The Explorers Who Discovered Easter Island

If you had wondered about the explorers who discovered Easter Island, Ahu Akivi is their monument.

It was my fifth day on Easter Island. So far, I had managed to get to my top two moai sites: Tahai for the sunset, and Tongariki for the sunrise. And from Tongariki, it was not difficult to pick up Anakena on the way back.

But then there was Ahu Akivi, near the centre part of the island, and up a hill. I had no idea how or if I was going to get there.

It seemed silly to rent a car for just the one day. Should I suck it up and bike it? Or should I really spend my remaining time exploring other things on Rapa Nui instead?

Having no other ideas, I did exactly the latter in the morning, exploring the craft market and sitting in the little park by the Rapa Nui church, listening to Polynesian mass. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The serendipity of how I got to Ahu Akivi

But I did succeed in getting to Ahu Akivi, after all! And it happened, because I had gone on a date

I was asked by a well-mannered, dimpled Chilean who dreamt of owning his own restaurant one day, but was working two jobs on the island because it was better money than on the mainland. His English was quite good, since he had gone to Australia to learn, so we took to chatting. Upon learning that I was interested in stargazing, he offered to bring me to a spot on the island with the best visibility.

It was an interesting date, in its own bizarre way. I learned more than I expected about garbage collection on Rapa Nui because of his restaurant job chores. I discovered how uncomfortably windy Easter Island can get at night, out in the open. And incidentally, that it doesn’t take much for a Latin American to be inspired to move to Malaysia and open a Chilean-Malaysian restaurant… I can see how Latin American guys got their impetuous reputation!

Return of the stone artist

But it wasn’t my admirer who took me to Ahu Akivi. It’s because I stopped by his other job after my morning at the craft market. And who should be passing by, honking his car horn at me, but N–n – the artist who took me to Tahai

“What are you doing today?” N–n asked from inside the car. 

“I don’t know!” I replied, coming over to his open window. “But I am trying to find a way to go to Ahu Akivi.”

“I have a barbecue at my family home*, come join us,” he invited. “Afterwards I will take you to Ahu Akivi.”

I hesitated. I don’t eat meat while travelling, but did not want to be rude. On the other hand, it’s something special when a local islander invites you for a home meal! I asked if perhaps the barbecue included fish.

It did. So once again, I trusted in the universe, and got in the car. 

Language barriers at a Rapa Nui barbecue

We drove south, beyond Hanga Roa. Up a slight rise was a sort of farmhouse that looked to be partially under construction, and a smaller building nearby. N–n explained that his family was renovating, making the home larger.

Hibiscus growing in the lawn of a Rapa Nui family home

We climbed a few short wooden steps onto the verandah, and he introduced me to his extended family. 

There didn’t seem to be any obvious signs of a barbecue. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, most of the food had been polished off by his family. There were still snacks and soft drinks though, and I sat for a bit while N–n conversed with them. 

But while N–n could speak enough English to communicate, my Spanish was not anywhere enough to bridge the gap with his family. A couple of relatives asked me where I was from, but I was not able to explain a country that they did not know. 

After a while, N–n made his excuses, and told me he would take me to Ahu Akivi.

Ahu Akivi: The Polynesian explorers who found Rapa Nui

I first heard about this site just before my trip to Easter Island. My colleague in the Netherlands had mentioned it, and that was when I learned something special about Ahu Akivi. It is the only ahu on the island where the moai faced the sea, rather than inland.

According to legend, scouts were sent to find Rapa Nui by the Polynesian chief, Hotu Matu’a, after his priest was inspired by a dream in which the king’s spirit discovered the island across the ocean. Seven of those scouts stayed behind on the island, waiting for the arrival of the king and his settlers. The moai of Ahu Akivi were erected within the territory of the king’s descendants, and face the ocean in their honour. 

Interestingly, this ahu is apparently also the most astronomically precise. It faces the sunset exactly at the spring equinox, with their backs to the sunrise for the autumn equinox. 

Entrance sign at Ahu Akivi, Rapa Nui National Park, with the moai platform in the distance

Arriving at Ahu Akivi

Bilingual answers to the question: Who discovered Easter Island?

One of the life experiences that I can’t recommend enough, is being bilingual. 

I don’t mean, ‘being able to speak enough of another language to communicate’. I mean, being so fluent in at least one other language, that you consume literature and media in both languages across your life. 

The reason is that it gives you hints about our linguistic blind sides in the ways we accept information, classify and prioritise it, and consequently generate worldview. Just by toggling a phrase or query from one language to another, you can compare how one answer works in the first language and totally makes no sense in the other. Or how an innocuous statement in one language, provokes extreme emotionality in the other. 

For example: If I were to translate the question ‘who discovered Easter Island’ into my native language Malay, my instinctive answer would be: ‘the Rapa Nui Polynesians’, and I would be thinking about the first humans to settle a truly uninhabited island. It just does not make sense to understand a general question otherwise. To enquire about any sub-category of humans to reach Easter Island in my native language, the question has to be qualified (e.g. ‘Who was the first black person to reach Rapa Nui’). 

The curious thing is, if I asked myself the same question in English, my instinct is to answer: ‘that Dutch explorer guy’, and I’d think of the first European who reached the island!

I’m not sure why. Perhaps my memory preferentially pulls up information that it learned from the English worldview, when asked a question in English. And in these references, the ‘discoverer’ of Easter Island always tacitly means, the first European who reached it. 

Seven moai of Ahu Akivi representing the scouts left on Rapa Nui awaiting Hotu Motu'a and his settlers

Seven brave scouts

Picking up a hitchhiker en route to Puna Pau

There wasn’t much more to see at Ahu Akivi, so I re-joined N–n who had hung out at the ranger’s office while I explored. He told me that I needed to see Puna Pau next. 

I had actually given up on reaching Rapa Nui’s second quarry site, since it was up on a different hill than Ahu Akivi. This day was getting better and better!

We drove along the slightly meandering roads in the middle of the island. The terrain was bare, but every so often there were isolated houses and small farms. It was mid-afternoon, that time of day when heat fairly radiated from the ground. 

By the side of the road was a lone female hiker, signing to hitch a ride. N–n stopped. Laura was Spanish, but also spoke English. Travelling solo, she had come to Ahu Akivi before us. N–n asked if she would like to join us to Puna Pau, and she quickly agreed. 

Puna Pao: Topknots on the stone heads

Pukao stone topknots on the ground at quarry site Puna Pau, Easter Island

The Easter Island statues have topknots!

N–n turned up the hill to the quarry site of Puna Pau. Once again, he hung back at the national park office and motioned for the two of us to go in and explore. 

Puna Pao is a sprawling landscape of hills, reminding me of the English midlands. Or perhaps, the area around Auckland’s volcanic hills. The tourist trails meander around them, passing close to a few locations where stout, generally identical cylindrical blocks of stone lay on the grass. Several points on the trail give great landscape views of the surrounding countryside. 

Puna Pau was where the Rapa Nui quarried the pukao, blocks of stone that were placed on top of the moai; Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena still have theirs on. 

There doesn’t seem to be certainty whether the blocks represented hats (and variations such as headdresses and turbans) or topknots. Indeed, in Spanish, the pukao is referred to as sombreros. But, from looking at the original dress of the Rapa Nui from a magazine given to me by an artist in Hanga Roa, I feel like topknot may be the more likely. 

The more interesting question is, why were they placed on the moai separately? Why not carve them as part of the moai? After all, no other parts of the moai were separately assembled. Why quarry, carve, transport, and assemble this one piece separately?

It’s because the stone from Puna Pau is a different colour. It is iron-rich, like the stone used in the seaside sculptures on the west coast, and so it has a red cast to it. 

This is important, because legend has it that Hotu Matu’a was… a redhead. 

Redheaded Hotu Matu’a – Vikings in the South Pacific?

I overheard a tour guide mention this to her group on my second visit to Rano Kau. Hotu Matu’a, the legendary Polynesian chief credited with the discovery of Easter Island, had one highly distinguishing feature. He had red hair. 

Tourist path in the archaeological site Puna Pau quarry, Rapa Nui National Park

Leading to the pukao stones

Supposedly, it then became the fashion among his followers to dye their (presumably not red) hair with reddish earth to emulate him. And that’s why all of the moai are fitted with red stone pukao

Apparently there are myth tales across the Pacific whereby Polynesians settling new islands sometimes found a prior race already inhabiting its interior forests, and that this race was fair-skinned, and red-haired. Reddish hair is also associated with rulership and rank in Polynesian culture, although I don’t know whether these two things are at all related. And of course, this snippet led to speculation that persist until this day over whether Hotu Matu’a was truly Polynesian (mainly in white nationalist circles).

It is obviously fun to imagine fanfiction of Vikings (or perhaps Celts, given the myths’ druidic themes of having them prefer forests) making their way around the world to reach the Pacific. After all, Vikings did make their way to the Middle East in the European Dark Ages, and trade routes from there did reach the edge of Melanesia at the time.

Who’s to say that an intrepid group might not have quietly gone further east, unnoticed by mainland historians?**

We are invited to explore an artistic Rapa Nui home

N–n insisted on showing us his own home afterwards. Laura and I accepted, and we headed back to one of the Hanga Roa neighbourhoods. 

His home was like you would expect an artist’s home to be. A lush garden, both productive and decorative, lay verdant and rambling out front. Hung strategically on display upon various branches were petrified wood in interesting shapes – some of them carved. His house was painted a bright blue. Its main pillars were wooden and carved with totem faces. 

Double rainbow in the Easter Island sky over a residential neighbourhood

Looking up at the double rainbow

Within was simple, but spacious. Leaving us among the indifferent clutter of various household and creative projects-in-progress, he went to get us bananas. He insisted on entire bunches, but I reminded him that I would be leaving in a couple days, so we took a more sensible amount. 

Close to sunset, we decided to go to Tahai again. As we walked out to the car, we were greeted with a treat. A huge rainbow stretched across the sky, with another, fainter one above.

It was the biggest, most perfect rainbow I had ever seen. It was just like how a child would stereotypically draw it, which I had always assumed to be an idealised version. But it is not, and I saw the proof with my own eyes. 

The Southern hemisphere was laying its charm on me. 

Rapa Nui’s sunset concert

Back in Tahai, we walked to the shoreline. I went exploring down at the beach again, peering at lichen between rocks, and discovering a kind of small isopod on the rocks. But there was not much more to see compared to my first visit, and after a while we went back to find a spot on the lawn. 

The Tahai sky was cloudier the second time around. But really all that does around here, is create a differently dramatic evening. Light spilled down onto the sea from a window in the cloud, turning the scene into a sacred painting. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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I returned to Tahai later in the week – with the same stone artist who took me the first time. There’s something special about the sunsets here – or really, the Southern Hemisphere in general. 🌅 For the story of the stone artist, check out my blog: https://www.tejaonthehorizon.com/travel-stories/easter-island-slow-travel-to-ahu-tahai/ 🌅 #roundtheworld #jelajahdunia #traveltales #rapanui #easterisland #tahai #sunsetlover #seascape #sky_painters #earthoutdoors #pacificocean #travelandexplore #travelandleisure #chile🇨🇱 #globelletravels #world_bestsky #femaletravelbloggers #solotravel #slowtravel #places_wow #travelogue #travelwriter #globewanderer #wandermore #onthehorizon #exploreeverywhere #travelphotography #eveningsky

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Closer to sunset, the clouds closed, and yet the sun still sent broad yellow beams as though breathing fire upon the Pacific. We watched, until it sank completely below the horizon.

Twilight began, turning a pastel pink cast to the clouds, reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. And the people on the lawn applauded, as if it had been a performance. 

Evening sun over the silhouette of moai of Ahu Vai Uri

Nature’s performance art

Indeed, the universe is the best tour guide

I reflected, then, on my incredible luck. The feeling of surreality returned. I had indeed gone to see all the major sites of Easter Island – and then some. And how!

I had doubted. When I tried to plan it all, it seemed far-fetched without a car. But this new approach to new things, different from the way I used to approach things in life, seemed to be working even if I didn’t understand how. It simply involved embracing the thing that you have in your hand, instead of trying to plan for what you think you want. 

So I had started with Tahai, and met N–n. I did a dive, and met Alex. With Alex, I picked up the entire northern coast, and even lesser known spots. I was reunited with N–n because I accepted a date with Francisco. And that completed the tour, coming full circle, back to Tahai. 

Life seems at times incongruously like a video game, in that the thing you’re given, right now, whether you like it or not, is always the right thing. If you commit and play along, you’ll encounter pieces that lead to the rest – and the end will be everything you could wish for. 

Rapa Nui landscape from the viewing point in Puna Pau

Discovering Rapa Nui

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. 

 

Feel inspired by Rapa Nui to try out slow, independent travel? Pin for later! 

"The Moai of They Who Discovered Easter Island" travelogue on Teja on the Horizon slow travel blog | The moai of Ahu Akivi on Easter Island, Chile, looking out towards the sea

Notes: 

* Later, in Tonga, I learned that it is Polynesian culture to prepare a meal baking in a ground oven on Sundays while they attend church. Afterwards there would be a family feast. 

**Epilogue

I was curious, and tried looking this up on the internet. As far as I can tell, anthropologists do not seem to credit seriously the notion that redheaded Polynesians were actually racially European. But even giving the theory the benefit of the doubt, I don’t really see why white nationalists (let alone supremacists) would be excited. If such a migration had happened, it would have occurred early in the European Dark Ages.

Racial relations were quite different in that period of human history. For one thing, you could equally be enslaved as a white or black person, and equally be enslaved by a black or white nation. There was certainly a lot of conflict among nations. But white supremacy was not a thing. Philosophies assigning evolutionary hierarchy according to skin colour, and the notion of ‘white man’s burden‘, hadn’t been invented yet. 

Besides, supposing that some Norse explorers somehow reached Polynesia, they would be unusual among Europeans. When the Enlightened Europeans finally went exploring, it was to find resources for their home in Europe.  But these hypothetical Norse explorers made their homes where they were. They would, therefore, have been true colonisers, unlike the later Europeans whose ‘colonisation’ in the Age of Exploration invented new meaning to the word: that you could ‘discover’ and ‘colonise’ a land that already has people in it. (Before this, everyone called that ‘conquest’). 

And most importantly, by all accounts the hypothetical Norsemen identified as Polynesian, not European. And clearly the Polynesians accepted them as Polynesian – not European. Considering the inter-racial norms at the time of this hypothetical migration, it would puzzle them that their achievement should have any meaning to (at least non-Norse) white nationalists, who they would consider as a completely different people!

Reddish stone from Puna Pau quarry, intended to be pukao topknot for moai on Easter Island

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4 Responses

  1. Mer Domenech says:

    This is such a beautiful story! I loved every word and makes me eager to follow your steps. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Karen says:

    Vikings in Easter Island… how would have thought it. Been a great series to read. kx

    • Teja says:

      It is a very tempting ‘what-if’ fantasy LOL Thanks, as a writer, I like it when I’m writing about the trips that end up having a kind of arc through them.

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