The slope of the Rano Raraku volcano on Rapa Nui feels like a place frozen in time.
Embedded in grass and volcanic rock, nearly 400 moai, the monolithic human figures carved centuries ago by the Rapanui people of this remote Pacific island, remained intact until recently. Some are buried from the neck down, the heads apparently observing their surroundings from underground.
All around her, there has been a pungent smell of smoke from the still-burning vegetation, the remnant of a forest fire that broke out in early October. More than 100 moai were damaged in the flames, many blackened by soot, though the impact on the stone remains undetermined. UNESCO recently allocated nearly $100,000 for assessment and repair plans.
In this Polynesian territory that now belongs to Chile and is widely known as Easter Island, the loss of any moai would be a blow to ancient cultural and religious traditions. Each of the moai, the nearly 400 on the volcano and more than 500 in other parts of the island, represents an ancestor. A creator of words and music. A protector.
The president of the Rapa Nui council of elders, Carlos Edmunds, recalled his emotions when he first heard about the fire.
“Oh, I started crying,” she said. “It was like my grandparents were burned.”
It takes a close look at a map of the Pacific to find Rapa Nui, a small triangle that covers about 63 square miles. Home to some 7,700 people, about half of them of Rapanui descent, it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The fastest way to get there is a six-hour flight from Santiago de Chile, which covers 2,340 miles. Much further to the northwest are the more populated islands of Polynesia.
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Remoteness has shaped the community’s worldview, spirituality and culture. Its small size also influences: it seems that everyone knows each other.
Rapa Nui was formed at least 750,000 years ago by volcanic eruptions. Its first inhabitants were sailors from Central Polynesia who little by little created their own culture. The moai were carved between the years 1000 and 1600.
The first Europeans arrived in 1722, soon followed by missionaries. The current religious activities mix ancestral and Catholic beliefs.
The arrival of outsiders had grim effects: Hundreds of Rapanui were enslaved by Peruvian invaders in 1862 and taken to South America, where many died in cruel conditions.
In 1888 Chile annexed the island and leased it to a sheep company. Only in the 20th century did the islanders begin to regain their autonomy, although there were no written Rapanui annals recounting their early history.
Without such books to preserve their legacy, the Rapanui have imprinted the memory of their people in activities and traditions passed down from generation to generation. The hand of the fisherman who casts the hook carries the wisdom of his ancestors. The women’s hairstyle evokes the pukao, a reddish stone hat that is placed on the heads of the moai.
Even music is not merely music.
“You write books, we write songs,” said Jean Pakarati, senior adviser to the Ma’u Henua indigenous community. “Dancing is an expression and that expression is history.”
Pakarati’s duties include helping to manage the Rapa Nui National Park; she was shocked by the damage to the moai within the park boundaries.
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“Everything that affects archaeology, as you call it, is very important,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s part of us.”
At 2 a.m. on October 4, when the fire was finally brought under control, those risking their safety around the burning crater were untrained volunteers using shovels and rocks to fell trees and branches.
“Family, friends and Rapanui came,” Pakarati said. “What are you going to tell people when they are in such anguish, when they know that their volcano, where the moai were built, is burning?”
The fire covered about a square mile. It originated far from the volcano, on a cattle ranch, but the wind brought flames to Rano Raraku. Some residents say they know who started the fire, but do not expect any punishment due to a cultural reluctance to file a complaint against their fellow Rapanui.
Each moai preserves valuable information about its tribe. When an important Rapanui died, a grandfather, a tribal chief, some of his bones were placed under the ceremonial platform called ahu and his spirit had the possibility of being reborn after a craftsman carved a moai in the likeness of the. Therefore, each moai is unique and has its own name.
When the moai were carved, the island was divided according to their clans, but most of the statues were created on Rano Raraku. The ahu were built near the sea.
It is unclear how the moai, which average 13 feet tall and weigh many tons, were transported to their ahu. One theory is that they were moved as if they were standing upright, dragged around with little twists like one would a refrigerator.
The Rapa Nui Council of Elders, headed by Carlos Edmunds, brings together leaders whose ancestors were born in the Rapanui tribes. Among other responsibilities, Edmunds, 69, fights for the island’s autonomy, preventing land from being sold to foreigners, insisting that certain areas be regulated only by the Rapanui, ensuring that tourists prove that after a visit they are not they will remain to become residents.
Edmunds’ native language is Rapanui, the only language he spoke until he turned 18 and went to South America to study.
His ancestors were born in Anakena, a place on a white sand beach and transparent waters where it is believed that King Hotu Matua landed 1,000 years ago, bringing with him the first inhabitants of Rapa Nui.
When Chile leased the island, the foreigners who took over dispossessed all the Rapanui tribes of their property, although a number of ahu and moai can still be seen on the lands they used to control.
Edmunds recently visited the moai at Anakena that were carved by his ancestors; he says that the protection of his loved ones never leaves him. “For us, the spirits continue to live.”
In his house he keeps a small moai that an artisan sculpted for him. Pointing to his neck, where Catholics usually carry a cross, he said: “I cannot carry moai because it is very heavy, but I have moai there. Made of stone, of wood, these figures protect me.”
The moai were not meant to be eternal. When they fell apart or needed to be replaced, their remains were used to erect a new one in the same place.
Between the arrival of the Europeans and the mid-19th century, all the moai erected on platforms had been knocked down, perhaps due to environmental factors or carelessness. Major restoration projects and new archaeological surveys, led by foreign experts, began in the 1960s and 1970s.
At the time, Rapanui historian Christian Moreno said, many of the islanders did not understand why foreigners were so fascinated by the statues, which no longer served a specific religious or cultural function.
Little by little, Moreno said, the community began to delve into its collective memory, talking to the elders and, little by little, recovering the history of the moai.
“Then the Rapanui once again understood that the moai represent the ancestors who walked the same land as us, who breathed the same air as us, who saw this same ocean,” Moreno said.
Now, on Rapa Nui, people can trace a family history just by knowing their last name and where the moai bearing their ancestors’ names were placed.
The moai have a place in a history class at the Eugenio Eyraud high school. When teacher Konturi Atan finished drawing one on the blackboard on a recent day, the students laughed. It looked more like a bishop on a chessboard.
Atán, 36, joined in the laughter at the beginning of the day’s lesson: “Compare ancient civilizations with Rapa Nui.”
“And the moai? Were they related to religion or politics?” she asked. “It’s pretty complicated, right?”
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Atán said that he is constantly trying to incorporate the Rapanui culture into the curricular guidelines designed by the Chilean authorities. He has taught about the island’s relationship with the ocean and has led excursions to the moai sites.
“Local schools are theoretically, politically and technically structured from the continent (Chile),” he said. “What we do is provide the skills and, from there, the history of the island, the culture, the link with the community.”
Among the most deeply rooted Rapanui traditions is the umu, a traditional festival. It is offered to tourists at the Te Ra’ai restaurant, where meat covered in banana leaves is cooked in a pit on wood and volcanic stones.
Throughout 18 years of operation, Te Ra’ai has received up to 120 foreigners per day, but from March 2020 until last August there were none. To protect the community from COVID-19, the mayor prohibited the entry of foreigners to the island, whose economy depends 80% on tourism.
The mayor of Rapa Nui is Pedro Edmunds, brother of Carlos Edmunds. Unlike other mayors eager to dive into new projects, he doesn’t even add streetlights without first consulting the ancestors of the community.
“Incorporating heavy machinery into an ancestral territory is a violation of the protective spirit of the place,” he explained.
Before making alterations anywhere on the island, or even moving a rock from one place to another, the spirits of the dead are summoned. In some cases, the new project will be celebrated with an umu; in more sensitive cases, such as how to deal with pandemic-related restrictions, ancestors have been asked to advise on ancient Rapanui principles.
Among these is “umanga”, a concept of collective responsibility to pass on knowledge and skills.
“It’s beautiful because those who are empowered with knowledge help those who don’t, and together we multiply it,” Edmunds said. “We, as Rapanui, have taken care of ourselves. We lost care when the state stepped in and applied foreign rules in our ancestral codes.”
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Edmunds, mayor for 25 years, worries about the future but also has hope.
“Our daughters and sons have not lost the essence of being Rapanui and that guarantees that this culture will have a future,” he said. “We are a society that respects its environment and is tremendously protective of its culture.”
That culture includes the Rapanui language, which has only 14 letters. However, a single word can incorporate metaphor, parable, and philosophy simultaneously. A single name can express who you are, what you do, what you love.
“I have asked people from other countries many times: who are you? And they all tell me their names,” said Jean Pakarati. “When someone asks me that question, my answer is: ‘I am Rapanui.'”