their Ahu.
Water. The island presents gentle hills of dry grassland between the three craters. There are few trees and no streams. In caves and in the small lakes called rano that fill the volcanic craters, is the island’s only fresh water. The town of Hanga Roa is still supplied with rano-water for drinking. It’s not an island that looks hospitable; it would have been difficult for the first arrivals, except the island they encountered was rather different.

Earth. Rapa Nui used to be covered with forests of unique species, including a large palm tree that grew in abundance. There were vast seabird colonies and there is fossil evidence for five land bird species. The forests are gone; the palm and other unique plant species are extinct; the land birds have vanished; and seabird colonies are restricted to the few offshore islets. Since human colonisation, Rapa Nui experienced ecological collapse on a phenomenal scale. Nobody knows exactly why.

Moai Quarry
While some researchers theorise the ecological collapse was the result of the climactic effects of the Little Ice Age, Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse, dismisses climate change as the major factor, instead hypothesising the disappearance of the island’s trees followed the building of the moai. In brief he argues so many trees were felled at the height of Rapa Nui civilisation, in order to transport the moai and for other uses, that the resultant soil erosion and depleted forest stocks ensured the island’s transformation into a more barren environment. For Diamond, Rapa Nui is a microscopic example of the threat now posed by global warming to the entire planet, to earth, air, fire and water.

Moai with backs to the sea
Water. By the 18th century the Oceans had revealed Rapa Nui to exploring Europeans. Their early reports support the theory that tribal wars erupted on the island, the reason given for the toppling of the moai statues: when one village attacked another they would try to knock down the moai, to destroy the spiritual power of their opponent. In 1770 the Spanish reported Rapa Nui as an island lined with statues, while four years later British explorer James Cook noted the statues were neglected and some had fallen. Diamond and Heyerdahl contend statue-toppling wars continued into the 1830s, although this hypothesis is controversial, with little archaeological evidence of tribal wars.

Moai on an Ahu
Air. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, following a military coup, a new belief based around the previously minor god makemake gained prominence on Rapa Nui. The birdman-cult of makemake involved a contest each year, when young representatives of each village would brave the treacherous waters off the southwest coast, swimming on a quest to reach a nearby islet to capture the first seabird’s egg of the season. The contest was very competitive and contestants risked their lives. The winner, who brought the seabird’s egg back to mainland Rapa Nui would have spiritual leadership over the island for the following year.
Carving of MakeMake and the islets

Fire. The story of the interaction of the Rapa Nui with Europeans and other visitors from across the sea is similar to the history of colonialism experienced in many parts of the world. New diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis brought to the island by explorers and missionaries, and raids by Peruvian slave traders, contributed to a dramatic decline in Rapa Nui’s population, from around 3,000 in the early 1860s to just 111 people in 1877. Following annexation by Chile in 1888, the Rapa Nui population gradually recovered, but with 97% of the population having either died or left the island, much cultural knowledge was lost.

Lost was an ability to read Rapa Nui’s unique writing system, called rongorongo, though the spoken Rapa Nui language remains.
The rano that supplies Hanga Roa's water

Air. The vast distances of Ocean have certainly grown no shorter, but Rapa Nui has become much more accessible. It has an impressive runway stretching to over three kilometres in length, built to serve as the emergency landing site for the NASA Space Shuttle. It has never been required for that use but instead hosts commercial flights from Tahiti in the west and mainland Chile to the east. These days the moai call tourists from around the world.
Rapa Nui Coastline

Water. With global warming, planet Earth is facing its greatest environmental crisis in many thousands of years. To date, it could be said, many of the world’s leaders have been underwhelming in their ability and willingness to face issues that are likely to impact all humanity in the near future. They are set to meet in Copenhagen in December to try for a more comprehensive damage-reduction strategy.

Let’s hope when they meet this time they remember the wisdom of the Ocean; the story of ecological collapse it keeps in the shape of Rapa Nui. Let’s hope they can be as bold as those first Polynesian settlers must have been, and take the hard decisions needed; in particular to curtail the number of new stories and cultures and lives at risk of being claimed forever as secrets of the Ocean.

Water. By chance I found myself in Rapa Nui in February, the month when the Tapati festival is held in Hanga Roa. In the evening, on a temporary stage constructed in the open by the sea, there is a concert of Rapa Nui song and dance. Despite all the turmoil and adversity, the Rapa Nui, people of the Ocean, survived. And between songs, in the quiet space of anticipation, you can hear the sound of waves; turmoil, trial, hope: the heartbeat of the Pacific.

From Rapa Nui, you can go west to Tahiti or east to South America...

Tapati Festival 2006, Hanga Roa

*Facts and figures for this article taken from Photos by the author.

This article is also published by Star Magazine, here: The Elements of the End of the World

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