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Easily the most famous icon of Easter Island is the Moai statues, the ancient volcanic rock carvings of faces and people. It’s understood that over 1200 years ago, seafarers landed on Easter Island and in time, began carving these statutes out of rock. It’s not known exactly why the early occupiers had such an obsession with creating these statues, but they remain today to be one of the most incredible and widely-recognised art across the world.
Many of the Moai were toppled and damaged during tribal wars on the island, when the land began to run out of trees and important resources for survival. You can see many Moai still standing while other statue remains can be found lying on the ground.
As well as having a penchant for carving statues of heads into volcano rock, the Rapa Nui people also created many other artworks, which can still be seen around the island today. These ancient petroglyphs aren’t as visible as the Moai but are still part of the mysterious and interesting life of the early islanders. There are various designs and drawings from faces to depictions and locations of special rituals and religious traditions. One site, known as Papa Vaka, has drawings all related to the sea.
There’s no missing the volcanic landscape of Easter Island. There are three main extinct volcanoes which make up the land. The Terevaka Volcano is the highest point on Rapa Nui, just 166 ft (507m) above sea level, but the top offers spectacular 360 degree views of the territory. Rano Raraku is the crater found on the lower slopes of Terevaka and offers an impressive and dramatic landscape to the backdrop of the vast ocean, highlighting the isolation of this ancient land.
Similar to Polynesian styles, the music and dancing of Easter Island is a captivating aspect of local life. There are a number of different traditional dances, most of which see the dancer wearing an elaborate headdress. Some dances are similar to traditional tribal war dances, while others, like the Ula Ula is a couples’ dance that is more provocative and sensual.
Up until recently, the Catholic Church was the only church on Easter Island. The church is an example of what can happen when old tribal traditions and mythology are mixed with modern religion. The church is a colourful building featuring art and icons of the Rapa Nui people, while still incorporating more traditional Catholic iconography and devotional art. Even the priest wears traditional Rapa Nui headdress. Strict Catholics may not necessarily agree with the mix of native tribal culture with Catholicism, but Christianity may not have been able to spread here if it had outlawed all native beliefs.
Anakena Beach is an idyllic white coral sand beach ideal for swimming. The beach is decorated with coconut palms which were actually brought over from Tahiti some decades ago. Aside from the beach, the site has several archaeological points and platforms were Moai stand.
You can’t go far in Easter Island before stumbling across another fascinating and intriguing piece of history. Orongo is known as the Stone Village and was a ceremonial village during the birdman era. The birdman cult required a leader, so the people came up with a straight forward competition to determine the next elder – dive off the cliffs at Orongo and swim out to an inlet to fetch the first egg of the season from the sooty tern bird. The man who successfully brought the egg back to Orongo was crowned the leader for the next year.
The houses in this village are all made of stone, built to withstand the strong winds and gales from this exposed part of the island. Many of the houses deteriorated over the years but have since all been restored in the 1970s.
Because of its remote location, Easter Island offers scuba divers a dream underwater experience. The water is clear with visibility reaching up to 196 ft (60m) on a calm day. There’s little pollution thanks to the isolated population as well as a lack of algae. One of the diving highlights of Easter Island is visiting a submerged Moai statue – although this appears to have been placed there in more modern times, rather than falling to the sea from an ancient tribal clash.
Tongariki is one of the most widely recognised locations on Easter Island, as it is home to the site of the 15 Moai. These statues stand in a line, facing inwards, like all Moai. This spot is a photographer’s delight as the sun comes straight up from the horizon, beaming golden light onto these magnificent ancient statues.