On Easter Island, among the moai at Anakena: From every side, something to see

The seven moai at the beach at Anakena are known as Ahu Nau Nau. They face inland, with Anakena Beach behind them. The site was restored in 1978.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the fourth post about my adventures. See April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts.

Of the 50 or so moai that have been restored atop the ceremonial platforms known as ahu, most show the weathering caused by centuries of exposure to wind, rain and sun. If these stone giants displayed decorative carving, much of it is has become “illegible” and extremely difficult to see.

But at Anakena, the carving on several of the seven restored moai on Ahu Nau Nau is much more visible for an odd reason: They spent a long period of time, possibly hundreds of years, covered in sand.

Ahu Nau Nau, with its seven moai in profile. The palm trees were imported from Tahiti in the 1960s.

In profile, four of the moai are close in height. One lacking a hat is shorter. One is a headless torso and the last not much more than a stump. On three statues, the shape and length of the facial features are similar and look like they could have been carved by the same master craftsman while they were still in the “nursery,” the volcano at Rano Raraku, and if not, then possibly someone trained by him.

The well-marked ears are rendered in relief, and the lips and deep eye sockets are also well defined.

The outline of the arms flows downward, with the flat hands and fingers clearly outlined as they cross the moais’ belly. In a few, the navel pokes out on the torso.

Look carefully, and you can make out some of the lines and spiral patterns on the back. The patterns may mimic tattoos that some islanders wore.

As viewed from the rear, visitors should be able to make out spiral and circular patterns on the lower back, and horizontal lines. These markings may have mimicked the tattoos favored by some of the clans.

As I’ve written previously, by about 1838, none of the moai were still standing upright on their ahu. One theory holds that warring clans, perhaps clashing over dwindling food and resources on the island, pushed down their adversaries’ moai in order to bury their faces and thus deprive them of their mana, or power, that the clans believed the statues were imbued with.

In other words, it wasn’t enough to defeat another clan and take its supplies. By toppling their protective moai, further insult was inflicted.

Thus, this conflict yielded at least one unintended result for modern-day visitors to Anakena.

On the northeastern side of the triangular island also known as Rapa Nui, Anakena is what many mentally picture when they think of the South Pacific: crystal-blue waters lapping at a white-sand beach surrounded by nearby palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Because of the island’s deforestation over the centuries, the palms at Anakena were actually imported from Tahiti in the 1960s.

The Rapa Nui people revere Hotu Matu’a, who came from another Polynesian island to Easter Island, possibly as early as A.D. 600 to 900. He and his group landed at Anakena, today popular with swimmers and sunbathers.

It was in this small cove that ancestors of the islanders who made the moai first landed. This likely happened somewhere around A.D. 600 to 900. The well-provisioned group, led by Hotu Matu’a, brought with it from another Polynesian island perhaps 2,000 miles away some of the supplies needed to stock a new settlement, such as plants and animals.

When they arrived in their canoes, it is believed the island was about 70 percent covered in several species of palm trees and plants, and that abundant fish and birds supplemented their diet.

Eventually, Anakena became the home of the royal clan Miru, direct descendants of Hotu Matu’a.

Ahu Nau Nau from the front. During an excavation, the white coral and red scoria that comprise an eye were found here.

In addition to the carvings, the Anakena site also has several other distinctions:

  • Four of the seven moai are sporting cylindrical pukao, the red topknot “hat” meant to evoke a hairstyle the male members of some clans wore. No other restored site features as many moai with pukao.
  • In 1978, an excavation by archaeologist Sergio Rapu turned up evidence that some of the moai had proper “eyes,”which was the final ornamental touch in their construction and installation atop the ahu. White coral (for the sclera) and red scoria (for the pupil) were inserted in a priestly ceremony, and thus “awakened,” the moais’ power was in full force. The original coral and scoria discovery can be seen at the Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert, a small museum named for the German missionary priest who lived on the island for 34 years, learned the local language and documented many oral legends. Very few other samples of the “eye” material have been found.
  • Atop a second ahu, to the right of Ahu Nau Nau as you face it, sits a lone moai that served as a guinea pig for Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his team when they were testing theories as to how the islanders maneuvered the moai into an upright position.
This is Ahu Ature Huki, the first moai to be stood upright by modern-day restorers. This was accomplished by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1955-56. In front, below the moai’s base, you can just make out a plaque commemorating the effort.

This site, known as Ahu Ature Huki, features the first moai to have been uprighted. Heyerdahl writes about the process of raising the 10-foot, nearly 30-ton moai in his book “Aku Aku,” based on his 1955-56 expedition.

According to Heyerdahl, the mayor, Pedro Atan, enlisted 12 men — some working barefoot —and had them gather large boulders and three long wooden poles.

“The figure had its face buried deep in the earth, but the men got the tips of their poles underneath it, and while three or four men hung and pulled at the farthest end of each pole, the mayor lay flat on his stomach and pushed small stones under the huge face. … As the hours passed, the stones he moved out and shoved in became larger and larger. When the evening came, the giant’s head had been lifted a good three feet from the ground, while the space beneath was pack tight with stones.”

The poles acted as levers as the ever-taller sloped wall of stones — picture a wedge — grew under the moai. In this manner, it took about 17 or 18 days to complete the task.

Surely one way to prove a point, but not nearly as easy as using a crane to replace the 15 moai atop their platform as was done at Ahu Tongariki.

Our small group visited Anakena at the end of a full day of island touring. It’s the only site with snacks available and a restaurant-bar, restroom facilities (fee charged), plus access to a nice, small beach.

Earlier, we’d spent several hours at Rano Raraku (the quarry) and its crater, once the only source of fresh water on the eastern side of the island, and Ahu Tongariki.

We’d also stopped at the site called Te Pito Kura, where the largest moai ever to stand atop an ahu is sprawled on the ground, its topknot nearby. It was estimated to be more than 33 feet tall, with its topknot another 6.6 feet in height. Its weight was estimated at 70 tons. This is also thought to be the last moai standing, when it was noted by a French explorer named Abel Du Petit-Thouars in 1838. No other outsiders remarked after that date that they’d seen a moai still upright.

Nearby is a large stone, surrounded by four smaller rocks. Stories diverge here, again. Some believe the large stone accompanied Hotu Matu’a to his new home, and that it is laden with mana. Others say that it’s just another ocean-tossed stone, smoothed by the elements, that found its way inland.

Quick reference: Mahinatur offers several routes for guided exploration of Easter Island. mahinatur.cl (Spanish only). Pickup and drop off at your lodging and lunch are included on the full-day tour.


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