Easter Island birdman on festival poster (Dr Karl Shuker)
As you already know from my books The Unexplained (1996), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), and Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), as well as from a wide range of articles, my interests in mysteries are not entirely confined to those appertaining to natural history. Consequently, here, for a change, is my examination of one of the world's most mysterious, enigmatic localities, which I was fortunate enough to visit just a few years ago.
STONE GIANTS, MAN-BIRDS, AND LONG-EARED GHOSTS
- WELCOME TO EASTER ISLAND!
- WELCOME TO EASTER ISLAND!
Not so long ago, in a magazine and internet survey to find the world’s most mysterious, paranormal locality, the runaway winner was a certain tiny triangular island (no more than 25 km across) separated by over 2000 km of southeastern Pacific Ocean from any other inhabited locality, formerly home to an extraordinary birdman cult, and ringed by numerous stone statues of enormous size and alienesque appearance that stare inward across their lonely domain through unseeing eye-sockets yet with a gaze as chilling as the rock from which they were hewn many centuries ago. Where else could this be but Rapanui – or, as we know it better in the West, Easter Island.
MEETING THE MOAI
A special territory of Chile since 1888, Easter Island is so-named because it was first encountered by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, when it was reached by Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen. In April 2008, I fulfilled the ambition of a lifetime by finally visiting this truly remarkable island – containing three extinct volcanoes, a lush but entirely artificial flora and fauna almost entirely introduced by man from elsewhere to replace its own decimated native ecosystem, and only a single dusty town, Hanga Roa (with roughly 3500 inhabitants), which recalled to mind a 19th-century frontier town that had somehow been transported by cyclone far from its Wild West homeland and unceremoniously dropped down upon a fragrant tropical isle. But whereas Dorothy and Toto met the munchkins and the wizard of Oz, I met the moai – or at least a sizeable representation of them.
No amount of photographs or films can prepare you for the sheer scale and awesome majesty of these gigantic stone statues, Easter Island’s most famous denizens, coldly aloof and silent, their thin lips and haughty visage radiating Ozymandian disdain. Numbering over 800 in total, many are still inside the quarry, within the eastern volcano Rano Raraku, where they were originally hewn from tuff (an igneous rock ash). Some lie there fully formed, waiting for the acolytes that will never come, to transport them out of the volcano and down the slopes, to be erected with honour as protective icons upon a ceremonial stone platform known as an ahu. Once greatly venerated as the revered representations of their sculptors’ ancestral leaders, and also as the earthly vessels of their leaders’ spirits, even today the moai command respect and deference – it is illegal merely to touch one of these stupendous monuments.
Having said that, some moai have not even been detached from the inner rock face from which they were carved. Consequently, everywhere that you look within this volcano’s obsidian depths there is a surreal juxtapositioning of heads, noses, brows, elongate ears, and hooded eye-sockets, staring imperiously but sightlessly upwards and inwards at every conceivable – and inconceivable – angle, like a particularly febrile nightmare of Picasso, Dali, or Hieronymus Bosch.
Alongside a toppled moai with Rano Raraku in the background (Dr Karl Shuker)
A fair few did make the journey out, however, and today they can be found in many locations around the island. A number stand half-buried in grassy soil on Rano Raraku’s outer slopes, like a scattering of abandoned chess pieces on a giant’s forgotten chessboard. Others still lie in prone humiliation, where they were deliberately tipped over centuries ago by warring clans, but in modern times a select company have been raised and re-erected onto their ahus at various sites by teams of visiting researchers. With the exception of an ahu of seven moai at Ahu Akivi at the island’s centre, which look out towards the sea, all moai were originally erected by their sculptors near the island’s edge and faced inward, overlooking their clans as protective effigies. Such sites include Ahu Tongariki (restored with 15 moai) on the island’s southeastern edge, Ahu Nau Nau (with seven moai) at Anakena on its eastern edge, and Ahu Kote Riku at Tahai on its northwestern edge.
A HISTORY OF MYSTERY
Until Thor Heyerdahl’s famous first archaeological dig here during the 1950s, it was not generally realised that a moai is more than just a giant head. In reality, it is carved down the hips, with a pair of spindly arms and long-fingered hands pressed closely to its bulbous torso’s sides. However, so many moai were half-buried in soil and other deposits after centuries of gradual concealment by natural encroachment from sediment and plant life that their true nature was not realised until Heyerdahl oversaw the first scientific excavation of a moai, revealing its entire form.
One of Easter Island's most famous and much-photographed, half-buried moai, showing one of its characteristic long earlobes (Dr Karl Shuker)
With a moai inside a ring of stones (Dr Karl Shuker)
Like so much of Easter Island’s past, the history of the moai is enshrouded in controversy and mystery. Estimates as to when they were created vary by as much as a millennium depending upon the authority consulted. The current consensus (discounting Heyerdahl’s problematic views of a South American origin) is that the island was first colonised in the 4th Century AD, by seafaring Polynesians, who subsequently split into separate, independent clans or kin-groups, and began constructing ahus and carving statues of modest proportions a few centuries later. By the 15th Century, however, moai production had reached frenzied proportions, as indeed had the moai themselves – now monstrously huge. Then, so abruptly that many of these statues were simply abandoned where they lay, complete or still in various unfinished stages of carving inside Rano Raraku’s volcanic bowels, moai production ceased. This is believed to be due to increasing rivalry and hatred developing between the various clans, culminating in violent battles and, as highly symbolic desecration, purposefully toppling over each other’s sacred moai.
Another factor is the wholesale destruction of the island’s once-luxuriant native foliage, most notably the giant palm trees that were eventually felled across the entire island. Their sturdy trunks were used as rollers on which to transport the moai from Rano Raraku to their chosen sites elsewhere, but once the palm trees had vanished, the moai could no longer be moved.
ALIEN RAYS AND THE STATUES THAT WALKED…?
Having said that, tree-trunk rollers (and also sledges constructed from trunks) may well be the orthodox explanation for how the moai were moved, but it is not the only one that has been proffered. Highlighting the paranormal links to Easter Island, proponents of the ancient astronauts school of belief have suggested that visiting aliens transported and erected the moai using anti-gravitational beams released from their spacecraft. Another suggestion is that the natives somehow levitated the moai by harnessing electromagnetism. And my Rapanui-born guide noted that according to traditional native lore, the moai themselves very obligingly walked to their chosen sites during the night, utilising a special life-force called mana. Then again, she was smiling when she said this. In any event, the moai are certainly left strictly alone following the onset of darkness, because even during the sunny daylight hours many visitors have reported experiencing a dark, unfathomable feeling of oppression and apprehension when in the presence of these stark, brooding sentinels.
Some moai originally bore on their heads a huge ceremonial topknot or pukao, carved from red scoria rock transported from Puna Pau, a quarry in the island’s southwestern region. How these enormous blocks were raised onto the moai’s heads, well over 6 m high in some cases, remains unresolved. A few of the lately re-erected moai have their pukao in place, but these were placed there using modern-day cranes.
Moai with topknot and restored eyes at Tahai (Dr Karl Shuker)
Most intriguing of all, thanks to the unearthing of an intact example in recent years, is the realisation that the moai originally had eyes. These were made from white shells with pupils of black obsidian, but were destroyed or removed during the inter-clan battles that marked the end of moai production.