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Fall Under the Spell of Easter Island

Anders Overgaard A row of <em>moai</em> at Ahu Tongariki, on Easter Island.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

Around 3 a.m., we ended up at a seaside disco. Inside, a sweaty crowd of Rapa Nui kids moved joyously beneath disco balls. But the strangest sight was outdoors, where a row of horses stood tethered beneath the trees, patiently awaiting owners who'd come in from remote farmsteads to go clubhopping in town. "Parking your horse at the disco…" Allan said bemusedly. He had never seen anything like it.

All over Easter Island, you can find facsimiles of the moai heads in every conceivable form of tiki-flavored kitsch: carved chess sets, pisco bottles, after-dinner chocolates, and the painstakingly copied stone replicas that adorn the pricier tourist spots. Yet not one of them resembles—even for an instant—the real thing.

The longer we stayed on the island, the more we were drawn back, again and again, to one spot: Rano Raraku. Here, at the crater of another extinct volcano, is where the stone was quarried for the colossal moai, most of which were then moved to be set up as sentries on stone platforms ringing Rapa Nui's coast. But for some unknown reason many of the finest of the sculptures were left on the grassy hillside beneath the crater. And though all of the moai on the shoreline platforms were toppled by later generations of islanders, those at Rano Raraku were allowed to stand.

Scientists still debate the statues' true meaning, along with much of the island's prehistory. DNA testing has definitively disproved Heyerdahl's theory of pre-Columbian voyagers from South America: the island was settled by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, probably between 400 and 600 A.D. The oldest carbon-dated statue is from the year 800; the latest is from 1500, when, historians speculate, internal warfare brought their production abruptly to a halt. In recent years, many writers, including Jared Diamond, have turned Easter Island into a parable on environmental degradation: the moai-builders, they say, depleted the island's trees and other resources in their race to construct as many of the colossi as possible, leaving the island desolate and famine-ridden.

Today, the statues are mainly threatened by erosion, of the volcanic stone they're made from and of the soil beneath them. UNESCO designated Rapa Nui a World Heritage site in 1995, and the World Monuments Fund added the island to its "most endangered" watch list in 1996. Easter Island's archaeological sites have yet to be completely explored and interpreted and need to be preserved for future generations, says Norma Barbacci, director of field projects for the WMF. Initiated by the University of Chile, preservation of the moai has begun—the statues are being hardened with chemicals—at a cost of about $10,000 each. "It's very labor intensive," explains Georgia Lee, cofounder of the Easter Island Foundation, which promotes scholarship on the island. "There are a thousand statues; they've treated three or four. But it's important—otherwise, in 1,500 years they'll just be lumps of stone."

One day, as I was standing by the stone corpse of a toppled moai, a skinny Russian tourist in sunglasses appeared suddenly from behind a pile of boulders. "What is your teory?" he asked me intently, gesturing at the ruins around us. "What do you tink?" The truth, oddly enough, was that, even knowing the outlines of the island's history, I found the moai more interesting as art than as artifacts.

Allan and I would wander among the statues at Rano Raraku for hours—he making sketches, I scribbling in my notebook—as hours crept imperceptibly past. A couple of times I tried to sketch the moai myself, which only confirmed what complicated and difficult artworks they are: the interplay of planes and curves, the definitive lines of mouth and brow creating something that could not be replicated. And I was in good company, I learned: a century before, the artist Max Ernst and writer Pierre Loti had tried and failed as well. Perhaps they were seduced by a false idea of the "primitive," projecting a simplicity onto the moai that just wasn't there. The culture that created these images, I realized gradually, could no more be called primitive than could the culture that adopted as its religious icon two pieces of wood nailed in the shape of a cross.

On our last full day on the island, we went to Rano Raraku in the midafternoon. On the slopes above us, the moai stood at angles, their faces tilted this way and that, as if each were following its own particular planet or star. On the gentler slopes below, others lay sleeping like scattered sarcophagi.

We stayed for seven hours, until long after the sun had set and the moon risen, just watching the monoliths in the changing light. We had one of the great places on the earth completely to ourselves—the only signs of life among the moai were a few horses, and an occasional kestrel or frigate bird sailing far overhead. As the long shadows of the afternoon gave way to warm rain, then to sunset, then blue dusk, then night, it was like watching a ballet or a film—until we finally, reluctantly, left the statues, standing black and glyphlike, solitary against the sky.

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