Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Moai – and more

Here’s to the salutary experience of being made to feel small.

Faced with the monumental Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), that sensation of your own puniness is quite palpable.  But it’s not just your comparative size and your awareness of the huge human effort that went into carving and erecting them.  It’s also about knowing how puny humans cumulatively created, on that island, a wholesale collapse –   first of the resources, then of the structure of its society, and then of the population.  And – aaargh – how we risk doing it again, on a global scale!

Up on Rano Raraku, the volcanic quarry site.


But first – the amazement!  Seeing the Moai “in person” is so much more than in any number of photos. They’re awe-inspiring in their bulk, heft and solemn presence.

The power they represented during the “building centuries”, and for which they were toppled in the “destruction decades” of the Civil

A work in progress. still attached to the “mother”.

War in the 1600s,  is raised again in that small percentage that have been stood up.   It’s their original standing up on the Ahu – the stone marae – and perhaps the insertion of their eyes at that point – which marked them taking mana.

As local knowledge has it, those in the process of manufacture or transport were just artefacts, until they were stood upright in place.  Hence, during the period of destruction, when rival clans toppled each other’s Moai to demolish their power, the completed carvings abandoned ‘in transit’ were left standing.

Abandoned in transit … now up to their necks as the soil accretes. Deforestation hastened erosion across the island








A faded photo of a demonstration of how it used to be done. Disproves the “alien engineers” theory!

Then of course there’s the amazement of the human ingenuity and effort involved in the process.  Once the Moai was severed from the mother rock, it was stood upright for final work on its back, then (they think) “walked” using wooden handles, in the same way that we “walk” a fridge or a wardrobe, down the hillside.  It was laid down again to move across to the coast, and finally stood up in place on the Ahu.


A large Japanese crane failed in one attempt to raise one of the Moai.

Our guide talked of the large Moai (they got bigger and bigger over the 300 years of the construction period) taking 60 – 90 people 6 – 9 months to carve.  Transporting them on palm-tree rollers or ladder-like tracks out to the Ahu on the coast would have taken 50 to 500 people.

And thus the track leads to disaster.  Standing there looking at them, and knowing what we do now about what happened next, I was looking for a word that’s some combination of “foreboding in hindsight”.   I’m sure there’ll be one in German!

Suffice to say, the population growth enabled by extensive plantations and deep-ocean fishing, and the deforestation following the use of all the trees for canoe-building, Moai- transport, and ordinary life, collided to produce a crisis.

Ahu Tahai, by the beach at Hangaroa. During the ‘toppling’ of the Moai, stones where placed to break the Moai as they fell. Restoration is mainly confined to “standing up”, not repairing.

The clans which had collaborated up till then over access to resources fought over the exact same thing. As they toppled each other’s Moai, they started the decimation (perhaps in this case an accurate use of that word) of their population.

Weakened by civil war, they were no match for European diseases from the 1770s onwards, and Peruvian slave raids in the 1860s.  Best reading on this… Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.” Actually this 2005 book is even more now than then required reading!

One US dollar for a photo please.” Young tourism entrepreneur.

So – in the here and now….  We have one of the most remote islands in the world, with its only major resource being its people and its extraordinary attractions – not just the Moai, but the Ahu, petroglyphs, stone chicken houses, rock gardens, rongorongo language boards, bird-man culture… so much history.

This year, it has been granted local resource-power over its income from visitor fees: up till now they’d gone back to Chile’s National Park account.  So of course local decision-making is focusing on education in tourism business development.


The harbour is designed for fishing boats, not cruise ships

But then, there’s the question about the infrastructure.  The roads require driver skills in pothole-slalom.  There are two alternative landing sites for the tender boats from cruise ships, depending on the direction of the seas –  but still there were people on our boat who’d made 4 or 5 unsuccessful attempts to get on land. We were so lucky!  The little harbour has room for only one tender at a time, and the narrow channel is lined with sharks-tooth rocks.   Earlier, Nasa extended the runway at the airport, as an abort site (since not required) for the space shuttle programme. Big jets can fly in.

You ask – what are the limits to growth?

The question becomes about lessons learned from history.

Can the Moai which are artefacts of both great accomplishment and collapse now provide a means for a sustainable future?   And what of their lessons for the rest of us?

I saw more horses in loose herds than cattle.


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