Rapa Nui: The Navel of the Ocean

Ahu Tongariki – largest collection of upright statues on Rapa Nui Island.

Rapa Nui has many wonders and unanswered questions. Its remote location, mysterious moai statues, and impressive bird-man competition make it a special place worth visiting, especially if you like to surf. Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is nearly 4 million years old and formed by a series of massive volcanic eruptions. The Island is triangular because of the three volcanoes. All three are now extinct. None have erupted in 10,000 years. Lava tubes and pounding waves have created hundreds of sea caves within Rapa Nui, some of which we saw.

Small entrance, large interior.
Small entrance, large interior, two cliff openings: Das Ventanas Cave aka Two Windows Cave.

The island is entirely made of volcanic rock caused by a hotspot beneath the Nazca tectonic plate that formed an enormous underwater mountain range,’’ -A Companion To Easter Island (Guide to Rapa Nui) by J. Grant-Peterkin.Rapa Nui Map

Easter Island is the highest point of this mostly underwater mountain range. There are no other islands surrounding it or near it, making it one of the world’s most remote locations. Easter Island was uninhabited for a long time. Prior to humans arriving around 800 CE, only birds and dragonflies occupied Rapa Nui. But don’t worry; there are still tons of dragonflies. We saw a huge swarm of them while eating ceviche at a seaside restaurant.

On horseback, Trent Rigney rode to the top of the highest volcano Maunga Terevaka Hill. The site was breathtaking.
On horseback, Trent Rigney rode to the top of the highest volcano Maunga Terevaka. The site was breathtaking and treeless.

There are 1,032 large stone carvings known as moai, the world-famous statues of Rapa Nui, including moai both repaired and damaged. The first settlers arrived at Anakena Beach. Hotu Matua, the first Rapa Nui king, and his 7 sons most likely came from the Marquesas Islands and populated the territory. Anakena is where a big collection of resurrected statues is located.

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Ahu Nau Nau located at Anakena Beach on the northern side of Rapa Nui Island.

The moai were stood up on platforms called ahu. Older moai were placed to the right, newer moai to the left. When older moai eroded, their pieces were used to rebuild new ahu. New moai were placed on top of it, adding one moai per newly dead chief, about one every 12 years. No other place in the world has statues like this.

Eric Rigney at Rano Raraku quarry in awe of the 70 foot unfinished prostrate moai.

The sedimentary volcanic rock of Rano Raraku hillsides was perfect for carving statues. It was easy to draw on before you would carve. The moai carvers were master artisans. They even carved drawings on the back of some moai; now considered petroglyphs. Some actually started carving a moai 70 feet long, which is humungous knowing they still had to move it upwards of 14 miles. That moai pictured above and below obviously still lies in the quarry never finished, abandoned like so many others.

Unfinished 70 foot moai
Unfinished 70 foot moai up and to the left of Trent at Rano Raraku quarry.

It could take up to 70 men to move a moai statue using tree trunks to roll the statues over them. And that is thought to be part of the reason why there weren’t many trees on Rapa Nui when explorers arrived and nicknamed it, ‘‘the island without shade.’’ The people turned their trees into statues! It was believed that the statues housed their ancestors spirits, that’s why almost all of them face inland towards their village, to protect their people even after death. Unfinished moai that you see still carved in the stone or just showing their heads at Rano Raraku were either abandoned or waiting to be transported. The moai that you see with just their heads sticking out of the ground are full statues with bodies buried 20 to 40 feet underground.

Most famous Moai pose!
Most famous Moai heads found at Rano Raraku quarry on Rapa Nui Island.

All of the statues that made it to the various ahu platforms located all along the perimeter of Rapa Nui were knocked down during civil unrest probably starting after a Spanish fleet of ships visited in 1770. Today, only a fraction of the statues have been resurrected to standing at just 5 completely restored sites. It’s very expensive to renovate and maintain the archeological sites. Like the unrestored sites, even the restored sites continue to erode every year.

Ahu Tepeu archeological site located on the Western side of Rapa Nui.
Vaihu Hanga Te’e archeological site located on the South Eastern side of Rapa Nui.

Some of the most fascinating things at Easter Island’s Orongo Historical Village are the hundreds of carved birdmen petroglyphs and Makemake images. A new religion and political structure started just before 1800. The new leader of the birdmen people was the man who won the yearly birdman competition by running down the vertical slopes of a crater, swimming out to one of the two motus past sharks, and finally bringing back an unbroken egg strapped to his forehead.

Orange Historical site. Slate houses in the background with Leslie Rigney looking on.
Orongo Historical Village with slate rock houses in the background and Leslie Rigney looking on.

The competitors’ waiting houses in Orongo were made out of slate rock. Because they didn’t have many trees to build with, the inhabitants chipped rock until they had hundreds of pieces. From this, they made flat narrow houses with no windows. The houses didn’t have any modern type doors either. The people had to army crawl through a small tunnel opening to get inside. Surprisingly, one of these houses was big enough to hold a small moai inside.

Moai that resides in London with bird man petroglyphs carved on his back.
Rapa Nui Moai that resides in London with bird man petroglyphs carved on his back.

Europeans came in and destroyed that house taking that well preserved and specially carved moai to London where it presently lives. They also took some large rock slabs that had been painted on the underside in the interior of these rock houses. Years later, a couple of the slabs were returned to Rapa Nui and the destroyed houses have now been restored as you can see above.

Birdman slab painting taken then returned to the Rapa Nui Historical Museum.
Birdman slab returned and now housed at the Rapa Nui Historical Museum.

Visiting Rapa Nui was a great experience. There’s no other place like Rapa Nui. Riding horseback to the top of the tallest crater, I found the island dry but with more trees than I thought there would be. When I saw my first moai, it was impressive but not as amazing as I expected it would be. Orongo’s birdman houses were really well made. I don’t know if that’s how the original people made them or if the park people renovated them better. The view from the Orongo volcano crater was cool and amazing.

Trent Rigney surfing Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui Feb 2017!

Our stay was terrific: the surfing, moai, traditional Rapa Nui dances, costumes and events during the annual Tapati festival/competition (my favorite was the Triathlon), horseback riding, and the petroglyphs.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO: Banana running during the Triathlon Triathalon-Rapa

It could be a neat place to live, especially if you speak Spanish. Hasta la vista, baby!

Trent Rigney

Trent Rigney at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui Island.
Trent Rigney at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui Island.


6 thoughts on “Rapa Nui: The Navel of the Ocean”

  1. Trent: This was a very wonderful explanation of your experience in Rapa Nui. I loved it. Also very good writing, making it interesting and taking the reader through your experiences. Papa

    1. Thanks Dad for your comments – I’ll make sure that Trent gets your message. I love you. Glad your skiing trip went w/o hitch. You two are amazing. Leslie

  2. Well said (and written), Trent. Thanks for sharing. I’ve often wondered WHY so many ancient peoples made such LARGE objects (Egyptian pyramids, the Easter Island Statues, Stonehenge—to name just a few.

    1. Jim – I’ll make sure that Trent reads your response. He loves getting news back. Perhaps the large objects make people feel like they’re accomplishing something bigger than them that might just endure through the ages? Leslie

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