In conversation with Lucy Cleland.
WEDS 27th MARCH, 5 - 6.30pm
Easter Island Heads
Easter Island, the remote Polynesian island located in the South Pacific, has always been steeped in mystery. The island of ‘Rapa Nui’ or ‘Easter Island’ as it is more commonly known earned its nickname thanks to Dutch explorers landing there on Easter Day in 1722.
This island’s most impressive claim to fame is an array of almost 900 minimalist monolithic human figures known as ‘Moai’ which were constructed between 1250 and 1500AD. The iconic moai have overly large heads with broad noses, strong chins and thin pouting lips. The statues have heavy torsos without legs and are usually portrayed as squatting. The oversized heads are thought to relate to the Polynesian belief in the sanctity of the head and represented both dead ancestors and powerful chiefs. Varying sizes of the statues directly related to the status of the chief who had commissioned it.
Originally the majority of the statues were located along the coast gazing inland overlooking the community as if to keep them safe. The exception to this was seven figures which looked out to sea, legend has it, to guide travellers to the island. There are a few inland ‘Easter Island Heads’ which are the most iconic of the moai which recent excavations have revealed to have full torsos buried beneath the earth.
Much has been made of how these monumental statues carved from a compressed volcanic ash which weigh on average 15 tons and are 13 feet high were moved around the island from the quarries to their final resting place. The most likely theories involved either rolling the statues on logs or ‘walking’ them into position using ropes.
Following on from the Moai era was the ‘Birdman Cult’ which was an annual competition to select a new leader. The competition comprised of a race to a nearby islet to collect the first egg of the season from the Sooty Tern bird. The first person to swim back to Easter Island and climb up the sheer cliffs with the egg intact to hand over to their sponsor was then declared ‘birdman’ for the year, an important position of status.
The demise of the island is still much debated amongst archaeologists with several leading arguments. It has long been thought that deforestation was the major cause along with the invasive Polynesian rat which devastated crops followed by the slave trade. The few survivors of the slave trade were vulnerable and as landing missionaries forced their religions onto the islanders the natives quickly lost their identity and were forced into living on a small portion of the island with much of their ancestral history lost or destroyed.
As of 1994 The Rapa Nui National Park and its Moai are a UNESCO World Heritage site.