Rapa Nui

by Victoria James

Easter Island has been many things in the three centuries it has been known to the West: mooted landing site of UFOs; exotic long-haul holiday destination; and favorite location of the Discovery Channel — to name just a few.

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” the new book by Jared Diamond, Pulitzer prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” adds another to the list: Easter Island as cautionary tale. In “Collapse,” Diamond develops a thesis he outlined in The New York Review of Books last year — that of Easter as “a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.

“The island’s tragic story of habitat destruction, resource depletion and consequent social collapse, has broader significance in our world, beset with similar environmental problems.”

Similarly, John Flenley and Paul Bahn — authors of 2003′s “The Enigmas of Easter Island” — say of their findings: “This is more than an account of the rise and fall of an extraordinary prehistoric culture; if Easter Island is seen as a microcosm of our own world, then it is, indeed, a cautionary tale for the future of all humankind.”

Intrigued, I visited Easter for 15 days during a warm southern hemisphere spring — not long, but long enough to learn that however enthralling the theories surrounding the island’s neolithic era, its 20th-century history is no less fascinating.

Modern Easter is every bit as full of contradictions as its statue-building past. That, though, is simply not a side of the island that most visitors choose to see.

You reach Easter — known to its inhabitants by the Polynesian name, Rapa Nui (also the name of its people and their language) — either from the Chilean capital, Santiago, 3,700 km to the east, or from Tahiti some 4,050 km westward. Either way, it is an almost six-hour flight, and Easter is the most isolated populated island on Earth.

If the extra-terrestrials, who “Chariots of the Gods” author Eric Von Daniken believes erected the celebrated moai statues, were to return today, they would have a space-age landing pad. Easter’s single airstrip was extended with money from the U.S. government to serve as an emergency landing strip for NASA’s Space Shuttles. It is the longest runway in the southern hemisphere, and spans the island’s entire width.

A cautionary tale

The classic early accounts of Easter — among them that of Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted the island on Easter Day 1722 and bestowed on it the name it still bears — all stress its barren appearance. Likewise, the fondness of guidebooks and tourist brochures for photographs of the Rano Raraku statue quarry, or the impressive coastal altars such as Tongariki — where statues stand in line along a rocky shore — lead modern visitors to imagine a bare and desolate place.

But the island was once a much lusher ecosystem; today’s uniformly grassy landscape is the result of its painful lurch into the modern world. Easter’s history is a cautionary tale of self-inflicted eco-disaster as past islanders felled the trees and ate themselves out of natural resources. Because of its remoteness, it has almost no indigenous fauna to populate its grassy uplands and woods. Rabbits were introduced in 1866, but by 1911 the last of the population had been roasted and eaten.

Today, cattle dot the island’s fields, and a few horses roam its mountain slopes. Many locals still ride bareback, and horses were the preferred form of transport until the filming of Kevin Costner’s 1994 box-office flop, “Rapa Nui,” brought the locals well-paid work as extras. Most spent their windfalls on new cars, and as a consequence, Easter probably has the world’s highest density of taxis per person and the highest ratio of cars to roads, since there are but two paved thoroughfares on the island.

From any elevated part of the triangular island, you can see the ocean stretching away on all sides. The nearest habitation is on Pitcairn Island, 2,092 km to the west. Supplies for its 3,000 inhabiatants are brought to the island by air and by a rusting hulk of a cargo ship that makes the trip a few times a year. “If we run out of something,” said one shopkeeper, “that’s that. The island could even run out of toilet paper.”

Hanga Roa is the island’s only settlement. Many of the homes clustered here, made from cinderblocks and roofed with corrugated iron, resemble shacks. Inside, though, mod cons abound, including wide-screen TVs showing dozens of satellite channels. Terrestrial programs come from the Chilean mainland. In fact, Easter has been Chilean territory since its annexation in 1888.

Today, half of Easter’s residents are mainland-born. The result is that the local language, Rapa Nui, is fast dying out. “I hear the families speaking Rapa Nui among themselves,” explained Maria, a mainlander working on the island as a chef, “but when they’re in a group there’s almost always a Chilean there, so they speak Spanish for us.”

Similarly, among the younger generation, it has become increasingly difficult to spot the classic Polynesian features and complexion of the Rapa Nui. But Easter, not unlike Meiji Japan, has a way of taking foreign influences and transmuting them. At the highest point of Hanga Roa stands a Catholic church, where the service is half in Spanish and half chanted in the Rapa Nui tongue. The crosses in the island’s seaside graveyard are decorated with birds, but these are not doves representing the Holy Spirit. Rather, they show the tangata manu, the Birdman of the eponymous 18th- and 19th-century cult that sprang up as the statue-building culture waned.

Native uprising

There is an extraordinary sense of religious and cultural fusion at work on Easter. One of the four memorial slabs at the side of the Hanga Roa church is dedicated to a local woman who died in January 1915. Named Angata, she was not only a trained catechist of the Catholic Church, she was also widely believed to be a witch and a prophet, and wandered the island wearing a rosary and speaking a made-up language. She was a prime instigator of the so-called native uprising of 1914, when the Rapa Nui rebelled against the Scottish-Chilean Compania Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua, which fed and housed its workers abysmally while appropriating huge areas of land for its livestock. After raids and a tense standoff, the rising was defused by the timely arrival of the Chilean naval vessel, the Baquedano.

Another of Easter’s -cultural offspring is rongorongo, the only written script of any Polynesian language. Rongorongo somewhat resembles hieroglyphics, and like Ancient Egyptian, it is a combination of the semantic and the symbolic. Though rongorongo looks ancient, it dates back to no earlier than the end of the 18th century, and died out at the dawn of the 20th century (see accompanying story).

The home not just of monumental statues, but also of the Birdman cult and rongorongo, Easter Island is blessed with not one, but three impressive archaeological curiosities.

Blessed may not be the best way to put it, however. The most fascinating aspect of Easter is the way the needs of its troubled past conflict with the needs of its troubled present.

Bereft of natural resources, the tiny island scrapes by on tourist income. “Most tourism money stays on the island,” said the mayor of Hanga Roa, Petero Edmunds. “But it goes to tour operators, restaurants, car rental operators — and anyway, it isn’t enough.”

Easter’s inaccessibility makes it pricey for travelers, who rarely have much left over after the cost of getting there. Most tourists, after traveling so far, stay only three or four days. However, apart from an entrance fee for the Birdman cult center at Orongo, access to Easter’s sites is free.

There are practical reasons for this. One is simply that the island is so small and the ahu (altar platforms on which the moai stand) are so large they can easily be viewed from a distance, making the erection of barriers not only unsightly but also pointless.

Edmunds also points out that even charging all visitors a flat fee (as is done in the Galapagos) wouldn’t begin to fill the money pit that is Easter’s archaeological legacy. The island receives some 30,000 visitors a year. The cost of work on one of the 800 moai is $100,000. Do the math — whatever you charge tourists, it’s never going to be enough.

Easter also faces challenges common to many developing societies making the transition to the modern, global world. Alcoholism and drug abuse are significant problems, Edmunds said. And though Easter has two good schools, one of which is currently building a smart new sports complex, medical facilities are limited. Those seriously ill must be flown to the Chilean mainland; the cost of their transportation and care, not to mention the expense of family members visiting or staying, can place household budgets under severe strain.

Collective approach to problem-solving

On my third day in Easter, I helped the family I stayed with make a cake the size of a futon. Buried in a coal-lined pit in the garden and baked for hours, the cake was eaten the next day at a barbecue attended by hundreds of the local community. The event, it turned out, was a fundraiser to benefit the family matriarch, currently in hospital in Santiago. It typified a collective approach to problem-solving that holds together the tiny community of this fragile isle.

This is not a side to Easter that most visitors, on the well-worn statue circuit, will glimpse. It is their sad loss. Anyone who tries to see Easter without a local person at their side, says archaeologist and moai expert Jo Anne Van Tilburg (see interview and accompanying story), is crazy.

It’s not as though you even have to try hard to make contact. After just a week there, you will be greeted on the street by people you’ve got to know. And when you do talk to the islanders — from leaders such as Edmunds and the 15 elders he consults each day, down to teenagers, who seek higher education on the mainland but claim they’d never want to live anywhere but Easter — you realize that this is a community resolved to stand on its own two feet. Jared Diamond may suggest that premodern Easter was a society that “chose” to fail, but today’s islanders seem determined to make their future a success.