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The Lost History of Easter Island (Part 2)

 

With my first two days on Easter Island behind me, I decided I had explored as far as my feet would take me and it was time to rent a car. Shopping around turned out to be pointless as most places seemed to have similar 1980’s Hyundai Sidekicks for the same price. I searched in vain for one with an automatic transmission but was told that there were no automatics on the whole island. Reluctantly I slid behind the wheel of my chosen Hyundai and tried to remember how to work a clutch. Luckily, Easter Island has no traffic lights and only a couple of stop signs so it makes for a pretty relaxing place to get re-acquainted with driving stick. After a few embarrassing lurches and stalls, I was in gear and on my way out of town to my first stop, Vinapu.

One of Thor Heyerdahl’s most visually compelling arguments for a Pre-Incan presence on Easter Island can be found at the superbly constructed stone platform known as Ahu Vinapu. Countless visitors have remarked on its shocking similarity to the great cyclopean stone walls found around Cuzco, Peru. Heyerdahl states that “Vinapu alone stands as a mirrored reflection of the classical masterpieces of the Incas or their predecessors.”1

World traveler and writer David Childress remarked on further similarities between the two architectural styles.

At Ollyantaytambo, Sillustani, Cuzco and other sites in the Andes, many of the large polygonal blocks have strange knobs on them, the function of which has never been understood. Here on the southeast corner of the wall [at Vinapu] was a knob, just like the ones in the Andes!3

Walking around the platform I thought back to my own time at Cuzco just weeks before. I had seen many examples of the knobs Childress refers to and they are visually very distinctive and hard to miss. Some examples of the stone knobs I saw in Peru can be seen in the photo on the right. After twenty minutes of searching I could find nothing at Vinapu that resembled the protrusions so common in Cuzco, especially in the southeast corner of the wall. Because these knobs are so unique, the existence of one at Vinapu would provide compelling evidence for the influence or Peruvian architects on Easter Island in ancient times. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t relocate whatever Childress had seen 20 years before.

Even without the stone knobs, at first glance, the masonry does look almost identical to Incan architecture. The large stones along the face are precisely fitted together using no mortar. The entire structure also has a slightly rounded shape and across the face and each individual stone is slightly convex or pillow-shaped. Incorporating beveled stones like these was another signature of Incan construction.

However, orthodox researchers point out that a closer inspection of the site shows some flaws in Heyerdahl’s logic. The greatest Incan walls were built of large boulders of various shapes superbly fitted together so that not even a thin blade could be inserted between them. But the wall at Vinapu simply gives a similar illusion. The large stones on the outside are merely a cosmetic facing for an interior filled with rubble. Closer inspection renders the similarity of the sites to be largely superficial.

Skeptics of a Peruvian influence at Vinapu also point out that the superb construction in evidence at this site is unique on the island, rather than being the norm. However, when Captain Cook arrived on Rapa Nui, he described the existence of another platform similar to Vinapu in Hanga Roa.1 Unfortunately this ahu was dismantled so that its stones could be used in the construction of a harbor. Since it was taken apart before it could be properly studied, most researchers choose to ignore its existence.

Another ahu with stonework resembling that found at Vinapu was documented by William Thomson in 1886. Along the north coast he described and sketched a platform called Ahu Ahau that has since fallen into the sea.1 Lastly, while conducting excavations at Anakena beach in 1987, Thor Heyerdahl’s team unearthed another finely-constructed massive stone wall just beneath the surface.1 While still available to researchers, no follow-up digs have occurred to further explore the underground ruins at Anakena.

So certainly in ancient times, the fine construction in evidence at Ahu Vinapu was not unique. Unfortunately most of the stone walls to which it could be best compared are no longer in existence or visible. Whether or not Vinapu genuinely represents a South American influence on Easter Island is a point that will no doubt continue to be debated.

After marveling at the fine stone work, I climbed back into my jeep and continued east stopping at several platforms and moai until I reached Ahu Hanga Te’e. From a distance this ahu didn’t seem to be particularly impressive as all the moai that once stood atop it now lay face down. But a walk around the site revealed a number of interesting features. The generally accepted chronology for stone carving on the island identifies the earliest moai as those with rounded bald heads, while later moai were carved with flat heads to allow a topknot or pukao to be placed on top. These topknots were carved from a soft red scoria and increased the height of moai that were already being carved larger and larger.

Around Hanga Te’e a variety of pukao lay strewn about. Some even featured deep petroglyphs and designs. As I got closer to the platform, I noticed another curious feature. Just in front of the ahu in the ceremonial center was a ring of stones 60 feet across with a single larger stone marking the center. At one time these stone rings were quite common on Easter Island, but now only a few examples remain. Early accounts tell how the islanders used the stones ceremonially to track the position of the sun, the moon and the stars.4 How exactly this was accomplished and interpreted is no longer known.

As the sun fell lower in the sky I decided I could make it to one more major site and continued east towards the largest stone platform on the island, Ahu Tongariki. Measuring almost 700 feet across, this great stone platform is an imposing sight. Atop it sit 15 carefully placed moai varying in height from 17 to 26 feet and weighing an average of 40 tons. Tongariki suffered a near disaster in 1960 when an earthquake off the coast of Chili generated a 25 foot tidal wave that swept ashore reducing the ahu to rubble and scattering the statues more than 400 feet inland. An intense restoration project in 1990 restored the platform to its former glory.2

Currently no other ahu supports more statues, but during Thomson’s stay in 1886 he documented an ahu on an inaccessible terrace along the coast east of Rano Kau that supported an impressive 16 statues. Unfortunately, as with Ahu Ahau, this platform also succumbed to the sea as the fragile volcanic cliff it was built upon was slowly undercut by the relentless waves below.1 In fact a number of the island’s most mysterious and perhaps most ancient sites have been lost to the ocean in just the last hundred years. Now smothered in the waves below, we’ll never know what secrets these unique sites once held.

The next morning I visited the birthplace of most of the great statues on the island. I steered my jeep to a stop next to the only other car in the parking lot and made my way along the trail up the slopes of Ranu Raraku. The soft volcanic tuft of this long extinct volcano provided perfect working material to carve the vast majority of the moai found around the island. So far, 887 moai have been counted on Easter Island and of these, all but 55 were carved from the slope before me. In fact, the statues were carved in such abundance that almost 400 moai still surround the slopes or lay in various stages of completion and never made it to a coastal ahu for display.

As the carving of the moai continued through the years, the stone monuments were made to be larger and larger. Still attached to the quarry is a moai of truly astounding proportions. Known as El Gigante (The Giant) it measures almost 72 feet in length and is estimated to weigh almost 300 tons. If it had ever been completed, and a topknot placed on top, El Gigante would have stood taller than an 8-story building.

Walking along the length of this massive carving I pondered the question that has intrigued and perplexed all who visit Easter Island. How were the moai transported to their ahu? The largest moai ever to be placed on a platform stood over 32 feet high and weighed around 80 tons. The question of how such colossal monuments could be transported over as many as 12 miles of rugged terrain has been the subject of much speculation throughout the years.

Eric Von Daniken suggested extraterrestrials with anti-gravity technology as the most likely explanation, but it’s hardly necessary to resort to such far-out speculation. Some have theorized that in the days when trees could still be found on the island, the trunks were used as rollers to ease the transport of the moai. Others have suggested that the ground was greased with a mixture of vegetable products and that the moai were then dragged to their ahu on sleds.2 Neither of these explanations is completely satisfying though.

Throughout the centuries, the native population has stuck to a single story. They describe how the chief would use his mana or spiritual power to command the statues to walk to their desired locations. Most researchers dismiss these claims, but in 1986 Thor Heyerdahl was able to recreate a walking movement using two teams of islanders controlling ropes attached to a moai. By pulling back and forth on the ropes, the teams were able to “walk” the statue forward by tilting it side to side.1

However, recent excavations along the ancient roads that radiate out from Ranu Raraku have cast further doubt on how that moai were moved. Sections of the road were found to be broad and flat, suitable for “walking” a statue or using rollers. But other sections were V-shaped, rendering most transportation methods suggested thus far impossible.2 The roads also traveled up and down slopes and did not lead all the way to the platforms that were the moais’ final destination. The mystery of the monuments’ transport still remains unsolved but new developments may bring us closer to the real answer.

I followed the branching path to the left and climbed up a narrow gap into the interior of the crater. Dotting the slope, surrounding the banks of a fresh water lake, over a hundred stone faces basked in the sunlight buried up to their necks in eroded soil and volcanic chunks dislodged from the cliffs above. Hundreds of years ago, as the environment collapsed, water sources dried up, leaving the lake before me as one of the few remaining locations with fresh water.

Along the banks of this valuable resource, a thick crop of totora reeds have been a point of contention for over 50 years. Thor Heyerdahl claimed that the reeds were identical to those found at Lake Titicaca in the Andes, and must have been imported by the earliest South American settlers. However, pollen analysis carried out by John Flenley in the 1980’s clearly showed that the reeds have grown in the lake for over 30,000 years and thus made their way to the island by natural means.2

As I walked around the edge of the lake, I took a moment to examine one of the stone faces along the path. The moai found at Ranu Raraku have a unique appearance in that they have no eyes. Instead the giants were completed and polished in every other way, but the eye sockets were carved last, etched out only once a moai had reached its designated ahu.

It was long believed that the great statues on Easter Island had no real eyes, but in 1978, native archaeologist Sonia Haoa discovered fragments of coral and red scoria that exactly matched the eye sockets of a statue above.2 The discovery that the moai did in fact have inlaid eyes proved shocking to many researchers as this practice was not a Polynesian custom. The practice was common in many other ancient cultures however, including those from the Middle East and Central and South America.1

As I continued along the shore I thought about all the conflicting evidence I had seen so far. Mainstream archaeologists insist on a purely Polynesian heritage for the original population of Easter Island. But the artifacts and sites Thor Heyerdahl and others had documented seemed to paint a very different picture. In the days ahead I would continue to discover that Easter Island’s history is a complex puzzle with no easy solutions.


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Further Reading:
The Enigmas of Easter Island
John Flenley & Paul Bahn

The Mystery of Easter Island
Katherine Routledge

Easter Island : The Mystery Solved
Thor Heyerdahl

Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria and the Pacific
David Hatcher Childress

Island at the End of the World : The Turbulent History of Easter Island
Steven Roger Fischer

Ancient Infrastructure: Remarkable Roads, Mines, Walls, Mounds, Stone Circles
William Corliss

 

Sources:
1) Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island : The Mystery Solved (Random House, 1989).

2) John Flenley & Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford University Press, 2002).

3) David Hatcher Childress, Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria and the Pacific, (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1988).

4) William Corliss, Ancient Infrastructure, (Project, 1999).