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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Line of Seven Moai at Ahu Akivi

Line of Seven Moai at Ahu Akivi

Year: 2014, Month: September

Easter Island > Motu Tautara > Ahu Akivi

Easter Island, also known as 'Rapa Nui' by the locals, or 'Isla de Pascua' by Spanish speakers, is a Polynesian island in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, at the south-easternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. Easter Island is most famous for its 887 monumental statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people. Its an image of some of these statues that I am sharing with you today.

Easter Island was most likely populated by Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Gambier Islands, 2,600 km away, or the Marquesas Islands, 3,200 km away, in the first millennium CE. These Polynesian people created a thriving culture, as evidenced by the moai and other artifacts. However, human activity, the introduction of the Polynesian rat and overpopulation led to a gradual deforestation and extinction of natural resources, which caused the demise of the Rapa Nui civilization. By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,0003,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. Diseases carried by European sailors and Peruvian slave raiding of the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population, down to 111 in 1877. By that time, 21 species of trees and all species of land birds went extinct through some combination of overharvesting/overhunting, rat predation, and climate change. The island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees more than 3 metres tall. Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. This was further exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations as a potential source of food. By the 18th century, residents of the island were largely sustained by farming, with domestic chickens as the primary source of protein. A series of devastating events killed or removed most of the population in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing around 1,500 men and women, half of the island's population. Among those captured were the island's paramount chief, his heir, and those who knew how to read and write the rongorongo script, the only Polynesian script to have been found to date. When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped, they disembarked carriers of smallpox together with a few survivors on each of the islands. This created devastating epidemics from Easter Island to the Marquesas islands. Easter Island's population was reduced to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.

Today, things are different and the island has re-invented itself. Annexed in 1888, it is now a special territory of Chile. According to the 2012 census, it has about 5,800 residents, of which some 60% are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui. Trees have been re-introduced, sheep and other forms of farming flourish, and a thriving tourist industry built from foreign visitors eager to see the Moai for themselves help to sustain a stable and expanding culture.

Of most interest to the visitors, the Moai statues are distributed in a variety of locations around the island, so any prospective visitors should allow at least 3 or 4 days to get an understanding of the Rapa Nui culture and the statues that this produced. Moai are monolithic human figures carved from tuff rock (a compressed volcanic ash) between the years 1250 and 1500. Nearly half are still at Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry, but hundreds were transported from there and set on stone platforms called 'ahu' around the island's perimeter. The average height of the moai is about 4 m high, with the average width at the base around 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) across. These massive creations usually weigh in at around 12.5 tonnes each. Almost all moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue. The moai are chiefly the living faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna). The statues still gazed inland across their clan lands when Europeans first visited the island, but most were cast down during later conflicts between clans.

From 1955 through 1978, an American archaeologist, William Mulloy, undertook extensive investigation of the production, transportation and erection of Easter Island's monumental statuary. Mulloy's Rapa Nui projects include the investigation of the Akivi-Vaiteka Complex and the physical restoration of Ahu Akivi (1960); the investigation and restoration of Ahu Ko Te Riku and Ahu Vai Uri and the Tahai Ceremonial Complex (1970); the investigation and restoration of two ahu at Hanga Kio'e (1972); the investigation and restoration of the ceremonial village at Orongo (1974) and numerous other archaeological surveys throughout the island. The Rapa Nui National Park and the moai are included on the 1994 list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and consequently the 1972 UN convention concerning the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage.

Ahu Akivi, where this photograph was taken, is a particular sacred place on Easter Island. The site has seven moai, all of equal shape and size, and is also known as a celestial observatory. The site is located inland, rather than along the coast, where most other moai are found. A particular feature of the seven identical moai statues at Ahu Akivi is that they exactly face sunset during the Spring Equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during the Autumn Equinox. Such an astronomically precise feature is seen only at this location on the island. Each statue is 4.9 m in height and weighs about 18 tons. The length of the base is 70 metres.

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