By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos, except where noted. 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 sixth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.
Many, many thanks to Brigid Mulloy, daughter of Emily and William Mulloy, whom you’ll read about below, for permission to use family photographs and quote from her blog.
“… The whole population was quick to grasp the advantages to the island of the project. It was something that could give them pride in both their ancestors and themselves, something that stayed on the island instead of being carried away to some faraway museum. We also tried to promote the idea that future archaeological finds should be preserved on the island rather than being sold to tourists or used as building stones.”
— Emily Ross Mulloy, wife of William Mulloy, writing to her family in Michigan, about the groundbreaking restoration work her husband and his team were undertaking on Easter Island in 1960
With little dissent, it can be convincingly argued that esteemed American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy was one of the fathers of modern history on Easter Island and, furthermore, the impetus for its surging tourism industry today.
England’s Katherine Routledge (1866-1935) laid the groundwork for modern academics with her seminal work “The Mysteries of Easter Island,” published in 1919. Her book, based on the 17 months she spent on the island — also known as Rapa Nui — in 1914-15, was the first catalog of the massive statues called moai, and a study of the culture and legends of a Pacific island people.
But it was the clear-eyed insight, unrelenting drive and deep respect for the Rapa Nui people that inspired Mulloy to help restore some of the iconic stone giants to their rightful geographical locations in the latter half of the 20th century.
Mulloy (1917-1978), a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, was 38 years old when he first ventured to Easter Island. He was part of a team cobbled together by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), who was planning to excavate sites at Rano Raraku (the main moai quarry), Ahu Vinapu (on the southern portion of the island) and Poike (the northeastern tip).
Over seven months in 1955-56, Heyerdahl also was investigating how Rapa Nuians raised the moai to a standing position. This research, calculated to test antiquated methods as recounted by a contemporary islander, was successfully carried out on a single moai at Ahu Ature Huki, near Anakena Beach (see June 17 post).
Up to the time of his invitation to join the Heyerdahl team, Mulloy’s area of concentration had been studying the Native Americans of the northwestern Plains of the United States, particularly the states of Wyoming and Montana.
But the trip to Easter Island changed Mulloy’s life. Here was an exciting opportunity to examine how such an isolated people — the triangular-shaped island, among the most remote, inhabited places on Earth, is about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) west of Chile — developed not only as a society but as a viable, creative population seemingly without much outside influence.
From this experience grew the idea of establishing an outdoor museum to honor the Rapa Nui people and their heritage, while at the same time recognizing that showcasing the unique moai could become an economic basis for the future, drawing curious visitors from around the globe to see the towering figures for themselves.
And so from the late 1950s almost until his death, Mulloy made repeated trips — more than a dozen — to Easter Island, working around his schedule and commitments to the University of Wyoming, where he joined the faculty in 1948.
In 1960, he and a team of Rapa Nui men spent more than a year restoring Ahu Akivi, the first complete ahu (ceremonial platform) to have its moai replaced atop it. Manual labor was used in all aspects of clearing the site, reconstructing the ahu and raising the moai. Mulloy commuted daily to the site on horseback, his daughter recalls.
Many of the scientific papers Mulloy wrote were in collaboration with Chilean archaeologist Gonzalo Figueroa (1931-2008), with whom he had first become acquainted on the Heyerdahl crew, and who was an instrumental part of the 1960 group. (Figueroa was affiliated with the University of Chile.)
In January 1960, summer in the Southern Hemisphere, Mulloy brought Emily, who herself had studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico; their son, Patrick; and daughters Kathy and Brigid, the youngest, at 8 years old, to Rapa Nui. They stayed for 13 months, learning Spanish and Rapanui, and integrating fully into island life. Some of the living conditions were primitive, but the family quickly adapted.
In those days, of course, the Internet didn’t exist. There was barely any communication from the outside because the scheduled supply ship visited only once a year. Even largely cut off from the world, the sojourn on Rapa Nui was a profoundly satisfying, eye-opening adventure for the Mulloys, made more so because they experienced it as a family.
“We sighted Easter Island from afar early Monday morning, at first it just looked like a blue cloud low on the horizon,” Emily wrote of her initial impressions. “Later it grew until you could see the two volcanoes at each end and a low flattish part between. It is bigger than you would expect from photos and much less rugged. By noon we were sailing along the south shore and were surprised to find the slopes of the volcanoes quite green with a lot more trees.”
In May, several months into Mulloy’s work at Ahu Akivi (on the mid-central western part of the island), an enormous tsunami, spawned by an earthquake off the coast of Chile, destroyed Ahu Tongariki, on Rapa Nui’s eastern coast (see March 6 post). Tongariki was in ruins until 1992-95, when funding, imported Japanese heavy equipment and technology were finally mobilized for a full restoration.
The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, are the only ones on Rapa Nui that face the sea. They are farther inland, about 1.5 miles (3 kilometers) than the 15 aligned moai at Ahu Tongariki, or at Ahu Nau Nau on Anakena Beach (see June 17 post), also on the eastern side of Rapa Nui and within steps of the coast.
But don’t make too much of how the Ahu Akivi moai are positioned. In that archaeologists believe that the moai “watched over” their descendants, the ample space in front of the platform offered the resident clan access to enough resources for the effective development of a community.
Mulloy believed that the long-ago inlanders were farmers, as opposed to those closer to the ocean, who relied more heavily on fishing and seafood.
The seven Ahu Akivi moai are very close in form and height (taller than 13.2 feet or 4 meters), likely indicating that they were all carved in the crater at Rano Raraku around the same time, and transported across the island to their platform, possibly in the very early 15th century. In the overall scheme, archaeologists date this group to the late period in which islanders were still carving moai.
The full platform is 297 feet long (90 meters), but the section that the moai reside on is only 125.4 feet (38 meters). Around the back are two pits that Mulloy believed were crematoria. One pit contained burned human bones of some quantity, and small statues that might have been burial offerings.
The location of Ahu Akivi may also have a celestial component. On the spring and fall equinoxes — about March 20 and September 22 — the platform lines up with particular stars. These dates would, of course, be important to people relying on the land for sustenance.
It was a partly cloudy day, with steady light rain when I visited. This did not stop our guide from delivering the full complement of information about the site or our small group from exploring it. The rain did hamper picture-taking, so in several photos, I have water spots on my lens and some blurry shots.
It had long been Mulloy’s dream to live permanently on Rapa Nui. Over the decades, he had participated in the restoration of additional sites around the island, including the ceremonial village at Orongo, which I’ll discuss in a future post.
In the late 1970s, that goal looked close to fulfillment, until Mulloy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on March 25, 1978 in Laramie, Wyoming. His ashes were buried under a plaque near Ahu Tahai (see February 12 post), a coastal complex that he helped to restore.
The simple bronze plaque, attached to a piece of a stone transported from the quarry at Rano Raraku, reads: “By restoring the past of his beloved island he also changed its future.” Tributes in Spanish and Rapanui are also on the plaque.
Decades later, when Emily died, also of lung cancer, her family brought her ashes to rest alongside William’s.
At the small museum named for German missionary Father Sebastian Englert, who lived on the island for 34 years and also made a lasting contribution to its cultural preservation, is a library named for Mulloy. It houses the professor’s vast collection of books covering Easter Island and Polynesia.
Brigid Mulloy, recently retired in Hawaii, remembers her childhood days on Rapa Nui with great fondness. On her blog, Rapa Nui Related, she has posted excerpts from her mother’s letters home, which make for fascinating reading, and also about her father’s formative years. Don’t miss the post on the fund-raising efforts that saw one of the Tongariki moai heads being installed on Park Avenue in New York City in 1968. Go to brigidmulloy.wordpress.com for more on the family’s special relationship with Rapa Nui.