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Easter Island's Mystery Is Sculpted in Stone

February 21, 1988|KAREN CARLSEN | Carlsen is a Palo Alto free-lance writer. and

HANGA ROA, Easter Island — To the ancient Polynesians it was te pito te enua , "the navel of the world," and, indeed, this is a lonely dot in the Pacific Ocean surrounded by a vast expanse of sea.

One of the most isolated of islands, it lies 2,300 miles off Chile, which annexed it in 1888, and 1,200 miles from its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island.

Triangular and punctuated at each of its corners by an extinct volcano, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as the natives call it, is unlike the lush paradises of the South Seas.

Splendors Are Few

Covered with dry grass and isolated clumps of trees and bushes, devoid of rivers or streams, there is little in the way of scenic splendor except, perhaps, for the turquoise breakers pounding on black lava shores.

"Nature has been exceedingly sparing of her favors to this spot," wrote 18th-Century explorer Capt. James Cook.

Yet this 45-square-mile island contains a wealth of archeological treasures. Hundreds of monolithic statues, called \o7 moai\f7 , towering to extraordinary heights, are scattered over the island.

The angular faces have somber, contemplative expressions. Their isolation and air of mystery have lured thousands of visitors to this remote land.

(No one knows who carved these stone faces. One far-fetched theory attributes them to spacemen who visited Easter Island millions of years ago.)

Most of the coastline, where the \o7 moai\f7 are, was declared a national park by Chile in 1935.

Although the island is believed to have been inhabited hundreds of years earlier, the classical period of the \o7 moai\f7 began in the 12th Century.

Carved from volcanic stone, these giants, thought to represent chieftains elevated to gods after death, were raised onto stone altars, or \o7 ahus\f7 , before each village.

The more than 600 statues were all fashioned from a quarry at Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano at the northeastern corner of the island.

Carving the Statues

One 1,300-foot wall is gouged with hundreds of unfinished \o7 moai\f7 , some horizontal, some vertical. The ancient sculptors carved directly from the rock, completing the front, then cutting trenches along the sides.

Work continued on the back or underside until a narrow stone ridge was all that remained to separate the \o7 moai\f7 from its bed. Sculpture ended with the torso.

Outlines of skinny arms were carved on the bodies, with long, thin fingers joining over the stomach. Some have tattoos on their backs. It is speculated that the statues were lowered from the quarry by thick vines and dragged to their sites with the aid of log runners.

On a gray cliff above the quarry is one attached figure after another.

The largest, more than 60 feet long, lies imprisoned in its massive rock bed. More sculptures are found inside the crater, together with basalt picks lying in disarray, testimony to the sudden departure of the quarry workers.

On the lower slopes is an array of statues, each leaning at a different angle, many with torsos concealed by 300 years of shifting earth. Broad-nosed, tight-lipped, with heavy brows shielding hollow eyes, they are 12 to 37 feet high and weigh as much as 30 tons; no two are alike.

Construction was once highly competitive, increasing in size and number; population increased and food production declined.

Sometime in the late 1500s, tribal wars began that lasted for 250 years. \o7 Moai \f7 by the hundreds were toppled from their \o7 ahus\f7 until none stood. In time, the inhabitants forgot the \o7 moai\f7 and lost the skills of their forefathers.

A park ranger patrols the vicinity to provide information and ensure safety, both for the \o7 moai\f7 and the eager tourists climbing the steep island slopes.

'Living Faces'

On duty is Ata'a, a diminutive Polynesian wearing the uniform of the Chilean National Parks. She points out how the time of day and the changing light alter the expressions of the stone deities. Perhaps this is why they were called \o7 Aringa Ora\f7 , "living faces."

Ata'a said her favorite time is at night when the moon is full. "They turn white," she said. "As I walk among them I feel as if I'm being followed, and that some are turning to gaze after me with their hollow eyes. There is no experience quite like it!"

A short distance from the quarry, the island's largest \o7 ahu\f7 , \o7 Tongariki, \f7 lies in ruins, destroyed by a tidal wave in 1960.

The force of the sea tossed a 60-ton \o7 moai\f7 100 yards up on the beach, leaving it flat on its back.

Down the coast at Vaihu, five colossi lie face down, side by side, like gigantic bowling pins, undisturbed since they were pulled from their \o7 ahu\f7 during the wars.

Since the mid-1950s archeologists and the Chilean government have restored some \o7 moai\f7 and returned them to their original positions on their \o7 ahus.\f7

On the north coast the sandy beach of Ana Kena is thought to be the site where the first king, Hotu Matua, and his followers landed in two great canoes around AD 400.

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