• FATE Magazine

Visiting the Land of the Stone Giants by Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Moai, Manbirds, and other mysteries of Easter Island


The travel guides were not joking when they described it as the world’s most remote inhabited locality—a minute, triangular speck in the middle of the South Pacific, almost equidistant from Tahiti to the west and Chile to the east, and more than 2,200 miles away from both. It had al- ready taken me well over a day and many thousands of miles of air travel just to reach Chile from my home in England. I had an- other five hours of flying time across a blue expanse of ocean before I would reach my intended destination. But at last, just before midday on April 5, 2008, after poring over countless books and perusing un- told television documentaries detailing its unique history and mysteries for as long as I could remember, I finally arrived, step- ping down from the plane into the extraor dinary land of the stone giants— or, as it is better known, Easter Island. First Impressions Also called Rapa Nui, and with a population of roughly 3,500, Easter Island has been an overseas territory of Chile since 1888, and was first brought to the attention of the Western world on Easter Sun- day 1722 (hence its name), when it was formally discovered by Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen. Today, it has a single town, Hanga Roa. With dirt roads and dusty stores amid leafy groves and luxuriant blooming flora, it called to mind a 19th-century American frontier town that had somehow been dropped headlong onto a tropical island. However, it is the pre-European con- tact history of Easter Island that makes it so fascinating and mystifying. This tiny is- land, less than 20 miles across at its widest, was once ringed by hundreds of enormous monolithic statues. It was also home to a thriving birdman cult, archaic stone houses representing the human womb, a bleak and almost treeless vista formerly swathed in dense forests, and a hieroglyphic script that continues to defy all attempts to de- cipher it. Upon my arrival, I was garlanded with a lei of exotic flowers by welcoming locals. My first impression was that Rapa Nui was a typical Polynesian island, brightly carpeted with multicolored blossoms and lush vegetation. Then I learned that every flower, tree, and shrub, even the butterflies and dragonflies flitting about, had been im- ported from elsewhere. Hardly anything was native to Easter Island; it was as if it had been created as a massive film set, with each feature carefully planned to produce a completely new world. To understand why this was so, we need to know how Easter Island’s civilization originated, evolved, and devolved—and, during this complex process, engendered the multitude of mysteries and controversies for which it has become so famous in modern times. How It All Began—and Ended Thanks to modern archaeological re- search, we now have a basic idea of Easter Island’s early history, although there is still much dispute concerning the finer points. It seems to have been colonized during the fourth century A.D. (though some claim as late as the seventh or even the eighth cen- tury) by Polynesian seafarers, probably from the Marquesas Islands, who would have encountered an island very different from the one modern visitors experience. Back in those days, the entire island was clothed in subtropical, moist, broad-leaved forest, which included among its many botanical endemics the world’s largest species of palm tree, Paschalococos disperta. The elders and leaders of the independent kin-groups that emerged following colonization were greatly respected and ad- mired. A tradition began whereby each clan would carve a stone statue of its leader and erect it upon a platform near the coast, but facing inward, in order to look over the clan as a symbol of protection. These stone statues became known as moai and the platforms were called ahus. The earliest known examples date back to A.D. 690. Originally, the statues were little larger than their human models, but over the centuries they became ever bigger. By the 15th century, when production reached its peak, the statues had become colossal, over 30 feet tall in some cases, and unlike any- thing to be seen anywhere else in the world. The statues were hewn from tuff, an igneous rock ash pres- ent within a huge volcanic crater called Rano Raraku in the island’s east- ern half. This became a moai quarry where the statues were fully carved before being moved to their locations elsewhere on the island. Some even bore red topknots (pukao) on their heads, carved from sco- ria rock hewn from a quarry called Puna Pau, and their faces featured eyes of white coral and black obsidian. There has been much dispute as to how these stupendous statues were moved, bear- ing in mind their size and immense weight, averaging 14 tons but sometimes considerably more. Some of the more intriguing suggestions include air-lifting by aliens, levitation by the harnessing of electromagnetic forces, and the statues walking by themselves using a special life force called mana. It is now widely believed that they were transported on rollers made from the trunks of the palm trees. Needless to say, on such a small island there was a finite number of trees. With moai production reaching frenzied proportions as clans com- peted to see who could produce the largest and most spectacular examples, Easter Is- land became entirely deforested, its giant palm tree now extinct. This brought calamity to the entire civilization. Once the trees were gone, along with shrubs and other woody plants, substantial soil erosion occurred that in turn limited attempts at crop cultivation. Spears used for hunting fish could no longer be made, and even timbered fishing boats be- came a thing of the past with only reeds available for binding together to make canoes. To sustain themselves, the people killed the seabirds that once nested in great quantities around the coasts, as well as var- ious native land birds, until they were all wiped out except for a few that escaped to minuscule offshore islets. In rapid decline, and without the trees needed for manufacturing rollers, the clans suddenly stopped creating moai. Hundreds can still be found in varying states of completion attached to the inner walls of Rano Raraku’s crater. They include the biggest moai ever produced, the unfinished but aptly-named El Gigante, measuring a colossal 72 feet, and of such stupendous weight (estimated at 145 to 165 tons) that it seems unlikely it could ever have been transported out of the quarry, even if it had been completed. Now, instead of friendly competition, rivalry between the clans became violent as they turned against one another, producing obsidian daggers and other weapons with which to wage savage ongo- ing bouts of civil warfare, and even incidents of cannibalism. Not long after the first Europeans reached the island, the native clans defied what until then had been their ultimate taboo. Losing faith in the protective pow- ers of the moai, as well as seeking revenge on rival clans, they began overturning the giant statues. In 1722, Roggeveenre- ported that all of the moai he observed were standing, but when British explorer James Cook arrived in 1774 he saw many over- turned statues lying beside their ahus. In 1868, Linton Palmer, a visiting English doc- tor, recorded that not a single moai on the island remained standing; a great num- ber of them lay face-down and broken. The rise and fall of the Easter Island civilization, as well as the wholesale destruction of the island’s ecosystem, occurred within the space of a single millennium. Happily, during the last half-century, quite a number of unbroken moai have been raised onto remaining ahus, and today there are several sites featuring spectacular series of upright moai once again dominating the landscape. These include Ahu Tongariki, comprising no less than 15 moai on a huge ahu, restored to former glory after having been flattened when a huge tsunami hit the island’s southeastern coast in 1960; Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena on the east coast, bearing seven upright moai on an ahu; Ahu Akivi, the only inland moai- bearing ahu, bearing seven moai that uniquely face out towards the coast instead of inward; and Ahu Kote Riku at Tahai, which has a moai with restored inset eyes. Currently, a total of 887 moai have been recorded on Easter Island (of which 397 remain in the Rano Raraku quarry), but it is suspected that many more remain buried, especially on the slopes of Rano Raraku, covered over by soil and vegetation in the centuries since they were toppled. The island’s devastated landscape has also been repopulated via a huge program of biological introductions, including many different species of plants, insects, and even a few species of birds, most notably the im- pressive Chilean caracara hawk. This is the official history of Easter Island. But as I was to discover dur- ing my visit, there is still much that is shrouded in controversy, confusion, and mystery. Moai Mysteries Easter Island’s iconic moai are commonly referred to as “stone heads,” but this is incorrect. True, when walking upon the grassy slopes of Rano Raraku, one would be forgiven for assuming this description to be accurate. There are indeed monstrous heads standing upright every- where, staring imperiously but sightlessly ahead through empty eye sockets. Like icebergs, how- ever, much of their total form is hidden from sight. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and a team of archaeologists spent several months in 1955 conducting pioneering studies of Easter Island’s enigmatic archaeology. Hidden beneath layers of shift- ing soil, Heyerdahl discovered the torsos of the moai. Each comprises a long body down to the hips, a pair of spindly arms pressed closely to the sides, and a pair of hands with very elongate fingers splayed across the bulbous stomach. These features can be readily perceived in specimens re-erected on ahus elsewhere on the island. One torso-exposed Rano Raraku moai has an early three-masted Eu- ropean sailing ship skilfully carved upon its stomach, suggesting there were still some talented local craftsmen on Easter Island at the time of Western arrival, though the age of moai manufacture had passed. After reading in several publications that the moai all shared the same face, I was surprised to find that they are actually recognizably different. This supports the belief that they represent the elders of dif- ferent clans. Moreover, while it is widely claimed that they are all male, my guide pointed out one moai on the slopes of Rano Raraku that is now believed to be female. Even more intriguing is Tukuturi: the enigmatic round-faced, bearded, kneeling moai with squat body and well-formed arms dis- covered in 1955, which can be found on the outer flank of the quarry. The most pop- ular view is that it is an extremely primitive prototype moai, the earliest still in existence, in fact, from which the more familiar gaunt, lantern-jawed moai style of carving evolved. A differing school of thought postulates it may be the most recent moai, carved some time after all of the others. Equally mystifying are the topknots or pukao originally present on the heads of the moai. No one has any idea how they were placed there. Many of the larger moai are over 20 feet tall, and the topknots are exceptionally heavy. A crane was required to lift them up when replacing them on the heads of moai re-erected by contemporary researchers. Lacking the convenience of such modern-day machines, how did the early Easter Islanders accomplish this formidable task? One might also ask how the famous leaning moai of Rano Raraku, tilting for- ward at an extremely precarious angle, avoids toppling over onto its face. The answer is that the rest of its form, buried beneath centuries of soil and vegetation, anchors it firmly in place. Even so, I resisted the temptation to walk underneath it, just in case! Long Ears‚ or Tall Tale Another oft-quoted Easter Island claim is that there were once two totally different tribes here. One was the aristocratic Long Ears, named after their purposely elongated earlobes, a distinctive characteristic faith- fully reproduced on the moai. The other was the menial Short Ears. According to lore collected by Thor Heyerdahl and since reproduced in countless books and magazines, during the late 17th century, the Short Ears rose up and rebelled against their long- eared overlords, massacring all but a single Long Ear and marking the end of the latter as a separate tribe. When I mentioned this to my guide on Easter Island, she was amused, informing me that this was totally fictitious. In reality, she stated, every clan had a Long Ear as its leader (thus explaining why the clan leaders’ stone effigies were long-eared). There never was a discrete Long Ear tribe, and the Long Ear-versus-Short Ear battle was simply a tall tale spun to a gullible Hey- erdahl by locals as a joke, which then took on a life of its own. Just a week before I arrived on Easter Island, I was horrified to read that a Finnish tourist had clambered onto one of the magnificent moai at Anakena and broken off one of its earlobes to keep as a souvenir. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly arrested and jailed on the island, but it is unclear whether the earlobe can be reattached to the damaged moai. Since it is a strictly-observed taboo even to touch a moai, the shock waves generated by this incident were still reverberating at the time of my visit. A number of travelers to Easter Is- land have reported a dark feeling of oppression and apprehension in the presence of the moai, as if the statues considered them interlopers or threats to their sanctuary. Yet I experienced no such sensation, and was in close proximity to moai on many occasions during my stay there. Who knows? Perhaps they could somehow sense my respect for their status and antiquity. East or West—Which Is Best? Perhaps the thorniest subject of contention relating to Easter Island is the origin of its initial colonists. Heyerdahl put forward the dramatic hypothesis that in- stead of reaching the island from Polynesia to the west as had traditionally been assumed, perhaps its colonists made their way from South America across the Pacific on huge balsa wood rafts, as found in Inca culture. To substantiate this radical claim, he built such a raft, dubbed it the Kon-Tiki after the Incan deity Kon-Tiki Viracocha, and in 1947 sailed with five companions 4,300 miles across the Pacific, from Peru to an island east of Tahiti, taking 101 days. In 1979, I visited the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway, housing a reconstruction of this historic craft alongside the world’s only life- sized moai replica outside Easter Island it Moreover, Heyerdahl believed that the leader of the South American colonists had been none other than Kon-Tiki Viracocha, venerated as a deity by the Incas but claimed by Heyerdahl to have been a real man. Though undeniably fascinating, this scenario was riddled with anachronisms, later exposed by Polynesian anthropology expert Dr. Robert Suggs: “Heyerdahl’s Peruvians must have availed themselves of that classical device of science fiction, the time machine, for they showed up off Easter Island in A.D 380, led by a post- A.D. 750 Incan god-hero, with an A.D. 750 Tiahuanco material culture featuring A.D. 1500 Incan walls, and not one thing char- acteristic of the Tiahuanaco period in Peru and Bolivia.” Heyerdahl was apparently unaware that deceptively Inca-like Polynesian stone- working traditions such as the Marae exist. And although it might appear superficially similar, the design of the Vinapu I ahu’s retaining wall is fundamentally different from those of Inca relics. As for the sweet potato, Easter Island grows a number of important food plants, including the banana plant, taro root, sugar cane, and sweet potato, which sustained the first colonists here. However, none of these plants is native to the island, so they were all evidently brought here by the colonists. While the banana, taro root, and other foods are known to be of Polynesian origin, the sweet potato is South Ameri- can. Even today, it is widely believed that this riddle has not been solved. My Easter Island guide informed me that according to Pacific botanist E. D. Merrill, writing in his book Plant Life in the Pacific (1945), there is evidence that the sweet potato originated not in South America but in Africa or South Asia, and had only later been transported across the Pacific, ultimately reaching the New World. Other researchers have subsequently suggested that this plant may have been brought to Easter Island from South America, not by its original Polynesian colonists, but instead during occasional later visits by South American seafarers. Cult of the Birdman Second in fame only to the monolithic moai is Easter Island’s extraordinary bird- man cult. We still do not know exactly when, how, or why it arose, and there are many conflicting opinions. Some believe that the cult developed in tandem with moai production; others that it began as late as the 18th century. Nevertheless, this remarkable annual ceremony, occurring each September, was practiced as recently as 1878. It would begin at the village of Orongo on the slopes of Rano Kau, the island’s spectacular westernmost volcano. Although long abandoned, the village can be explored today. Many of its very strange, low, stone-slab houses have been partially restored. Containing only a tiny door through which the occupant had to crawl in order to enter, an Orongo house could only be slept in; all other activities, including eating, had to be done outside. An Orongo tradition the house symbolized the human womb, and its internal space was therefore sacred.

The birdman ceremony was basically an inter-clan competition. Each clan chief sent a representative whose goal was to ob- tain the first egg laid that year by a small migratory species of seabird called the sooty tern, which nested on Moto Nui, the largest of three small offshore islets. The egg was deemed to be an incarnation of the creator god, Make-make, so it was very precious. The clan chief whose representative suc- ceeded then became the Birdman or Tan- gata Manu for the next year, bringing great glory and status to his clan, but he had to live apart from them in a special cave at the foot of Rano Raraku. To reach Moto Nui, the competitors had to scale down the treacherous, near- vertical ocean cliff of Rano Kau, risking death if they fell and hit the jagged rocks below, then swim through shark-infested waters until they reached the islet. Once there, they would seek a newly-laid tern egg (though this could require several weeks of waiting if none had already been laid), then swim back with it, ensuring that the sacred egg remained unbroken, and present it in triumph upon reaching Orongo. Commemorating this ceremony are hundreds of Birdman petroglyphs on rocks around Orongo and on the cliff, always depicting a bird-headed human or manbird, lying curled up on its back, and sporting a long curved beak and a crest. Even today, the Birdman has not entirely vanished, as the statues of Christian saints in the island’s church have the heads of birds. The Riddle of Rongorongo Perhaps the most perplexing mystery of all associated with Easter Island is its unique and seemingly indecipherable hieroglyphics. French missionary Father Eugène Eyraud, writing in his journal of 1864, reported that most Easter Island vil- lagers’ homes contained slabs or occasion- ally staffs of wood bearing an extraordinary form of picture-writing that they greatly revered but which none of them could understand. Later investigations revealed that only the clan elders and priests had been able to read this script, known as rongorongo. Tragically, all who had possessed such knowledge had been trans- ported off the island during the 1850s and ’60s, taken as slaves to work and die in Peruvian guano mines after Easter Island was seized by Peru (prior to Chile assuming control in 1888), or had died in a later smallpox epidemic. The ability to read rongorongo had been lost. Many of the slabs and staffs were soon to be lost as well, when villagers, fearing that they would fall into the hands of oreigners and thereby invoke their ances- tors’ displeasure, destroyed them or hid them away in caves where they were even- tually forgotten or ruined by damp condi-tions. Today, fewer than 30 examples of rongorongo exist; ironically, not a single one is on Easter Island itself, as they are now all housed in various Chilean and other overseas museums. The picture writing, containing images of birds, plants, humans, and fishes along- side strange symbols, has defied every at- tempt to decode it fully, although linguis tics expert Steven Fischer, assisted by a wooden rod known as the Santiago Staff (once owned by an Easter Island clan chief and bear- ing rongorongo script uniquely divided up into sections) has re- cently achieved a limited degree of success. He now believes that at least some of the rongorongo inscriptions are creation chants, and that another set comprises a calendar, but there are still many others of unknown meaning.

Seeing a Coelacanth? A final Easter Island enigma can be seen in the form of local wood carvings of a strange fish with leg-like fins, known as the patuki. In his book, Mysteries of Easter Island (1969), Francis Mazière stated that according to island tradition, man descended from this somewhat frog-like entity after ten transformations, brought about by alterations in the climate and therefore in his food, and by various “man-like reactions.” This is certainly intriguing, but even more so for those of a cryptozoological persuasion is Mazière’s claim that this fish has marked analogies with the coelacanth. Believed to have died out many millions of years ago, the coelacanth line was sensationally resurrected in 1938 when a living species was discovered off South Africa, with specimens later obtained off the Comoro Islands north of Madagascar. During the late 1990s, a second, closely- related living species was discovered many thousands of miles to the east, in waters off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Moreover, there have been unconfirmed reports of coelacanth scales having been found in other far-flung localities, such as the Mexican Gulf and Australia. Some cryptozoologists have speculated that liv- ing coelacanths may be much more wide- spread than the two currently known, ge- ographically disparate species would suggest. Could it be that the patuki is based upon sightings or even captures of coela- canths off Easter Island by its early colonists? Separated from all other inhab- ited islands by thousands of miles, the wa- ters around Easter Island would have been a longstanding sanctuary for coelacanths, at least until the arrival 1,600 years ago of the first human colonists. Like so much about this extraordinary mid-oceanic mi- crocosm, the answer lies shrouded in the mists of Easter Island’s distant past. My visit to Easter Island will remain one of the most memorable that I am ever likely to experience. I returned home to England with many more questions than answers, not least of which is: having now visited the world’s most remote inhab- ited locality, where on earth can I journey to the next time I decide that I need to get away from it all? r An internationally recognized expert in cryptozoology, Karl P. N. Shuker holds a Ph.D. in zoology and comparative physiology. He lives in England, where he is a freelance zo- ological consultant, lecturer, and writer.



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