Off with your Head

Off with your Head

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is shrouded in the mystery of times gone by. It is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands and is situated some 4,200km east of Tahiti and 3,700km from Chile. Its closest neighbouring island is the Pitcairn Islands just under 2000 km away.

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It’s been made famous by its 900 gigantic Maoi that nobody can quite explain. There are many theories but the fact is that noone really knows why they were carved or how they were moved to the various sides of the island – some over 20 miles from the quarry. 

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The first Polynesian explorers set sail in 500BC on a great colonisation adventure. These initial explorers were from Tonga, Samoa and other adjacent islands and they reached and populated The Cook Islands, Tahiti, The Marqueseas, The Tuamotus and The Australs. Some 700 years later they set sail once again, this time reaching Hawaii between 200 – 400 AD, Easter Island between 800 – 1200 AD and New Zealand between 800 – 1000 AD. At this point in time Europeans were still worried about falling off the edge of the earth.

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Easter Island’s inhabitants created a thriving society and it is thought that the population reached 15,000 at its peak. Unfortunately overpopulation led to deforestation which in turn led to other problems (if you haven’t got wood, you can’t build canoes for fishing etc) which is thought to be the reason why the population dropped to between 2000 – 3000 by the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722. The introduction of the Polynesian rat which came with the explorers on the first canoes is also said to have been a contributing factor in the extinction of natural resources. 

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European disease and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860’s caused the native Rapa  Nui population to drop to just 111 in 1877. Chile officially annexed the island in 1888 in a bid to ‘offer protection’ against the slave raids. Judging by the atmosphere on the island today however, many Rapa Nui Islanders feel resentful of that decision.

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Many Maoi are toppled over, this is thought to be a sign of war between the tribes that carved them. 

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This is Rano Raraku, the quarry where the Maoi were carved. 397 remain in the quarry and it is unknown whether the ones standing here today were placed here intentionally or whether they were on their way to somewhere else on the island before disease and deforestation stopped their master carvers in their tracks.

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This is the only existing Maoi with a bum … What a claim.

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Before the arrival of Europeans, an annual competition called Tangata Manu (Bird Man) was held. Competitors would be nominated by island chiefs and their mission was to climb down the sheer rock face, swim over the shark infested waters to Motu Nui (the furthest island) and collect the first egg of the season layed by the Sooty Tern (Manu Tara) birds which migrated here each year. Once the egg was collected they would need to swim back to the mainland and climb up the cliff face presenting the egg unbroken. They were clearly either crazy or delirious due to protein deficiency. Have you seen that cliff?

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Legend has it that once the Tangata Manu winner was confirmed, many rituals and tapu were carried out. One of which was that his head, eye lashes and eye brows were shaved and he lived in total isolation for the following year apart from visits from the Ivi Matua (the spiritual leader) who would bathe him and provide him with food. Sounds awful if you ask me.

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A stone carving of Tangata Manu, representing a half man, half bird deity.

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The sea can get really rough here. I dread to think how competitors of Tangata Manu would have felt facing these monstrous waves with the knowledge that sharks lurk just behind the break.

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Something really special about the cliffs are the secret caves with picture perfect windows. You crawl in through a tiny and easily missable hole in the ground to discover an ever changing masterpiece. Being inside conjures up images of the residents of Rapa Nui sitting here looking out to the never ending ocean thinking that they were the only humans in the world.

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The reason behind the Maoi’s Pukao (hats) is much debated. Some say headdresses, others say turbans. My favourite theory is that the original pioneers of Rapa Nui were the inventors of top knots. There are also photographs showing residents with stretched ear lobes. Who would have thought that hipsters had been around for so long eh?

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