|Two of the moai from Ahu Nau Nau, located at Anakena. All the moai are resting atop an ahu, which is a large stone platform. One moai has a pukao on top, which is a stone topknot that perhaps represents a ceremonial hair style.|
Although numerous aspects of Easter Island's unique culture had been mentioned in accounts by early explorers, serious archaeology and ethnology only started in the 1900's. In 1914, Englishwoman Katherine Routledge led a private research team and wrote a book about her experiences. In 1934, ethnologist Alfred Métraux came to the island as part of the Franco-Belgian Expedition and collected valuable information on native legends and traditions; he published a major book that became a standard reference. Another member of the expedition, Sebastian Englert, spent the rest of his life on the island and published several books.
In 1955, Thor Heyerdahl came to the island as leader of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition. His team scientifically excavated sites and restored a moai at Anakena. Heyerdahl proposed a controversial theory that Easter Island had been settled by ocean voyagers from the South American mainland, but the theory lacked adequate proof and was eventually disproved. Anthropologist William Mulloy came as part of the Norwegian expedition and spent the rest of his life performing research and restoring ruined ahu and moai.
Archaeologists on Easter Island have discovered a number of wooden tablets containing a written language called rongorongo. The tablets were produced by natives some time in the island's past, but current natives no longer understand the written language. Despite decades of effort by linguists and code breakers, no one has been able to decipher the tablets.
It's ironic that during the early years of Chilean control, the native culture was ignored and the island was expected to earn its keep as an agricultural outpost supporting the mainland. Due to the continuing series of archaeological studies that started in the 1900's, interest in the native culture was rekindled and the island's absolutely unique cultural heritage was finally recognized as the island's premier resource. Ruined ahu and moai were painstakingly restored, and tourism became a much bigger business than agriculture ever would have been. Archaeological research and restoration are still continuing today.
Easter Island Today
The present population is nearly 4,000, including an increasing number of non-Polynesian immigrants from mainland Chile. Almost everyone lives in the only town of Hanga Roa, which also serves as the base for visiting tourists. To serve the tourism industry, Hanga Roa has numerous hotels and residenciales (boarding houses), numerous restaurants and souvenir shops, plus various other tourist services such as rental cars and bicycles, taxicabs, tour operators, dive shops, etc. There is a bank, post office, telephone call center, at least two internet cafes, and one gas station. For the local residents, there are a number of small markets but only one significant supermarket, various other shops and stores (all quite small), a government office, school, firehouse, hospital, church, and cemetery.
To learn about the island's cultural heritage, tourists can visit several dozen archeological sites scattered around the island that are part of Parque Nacional Rapa Nui, and can visit an anthropological museum and tourist information office in Hanga Roa.
Easter Island has a small-boat harbor at Hanga Piko but space may not be available and access absolutely requires a local pilot and calm weather to navigate the irregular rock-strewn entrance channel. Hanga Roa itself has a very small cove for a few small boats (like fishing skiffs or dinghies); a few other small coves are scattered around the island. There are no secure all-weather anchorages; all boats from private yachts to supply ships anchor in the ocean a short distance from shore.
If you're interested in a nautical perspective, I have extracted information about Easter Island from Publication 125 - Sailing Directions (Enroute) West Coast of South America, published by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (which is part of the U.S. Government). The document describes the island and its bays, points, rocks, tides, and weather. It also provides navigational information and anchoring instructions. You can view Publication 125 - Easter Island (Extract) in PDF format (18 kb).
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