Despite its isolated location in the Pacific Ocean, the enigmatic Easter Island draws curious travelers from across the globe. Its moai statues intrigue and beguile, yet there’s more to the ethereal location than a bunch of stones. Here are nine things you never knew about Easter Island.
If you’ve ever researched Easter Island, chances are that you’ve probably come across the name Rapa Nui. Although many assume this is the native name for the island, in fact, it was first recorded in 1863. It’s a Polynesian name, which translates to “Big Rapa” in comparison to French Polynesia, which is called “Rapa.” These days, the islanders prefer to use Rapa Nui when talking about their island — rather than Isla de Pascua, the name used by mainland Chileans. Confusingly, if you see the word Rapanui in print (all one word and no space), it refers to the people themselves and not the island.
The Rapa Nui language has just 10 consonants. In comparison, the English language has 21. Spoken by roughly 3,000 people (most of whom reside on the island), Rapa Nui is eastern Polynesian in origin and similar to Maori. However, since Easter Island is a Chilean territory, many residents also speak Spanish.
From 1966 until 1970, Easter Island was home to a U.S. satellite tracking station. Americans wanted to keep an eye on Russian naval movements during the Cold War, and Easter Island’s remote location was ideal for maintaining secrecy. The U.S. built the first local hospital and gave the island its first proper runway, which paved the way for a regular schedule of commercial flights from Chile. The island’s airport is also the most remote on Earth. However, in 1970, socialist president Salvador Allende rose to power and expelled U.S. troops from the island.
Each February, the Haka Pei competition is staged on Maunga Pu’i hill and it’s easily the highlight of the Tapati Festival. Two banana tree trunks are fixed together and participants slide to the bottom — reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour in the process. Other events staged as part of the festival include sporting events such as canoe and horse races, along with competitions in art, gastronomy, and dance.
Until 1867, the Birdman competition was staged. The arrival of sooty terns to Easter Island was a signal to rival tribes that they should walk to the village of Orongo. Per tradition, these athletes would rappel down the cliffs to the ocean and swim over a mile out to the rocky outcrop of Motu Nui using a reed surfboard for buoyancy. They would then camp in order to wait for the sooty tern to lay an egg. Whoever made it back to Orongo first with their precious cargo was crowned the winner. The prize was to be that year’s Birdman, the spiritual leader of the island.
Tour the island and you’ll spot the famous moai — stone figures placed on ceremonial platforms called ahus. At first, they appear to be giant heads, but upon closer inspection you’ll notice that their bodies are sunken into the ground. If you’re observant, you’ll realize that the moai almost always have their backs to the sea. However, if you venture inland to Ahu Akivi, the moai are facing the other direction.
Some say this is because the figures represent the first Polynesians to discover the island, so they were aligned to face their homeland. Others have noted that they line up with certain stars at the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes. In A Companion Guide to Easter Island, James Grant-Peterkin asserts that the moai were always placed to watch over the village to which they were attached — which, in this case, used to lie between the stones and the sea.
The rock found in Rano Raraku quarry is actually a type of tuff. The stone is made of hardened volcanic ash, but is still much softer than the basalt found across most of the island. Although the rock’s composition made it easy to quarry, it was also very fragile and breakable. A master carver would have overseen the creation of each new moai, a process which could take as long as two years. If a moai accidentally broke, it was left where it fell, since it was believed that the figure’s mana, the spiritual energy that translated to its power, was gone for good.
The eyes of the moai fit inside carved eye sockets. However, when the moai were hewn from the quarry at Rano Raraku, they had no eye sockets. In fact, sockets were only carved after the moai had been transported to a stone platform known as an ahu where they would be installed. The sockets were angled so that they looked up to the sky. Coral represented the whites of the eyes, while the iris was a piece of obsidian or red scoria. A ceremony was carried out to open the eyes of the erect moai — freeing the ancestor’s spirit to be brought back to life.
Another distinguishing feature to look out for on the moai is the length of their ears. Earlobe elongation was a popular trend among islanders. When Captain James Cook visited Easter Island in 1774, he noted that if they had to run, they would sometimes loop them over the top of the ears to keep them out of the way.
In addition to the famous moai statues, the breathtaking Rano Kau is arguably the most extraordinary sight on the island. This extinct volcanic crater measures an impressive mile in diameter. On the wall closest to the ocean, a giant bite known as the Kari Kari is the result of heavy erosion. Vivid green reed mats float on the azure crater lake — making this an astonishingly colorful sight. Vines, fig trees, and bougainvillea all thrive inside the crater and are protected from the wind by its steep sides.
You don’t have to drive very far on Rapa Nui before you encounter some of its equine population. Catholic missionaries introduced horses in the 19th century, and there are now an estimated 3,000 roaming on the island. Each horse is branded and belongs to someone. Sometimes you’ll see them galloping along the roads, and a few are available to ride. If you see them grazing beside the moai, the island authorities suggest you gently encourage them to move along, since their hooves can damage the stones.