The Tragic Tale of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Easter Island would be on most people’s lists of remote places to travel to, with the obvious attraction of seeing the famous Moai (statues)

I decided to write an article about Easter Island after reading Gary Arndt’s travel blog where he reflects on how remote Easter Island is:

One thing I thought of today is how much it would totally suck ass to live on Easter Island. Some people would like a house out in the middle of nowhere where you be secluded and have some privacy.

This is a different ball game altogether. It’s not a matter of driving an hour or even two to get to the closest town. It is a minimum of a five hour commercial airline flight to anywhere. ANYWHERE.

That is not an exaggeration in the slightest. There is not a speck of Earth within 1,000 miles, and civilization within 2,500. I’m sure the Chilean government has some sort of subsidy where goods are flown in on the regular LAN Chile flights, but for the most part, you’re trapped. Moreover, there is no real harbor here, so regular boats don’t come to the island.
- Gary Arndt

Gary’s writing and photos reminded me of my visit to the British Museum in London where one of the Moai statues is on public display.

Before visiting the British museum and becoming interested in Easter island, my knowledge about it was quite sketchy beyond knowing that Easter Island (Rapa Nui in the local language, Isla de Pascua in Spanish) is an island in the south Pacific Ocean belonging to Chile, famous for its numerous Moai, the stone statues located along the coastlines.

Introduction to Easter Island – “The Lost Gods” by Sir David Attenborough


7 min film from “The Lost Gods of Easter Island” by Sir David Attenborough

The Easter Island Moai

My friend Gary has studied geology at the University of Minnesota, he had always assumed that the Maoi were made out of basalt, the volcanic rock that makes up most ocean islands and the bottom of the sea:

It turns out that its not quite the case. There is a reason why all the maoi were carved from this particular volcano and not elsewhere on the island: the rock here is really a concrete mix of ash, basalt rubble and some other non-porus material I couldn’t figure out. Its must weaker than plain basalt, which is why they probably chose that spot to do all the carving: the rock was softer and it was easier.

In climbing around, I had a piece of rock crumble in my hand as I was trying to get a grip. (the wall of the volcano crumbled, not a moai). It also explains why so many moai are in bad shape. If they were standing near the coast and they were hit by a tsunami, when they got knocked over the weight of the stone was probably enough to break it in two.
- Gary Arndt

All of the maoi which are standing and not in the quarry, have been restored in the last 50 years. Everything in the photo I posted above was restored in the early 1990’s by a Japanese television network. They need cash to restore the hundreds of maoi which have fallen or are broken around the island. Also, the maoi are made of a very soft volcanic tuff. Just because they are made of rock doesn’t mean they will last forever.
- Gary Arndt

Can Easter Island Teach Us a Lesson?

Climate change and the overuse and the worldwide destruction of scarce resources like arable land, water and forests are topics that many people are worried about at present.

Some people point to Easter Island as an example of the possible collapse of civilisation…

A jewel of an island floating in an endless sea. A seemingly never-ending supply of raw materials. Technological advances. Population growth. Depletion of resources. War. Collapse. Sound familiar? The Easter Island story is a story for our times.

We too are on an island floating on an endless sea. There are differences, of course. It could be said that Easter Island is tiny and that it was only a matter of time before the resources in such a closed system were used up. But there are parallels between the islanders’ attitude towards their environment and our own, and this is the most frightening part of the story.

On an island as small as Easter, it was easy to see the effects of the deforestation as it was taking place. But the inhabitants continued their destructive actions. They probably prayed to their gods to replenish the land so they could continue to rape it, but the gods didn’t answer.

And still the trees came down. Whatever one did to alter that ecosystem, the results were reasonably predictable. One could stand on the summit and see almost every point on the island. The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. Nonetheless, he (or she) still felled it.

This is the really scary part. As our own forests fall to the bulldozers, there are many who are valiantly trying to save them. It is obvious, now that we have satellites showing us the massive deforestation, that there is a serious problem.

And yet our leaders – and even the majority of individuals – look on, unconcerned. They appear willing to bulldoze the last trees to build the moai of our time – technology & development.

Will we have the sense to reconcile our lifestyles with the well-being of our environment, or is the human personality always the same – as that of the person who felled the last tree?
- Photographer Cliff Wassmann

Travelling to Easter Island

Easter Island is located 3700 km (2300 miles) off the west coast of Chile and the LAN flight there from Santiago, Chile takes between 4hrs 40min and and 5hrs 40min.

Around 40,000 tourists visit Easter island each year and the money they spend provides a large part of the islands income.


View Larger Map

Further Reading

Wikitravel – Easter Island tourist tips

BBC’s The Mystery of Easter Island – programme summary

South Pacific Organiser – Easter Island Travel Guide

Jared Diamond – How Societies Fail: And Sometimes Succeed – Long Now Foundation (74min Video)


5 comments on “The Tragic Tale of Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

  1. Patrick on said:

    Easter Island is such an interesting place. I wish I could go and visit if I have the finance and time.

  2. Polina on said:

    Sad story… I do hope that our civilization will be smarter and able to learn on other’s mistakes… I wouldn’t like to live on a tiny bit of Earth lost in the Ocean, carve ashen statues and pray Gods begging to save me…

  3. I came across the Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 program recently, and there are a few events to do with travel. In particular is ‘What’s funny about America?’ where David Rakoff, David Sedaris and Don Watson share their perspectives on America. For those who like travel and writing, the program can be accessed at www.mwf.com.au

  4. I’ve been there and it was a great place to visit for three days or so, but I was happy to leave as well. It is a sad place in many ways.

  5. I’ve been there, and I suggest we all learn about Rapa Nui and its culture and history. It’s an amazing place. Dave Attenborough explains everything perfectly.

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