Last updated: January 22, 2012 2:29 am

Gaze into the past

A new tour allows visitors to explore the moais of Easter Island, guided by the archaeologists who restored the mysterious statues

As a dance, the Easter Island hoko makes New Zealand’s rugby haka look like a foxtrot. In the hoko, huge muscular men, their bare torsos glistening under a war paint of tattoos, shout and stamp to the rattling accompaniment of thunderous drumming with a choreo­graphy belligerent enough to scare the living daylights out of any adversary.

More

On this story

IN Asian and Australian destinations

It’s paradoxical that a place famed for its impassive moais – the monumental stone figures that stand around its shores – should be almost as memorably defined by the exuberance of dance. But then it’s equally extraordinary that some of the most astonishing expressions of human spirituality and ingenuity, art and engineering, should turn up on this fleck of land, the shape of a tricorn hat, tossed into the Pacific farther from habitation than any other inhabited island on earth.

Chicken feathers, flying from the whirling costumes,are caught in the spotlights as the Kari Kari Dance Group lunge into their next bellicose number, all sweat and suggestion, volume and energy turned to max.

Patricia Vargas leans over to me. “Finally the moais are doing what they were supposed to do,” she says.

The Explora hotel on Easter Island

The Explora hotel on Easter Island

Vargas is one of the founders of ATS, the Architectural Travel Service of Chile, a group of archaeologists who have linked up with Explora, a stylish Chilean hotel group whose sequestered lodges soothe the ethos of adventure with sybaritic living. On Easter Island, and in the Atacama desert on the mainland, ATS conducts four-night “ethnocultural” tours. What sets the programme apart on Easter Island, which has been part of Chile since 1888, is that the guides, all long-time residents, have themselves researched, excavated and restored some of its most famous sites.

The house lights in the theatre are switched on and the dancers invite tourists on stage to try a few hoko moves for themselves. Vargas elaborates on her comment about the moais, which represent venerated ancestors. The definition of moai is “one who gives”. In the past, that meant protection and fertility; today, they are bringing affluence and a sense of identity.

Anakena beach

Anakena beach

“The prosperity of the island today comes from the statues through tourism. They are the mana [supernatural power] of Easter Island,” she tells me. “Tourism has made the islanders aware of what they have; the more recognition the statues receive, the more people recover their identity. In the dance you can see a community that has regained the power of the past.”

To be shown the statues by ATS guides is a bit like having Howard Carter, who opened Tutankhamun’s tomb, take you to the Valley of the Kings. Vargas, for instance, knew Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist whose expedition to Easter Island in the mid-1950s did much to excite the world about the mysterious moais. Since then her professional life has never strayed far from the statues.

No one seems sure when the island was settled or where the first inhabitants came from. But early in the past millennium Polynesians arrived in big sailing canoes after an ocean passage of at least 2,000km, the distance to Pitcairn, the nearest inhabited island. With them they brought the wherewithal to found a civilisation – animals, crops and culture. Today remnants of their nation lie in 20,000 archaeological sites distributed about a sub-tropical island that looks like England’s South Downs littered with lava.

Grassland, swollen with the mounds of extinct volcanoes, is grazed by cattle and roaming posses of wild horses. Controversially, the animals use the unfenced moais as rubbing posts. In the one village, Hanga Roa, where nearly all the 4,000 islanders live, the figure of Christ in St Michael’s Church looks not unlike a moai.

Map of Easter island

Vargas takes me to Ahu Tongariki, a huge grass field shovelled out of the coastline, where 15 massive figures stand in a rank, backs to the sea. Their haughty, primate faces – low foreheads, deep eye sockets, thin lips – stare inland, grim-faced and inscrutable. The biggest are almost 9m tall and weigh about 90 tons. They are among the more recent moais, dating from the 16th century. The oldest go back to the 10th or 11th centuries.

In 1960, when Chile suffered a severe earthquake, the resulting tsunami hurtled into Rapa Nui, the island’s Polynesian name, picking up the Tongariki monuments like sticks and throwing them for 200m across the plateau. Eight were broken and the great stone platform on which they stood disintegrated.

Thirty years later, and out of the blue, Vargas received a phone call from Chile’s ambassador to Japan. A Japanese company, prompted by an idea posted in the employees’ suggestion box, was sending a heavy-lifting crane to Rapa Nui to re-erect the statues. The surprised young archae­ologist collected her wits. “You need much more than a crane,” she protested. “You need a project and funds. If they want a picture of a crane with a statue dangling from it, it’s four years away.” The crane, the ambassador said, was already on its way.

In the end it took more than five years to restore the site. The statues were conserved, the broken ones repaired and 900 stones from the old platform that had been strewn over the field were identified by their shape from photographs and incorporated into the rebuilt dais in their original positions. The Japanese, to their credit, kept the crane on site and fulfilled their promise to resurrect the statues.

“Throughout the project, our respect for what the Rapa Nui people did without modern technology or machinery grew exponentially,” Vargas says.

The engineering required to construct a stable platform strong enough to bear 15 gigantic monoliths was remarkable on its own, never mind making and moving the statues themselves. They came from a single quarry of tuff stone. Rano Raraku is set on the side of a spent volcano, a rounded hill of shorn grass where the heads of more than 400 figures poke out of the ground. Others lie discarded. “They have been the subject of fantasies beyond imagination,” says Alex Searle, another ATS guide. “Some people thought the moais shot from the volcano, or that they were extra-terrestrials, others believed they walked.”

One huge statue, 21m long, its frontal features complete, is still attached to the hillside by an umbilical keel of stone that would have been chipped away to release the finished sculpture. You can see how it had begun to be chiselled out from either side with basalt picks. But it was never freed from the grip of the hill. It’s as if the masons had simply walked off the job.

That abandoned figure reveals the secret of how they were made: carved in situ, cut from the quarry and, it is thought, loaded on to timber sledges and lugged by hundreds of men to the shrines around the coast: the nearer the quarry, the bigger the statues. The drum-shaped hats worn by a few moais were fashioned from red scoria taken from another quarry 12km away at Puna Pau. The hats exemplified another incredible feat of engineering: each weighed two to four tons and was somehow balanced, unfastened, on a statue’s head.

Puna Pau is also littered with dumped sculpture, and the two quarries raise the biggest unanswered question of all: why did the cult of the statues so suddenly stop? Something cataclysmic seems to have happened in the middle of the 16th century. One theory is that this was the first society to consume its way to near-extinction and that the then population of almost 20,000 fell on one another as their resources were exhausted, even resorting to cannibalism. They certainly rid the land of almost all its native trees.

Whatever occurred ended the worship of ancestral statues and with it the hegemony of the priests. In its place came the so-called Birdman Cult. Warrior clans selected their paramount chief by a bizarre race in which contestants scrambled down a high cliff, swam to a small island and returned with the unbroken egg of a sooty tern.

The annual Birdman race was documented when the first Europeans reached the island in the 18th century. It remains a curiosity. But the mystique of Rapa Nui and its mana are set in the stone of the enigmatic moais.

.......................................................................

Details

Peter Hughes was a guest of the Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk). It offers five days on Easter Island, staying at the Explora Rapa Nui (www.explora.com), and two in Santiago from £3,360 including meals, ATS guides, flights from Santiago and transfers. The same package with flights from London costs £3,676

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.