The quarry site of Rano Raraku is very near to Tongariki. The images you have probably seen of the ‘Easter Island heads’ are from this very site.
The reason why there are so many moai heads all over the place is made plain once you learn that this is the main quarry site of the Rapa Nui, as well as its stone carving workshop. It’s where the Rapa Nui carved out the moai before they go to their respective altars all over the island.
I had just come from Tongariki, where I caught the most epic sunrise I’d ever seen. Knowing that Ahu Tongariki was located near to Rano Raraku, I chose to hire a taxi and make a day of it, intending to finish at Anakena beach.
The Maunga Eo escarpment juts out of the ground prominently – it’s clear where the stone supply comes from. We arrived before the site’s opening times, and had to wait again for the ranger. The morning sun was just beginning its summer glare. At the foot of the escarpment, I could make out the famed Easter Island heads sticking out of the grassy slopes. From that distance, the giant heads looked tiny.
The moai quarry of the Rapa Nui
When the ranger finally opened the gate, he stamped my entrance ticket to Rapa Nui National Park. This is one of only two locations where the ranger stamped my ticket. (The other was at Te Pito Kura). I assume it means that you only have one chance to visit Rano Raraku per visit to Easter Island.
The moai quarry of the lost civilisation is obviously a heritage site of sensitivity and importance. Once inside, there are extremely clear signage requesting visitors to only keep to the assigned paths, and never cross over the guide ropes.
How clear, you ask? Well, it comes with a series of ‘shame fame’ images of past tourists posing irresponsibly and sometimes disrespectfully, with red arrows pointing out their sins.
Why are they so picky? You might say, it’s just one little touch. One time, standing on the stone.
But the cumulative impact of those touches by thousands of tourists, speeds up the wear upon the stones. The long term result is heritage destruction.
That’s not to mention the disrespectful posing.
While the Rapa Nui are no longer ancestor worshippers, nonetheless they respect the beliefs of their forefathers and that the statues represented elders of their people. This is not the site for whimsical artsy-cutesy images, let alone crude ones.
The evolving art styles of the Rapa Nui sculptors
I had assumed that the Easter Island statues were all the same style. Maybe there might be individual slight differences, to represent different ancestors. But as far as I knew, the overall style was consistent.
This is not so. At the quarry, I learned that the styles evolved. Over time, different ‘looks’ came into fashion. The kneeling one was especially interesting, and apparently rare. I didn’t really see the thin one around the island either; but I guess that style would have easily smashed to pieces in the moai-toppling era.
The site is well worth visiting. The moai, in their various stages of completion, were remarkable and intriguing. I recommend bringing a hat, as Easter Island can be quite hot in November. That way, you can spend a longer time in the quarry exploring these sculptures.
The surprise ‘Easter Island heads’ discovery that isn’t really a surprise
I keep calling them the ‘Easter Island heads’. It’s the term everybody uses. The term gives the impression that these were moai busts – head and shoulder carvings – lying around the quarry.
Consequently, it was a ‘surprise’ when UCLA archaeologists ‘discovered’ that actually they weren’t heads at all. They ‘discovered’ complete moai, only that the bodies have been buried into the ground due to soil erosion over time.
If the reporting is faithful, I want to smack them. You would know this was the case, immediately, if you have ever been on the island.
None of the standing or fallen moai all over Easter Island had separate bodies and heads. They were all carved from a single block of stone. Therefore, it stands to reason that the only moai quarry site on the island, would also have whole moai.
If only the heads seem visible, obviously the bodies are underground. Just because you didn’t personally see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as obvious. I can understand having to wait a century to get together enough resources to excavate the body and study it. But I cannot accept that people who are supposed to specialise in the subject, did not know that the bodies must exist, until 2017. I mean, are you kidding me.
Having seen the moai platforms, and the various lesser sites around the island, the headline should have read ‘UCLA Team Confirms Longstanding Theory that the Easter Island Heads Have Bodies Underground’!
The moai mystery that is actually a mystery
Now let’s talk about the moai mystery that actually deserves to be called that: how did they move the giant statues over the rolling island landscape to the ceremonial platforms?
The Anthropological Easter Island Museum near Tahai is worth a visit just for this one question. Various theories came in and out of fashion, from logs to skids to ropes. But according the islanders themselves, oral history has it that the moai simply ‘walked’ to where they needed to be.
For a long time, this was dismissed as the superstition of a less advanced culture. But the current theory in fashion is that the moai were pulled upright, and moved from side to side in a controlled fashion across the landscape. The moai would indeed seem to ‘walk’.
Of course, the most traditional accounts say that it is mana that made the moai walk to their positions. For my fellow Malay readers, this is basically the same as saying that the statues were moved with ‘tenaga batin’. Yet another way that the Malay and the Polynesia are related.
A mysterious path in Rano Raraku
There was a curious trail connected to the web of tourist paths, but it led away from the slopes of buried heads. I couldn’t make out what the signs meant, but it seemed to indicate that something was at the end of the trail.
It was just a dirt path, nondescript and running past some shrubbery valiantly re-colonising the empty landscape. I followed as it meandered around the hill, past a wire fence that wrapped around stout timber posts.
Conscious of the sun and the rising heat of the day, I nevertheless pressed on. The land became even more barren than before, shedding first its sparse shrubbery, and then even the grass-clad ground.
The path began to climb, looking less and less like a path and more like a gully cut through the naked hill by repeated rains. The ochre soil began to stain my shoes, and I began having some misgivings that the way led anywhere.
Perhaps I should re-read the signs. I really ought to have downloaded the Spanish dictionary onto my translation app.
But I topped the rise, and turned with the path. And there, glittering beyond the expanse of stripped earth, was a surprise.
The secret lake of Maunga Eo
An oasis lay before me. Reeds lined it, looking soft and fluffy. A breeze, crinkling the surface of the water opaque with fine ripples. Around it was a halo of green grass, bright to near-iridescence.
It must be one of the precious conservation zones of Rapa Nui.
In fact, it was Rano Raraku’s crater lake.
I ventured halfway, but stopped, suspecting fauna in the rushes. I remembered the conservation signage at its sister lake.
This miracle oasis was precious to the ravaged island. It might be too sensitive to be approached.
I gazed at it for a while longer. Then, I backed away, and returned the way I came.
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.
Are you also intrigued by enigmas? Onward to Part 4, as Alex takes me to Anakena beach where the Rapa Nui settlers first landed!