Anakena: Where Easter Island Became Polynesian

We couldn’t go to Poike, after I was finished at Rano Raraku. My taxi driver told me that the volcano peak was closed for visitors, for rehabilitation reasons. So we would go to Anakena beach, where there was another significant moai site. This was the site where the Rapa Nui first landed, and from that moment Easter Island became Polynesian territory. 

The Easter Island Heritage Coastline

But Alex did not drive straight to Anakena. He drove back to Tongariki, where I asked to stop to take one last gaze at the line of moai in the distance – still an incredible sight, but no longer so dramatic as when the sunrise beamed past the stones with resplendent light.

We drove past the high ground of Poike, and came upon the northern coast of Rapa Nui. And we alighted upon a little bay, lined black with volcanic rock that made a stark contrast with the aqua water. It was the first beach, actually, where I encountered something approaching ‘Polynesian blue’ waters on Easter island. 

Rocky gravel beach with tropical blue waters on the Rapa Nui north coast | Polynesian Easter Island

Tropical blue waters

We stood at the edge of ground as the sea breeze flowed, unhindered by our still forms. There was no plant life here, other than the scrubby grass ambitiously trying to invest the hard ground with life. Unlike at Rano Raraku, Alex did not bother drawing my attention to these; there was no lore to them. 

The Polynesian fishermen

I crept closer to the shoreline, as I am prone to do when I am this close to the sea. Crouching on the rock, savouring its liminal atmosphere, waiting as nature flowed in silent time.

Over to the side I spied a curious broken white shell – it had once been circular, and symmetrical. An echinoderm. Five sets of rays radiate from the centre to its edges. But what was curious was not the shell – it was the deep purple spikes that littered the rock beside it. 

Intrigued, I looked around and realised there were more of them nearby. Several shells still had the spikes stuck on to them, and then it dawned on me what they were. Sea urchins! But why were they here on land, crushed and broken? 

White shell fragment of a sea urchin with some dark purple spines still attached | Pile of sea urchin shells after a feast by islanders on Easter Island | Polynesian food

The edible sea urchin

The intrigue deepened when I discovered a whole pile of shells, in a decidedly not-natural configuration. I asked Alex in my dismal Spanish, what they were. His basic English was yet good enough to confirm my conclusion. 

Por que? There are so many?” I asked further. 

Alex made a motion with his hand, and explained that the sea urchins are eaten. My eyes widened. I didn’t realise you could eat sea urchin! All I knew was to stay away from them in the water, since the spines were often toxic. Alex nodded, smiling. 

I played with the shells a while longer. The deep purple of the spines were really beautiful. I wondered, whether the urchin was the same colour when living. 

Pu O Hiro, the Rapa Nui fishing trumpet

Alex motioned for me to follow him. We walked over to a smallish piece of stone, set upright on the ground. Roughly oblong in shape, there were holes on parts of its mildly irregular surface. The stone was fenced, indicating that it was no ordinary rock, but an artefact. 

The fishing talisman of the Rapa Nui people, Pu O Hiro or Hiro's Trumpet | Polynesian artefact on the Easter Island north coast

I wonder who Hiro was? A… Polynesian *ehem* hero?

Alex raised his hands to his face and made a blowing motion. “Hiro’s trumpet,” he said. Pu O Hiro. The information placard explained that it was a fishing talisman.

Tradition has it that blowing through the stone’s holes produced a sound that drew fishes to the coast, a great artefact indeed for a fishing people. Unsurprisingly, it was captured in war as a trophy many times, and had been carried all over the island as a result. 

But here it lies today, on the northern coast of Rapa Nui. 

It’s funny. I sort of had the dim knowledge that this was part of the wider Polynesian territory. But I had not thought that Easter Island was Polynesian still. So I didn’t really think about encountering Rapa Nui artefacts beyond the moai. I was glad for these slow stops along the way to Anakena. 

The Rapa Nui petroglyph site: Papa Vaka

Near Hiro’s Trumpet was a rock art (petroglyph) site. Alex simply walked me there.

Unlike the former, Papa Vaka is marked on the tourist map. A ceremonial site, symbolic images related to Polynesian culture and life such as canoes (vaka), fish hooks, and marine creatures are carved onto slabs of cooled lava on the ground (i.e. papa). 

Part of the canoe glyph at Papa Vaka rock art site on Easter Island | Polynesian Rapa Nui petroglyph culture

I can see the canoe lines… but to be honest I could just about make out the others.

There are various points on the island where Rapa Nui petroglyphs have been found, and I would dearly have loved to explore all of them, but it was simply not realistic even in a week. (How can people do Easter Island over a long weekend?? It’s a travesty!).

That said, at 12 metres long Papa Vaka is the largest petroglyph specimen on the island. So, pick this one if you’re prioritising, since it’s also near the majorly cool sites of Tongariki and Rano Raraku. 

The rock etchings have been worn down by age and weather, but you could still make out some of the images indicated on the information placard. A series of steps leading up to it provides a higher vantage with which to view the petroglyph. That said, I could really only recognise the canoe glyph with any kind of clarity. 

Te Pito Kura – the last of the fallen Easter Island statues

We drove to the next site, Te Pito Kura. It was another moai site, but the statue had fallen, like so many small ahu all over the island. To be honest, I might have given it a miss. However, interestingly, this was the other site where the ranger office stamped my ticket, aside from Rano Raraku

This particular moai was special, though. It was among the last of the Easter Island statues that were toppled from its platform. The event only happened after 1838, well after the decline of moai building, after the tribal wars, after the rise and fall of the birdman ritual era that followed, and even after the arrival of Europeans. This, despite being also the largest moai ever successfully moved and erected on a ceremonial platform (it’s 80 tons, people… that’s like,16 elephants!). 

I thought of moai and moai building as a mostly male activity. I mean, the features suggest that they represent male ancestors. The Rapa Nui stone masons made the faces prominent, taking up at least a third of the statue, and though the moai were given bodies, they did not go all the way to the feet. Interestingly, they do not stop at the shoulders or waist either, but went low enough to include the groin. And once I saw newer versions of similar Polynesian effigy carving, it did not take much to realise the reason, and that moai are decidedly male. 

Fallen moai at Ahu Te Pito Kura, the largest moai ever erected by the Rapa Nui on Easter Island

A widow’s grief

However, moai building was apparently not solely a male-centric endeavour. For the largest moai ever erected in Rapa Nui society was commissioned by a widow, grieving her late husband. Perhaps this was why the moai was not touched during the tribal wars. Its mana was not powering any aggression. 

That said, according to the Anthropological Museum at Hanga Roa, there are 10 moai on the island with feminine features, although four of them are still at the Rano Raraku quarry and never got erected on an altar. Perhaps in later times, it became more acceptable to raise women to the status of mana-storing moai. 

Mata’a, the technology of war

The second Rapa Nui artist I met had given me a magazine. I wandered into his studio in Hanga Roa while exploring the shops. Upon learning that I had come from so far away, he rummaged in his store of books and periodicals and found a bilingual magazine centred around the island. He insisted that I take it; he did not want me to leave without bringing back some knowledge of Easter Island’s Polynesian people. 

Within, was the legend of the Rapa Nui spears, the mata’a. During the tribal wars, a battle has been fought for four days. The flashpoint of this particular hostility was the destruction of a tribe’s banana plantations. The stakes were high, since the men of the losing tribe would be killed, whereas the women and children would be enslaved by the victors, and all their goods captured.

The chief Eta was fretful during the evening truce, thinking about the morning when the battle would resume. The enemy was more numerous, and the battle unequal. As he walked home, he cut his foot on a rock. A deep wound bled from the sole of his feet. He had stepped on a sharp black stone – obsidian. Taking a piece of obsidian home, he toyed with an idea. He replaced the gourd at the tip of his lance with the sharp volcanic stone. 

The mata’a of his tribe drew blood in the following battle and carried them to victory. And the wars on Rapa Nui have been bloody ever since. 

The fallen moai made me think of it, since the first Rapa Nui artist I met had taken me to the volcano Rano Kau to look for obsidian. To make the statue’s eyes – its mata

The navel of the world – Easter Island Polynesian history

Te Pito o Te Henua, the magnetic mana stone of King Hotu Matu'a | Rapa Nui artefact and Easter Island Polynesian history

The mana stone of Hotu Matu’a

There is a path near Ahu Te Pito Kura that led downwards, even closer to the shore. Ringed by a low wall of stacked stone, a smooth semi-spherical stone lay on the ground flanked by four smaller stones. 

A magnetic stone, Te Pito O Te Henua (the ‘navel of the world’) was a legendary stone brought to Easter Island by none other than the founding king himself. Tradition has it that the stone held a high concentration of mana. Its high iron content causes it to warm more than other stone (or if mana is just a form of energy, does iron more effectively store mana?). 

Hiro’s Trumpet, and also the king’s mana stone! Whichever tribe held the northern coast seems to have done pretty well in the wars, to have these trophies in their territory! 

The Rapa Nui fisherman’s cairns

It was at this point that I noticed it again. A little cairn shaped like a cone, high upon a coastal slope. 

Cone-shaped stack of stones, forming a navigation cairn for Rapa Nui fishermen

Just because it’s a religious culture, does not mean everything is a temple!

I had observed them since Papa Vaka, the petroglyph ritual site. There were more here, at roughly regular intervals. I went to examine one, wondering if it was a shrine. Was there a recess within, for placing offerings, like the mountain shrines of Annapurna

No, just a stack of stones. Puzzled, I consulted Alex. What was the religious significance of these little cairns?

“Oh, those are for guiding,” he said, finally spotting what I was focused on. Guiding what? “For the fisherman, coming to land.” The pointed cone shapes stand out more obviously in silhouette along the ridgeline, an easier navigation fix for the returning canoes. 

Oh

Anakena: The Landing Beach of the Polynesians

Panoramic view of Anakena grassy lawn with Ahu Nau Nau on a sand ledge | The landing site of Easter Island first Polynesian colonisers

Ahu Nau Nau presiding over the flat expanse of Anakena

The site of Ahu Nau Nau felt different than all the other moai sites.

For starters, you don’t see it right away. Alex dropped me off at the entrance to the Anakena complex, and for a moment I was confused. There only seemed to be restaurants and bars. When I asked him where the moai were, he told me I’d have to walk in along the path towards the beach proper. 

For another thing, Ahu Nau Nau was not built on firm rocky ground, but on a sand dune. Frankly, I think this makes its survival even more impressive. Even more so when you consider that it is the only multi-moai ahu where the moai still have their ruddy pukao topknots on. Well, four of them anyway. (I had already seen a solo one with its pukao intact, Ahu Ko Te Riku, in the Tahai complex). 

Anakena beach

However, the first thing you see along the path from the entrance is not the moai platform, but the beach. 

View of Anakena beach from the entry path | Easter Island, Chile

Anakena beach

Anakena beach is probably the only beach on Easter Island that tourists would recognise as a ‘proper beach’. It is not very big, but its curved shape makes for a calm cove. Unlike the black rock of much of the Rapa Nui coastline, the sand is pale and fine. The shoreline slopes gently inland, and here on an artificially raised altar stands the moai of Ahu Nau Nau. 

Today, Anakena beach seems to be the recreational part of Easter Island. Aside from the main street of Hanga Roa, it is the most touristy part of the island (or maybe it is the most touristy part?). Even so, it still looks like a natural beach. People enjoy the beach in what I would consider ‘natural’ ways, i.e. lying randomly on the sand or in the water without toys like jet skis and parasails, and there were no ‘people parking lots’ of umbrella-topped sun lounges on the beach. 

There did not seem to be resorts or other accommodation at Anakena. However, there is a camping area. In fact, I obtained a housemate at my Airbnb in the middle of my stay, and he went on to camp overnight at Anakena. 

What I wish I knew before visiting Anakena

It was so different from the other moai sites, and the island in general, that I had not prepared for it. Here are some things to consider when visiting Anakena beach:

1. Anakena beach is very sandy. 

The solo moai of Anakena seen through the branches trees within a grassy grove | Easter Island, Chile

I don’t know the name of this ahu

Anakena is a sandy beach, and the sandy area extends quite far inland. The area in front and around Ahu Nau Nau is all sandy ground, so it does get annoying if you hadn’t brought suitable shoes. So bring beach sandals on the day you want to go to Anakena. 

That said, Anakena is not all beach. The ground became firmer as it rose higher, where another moai stood alone. Not far from this lone moai was a little grove, and I had my lunch within its shade. 

2. Swimming at Anakena

There are little coves between Hanga Roa and Tahai where you could swim. But those feel quite cramped to me, and far too close to ‘normal’ public places like roads and restaurants. But Anakena is a more conventional beach, and feels like it might be nice to take a dip in.

I didn’t make any preparations to swim because I had not expected such a nice beach. And also because I was already aware from my previous day’s dive, how cold the South Pacific can be even when the surface air temperature is warm. Still, if I did have swim clothes on, I might have tried at least going in the shallows. I didn’t feel too much regret though, because the sky had grown ashen by the time I got there. 

3. There are restaurants at Anakena

Unlike the other moai sites in Rapa Nui National Park, which are minimalist locations, there are actually multiple food options at Anakena, making this a great lunch stop. I had brought a packed lunch with me, not knowing this. But at Alex’s encouragement, I did later have a drink and a snack at one of the cafes. 

The beginning of the Easter Island Polynesian settlement

The stars are always there… 

What do I fear?

It was the tail end of the inspired Polynesian colonisation of the 2nd millennium, which saw the expert seafarers colonise the three furthest points of the Polynesian Pacific – Hawai’i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Rapa Nui.

According to tradition, Hotu Matu’a arrived in two ships. I was surprised to learn in the Anthropological Museum in Hanga Roa that the other ship was commanded by a woman – his sister Avareipua. I don’t know if this is considered normal or unusual in Polynesian culture.

Although each Rapa Nui tribe had its own territory and chief, ever since Hotu Matu’a claimed the island, the Ariki Mau (king of the island) was always chosen from his descendants, the Miru tribe. This lasted until the end of the warring period, when a new way to choose the Ariki Mau came into being – Tangata Manu, the birdman ritual. 

In any case, I can’t recommend the museum enough. The sections relating to the seafaring knowledge and pedagogy of the Oceanic peoples were fascinating, not least because it is also the lost knowledge of my own Bugis ancestry. 

Looking out to sea from the cove, it is easy to see why Hotu Matu’a had chosen to land his great canoes here, hundreds of years ago. 

Ahu Nau Nau under cloudy sky at Anakena, Rapa Nui National Park | Easter Island, Chile

Ahu Nau Nau

A Secret Rapa Nui Mystery: The strange magnetic slope

When we set off from Anakena back to Hanga Roa, Alex asked me an odd question. “There is a magnetic place we passed,” he said. “It’s on the road. Do you want to go back?” 

I was not sure why a magnetic slope was interesting, so I asked him what was special about it. Nothing on the tourist map mentioned anything special on this road, and I had not seen any turnoff or indeed, any features whatsoever. 

But then he said something that changed my mind. Struggling to find the right English words, he mentioned something about the car going backwards. Puzzled, I asked him to clarify. I mean, of course a car goes backwards, it’s called reverse gear…

But according to him, there was a spot on the road, which was a place of high magnetic activity. When you’re already down the slope, without the car’s engine running at all, the car will roll back up the slope

Are you frickin’ shitting me? Of course I’ve got to see that!!! He grinned, turned around, and proved to me it was true. 

I repeat, sometimes it is so much better not to haggle with a local

I don’t know if I was just clumsy because it was so freakin’ unbelievable, or if the magnetic thing messed with my recording, but I only got the last second of what could have been the most awesome video of this Easter Island trip. 

Carbon offset information to Easter Island

I went to Easter Island as part of a longer journey around the world. Had I gone close to my original plan, a return flight from Kuala Lumpur to Easter Island via Sydney and Santiago produces carbon emissions of approximately 17,414 lbs CO2e. It costs about $87 to offset this. 

 

Heading to Anakena in Easter Island? Pin as an Easter Island north coast itinerary! 

'Anakena: Where Easter Island Became Polynesian' travel article on slow travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Anakena beach under a cloudy sky | where the Rapa Nui Polynesians landed on Easter Island | Isla de Pascua, Chile

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2 Responses

  1. Laureen Lund says:

    I adore this place and your photos brought back so many great memories for me. I hope to return someday.

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