I can not only imagine but actually see how human forms sprang from the earth at Rano Raraku, the volcanic slope where nearly all the moai were quarried before being transported to their final resting places on every corner of the island. (How they were moved is another mystery: The most prominent theory is that, harnessed by ropes on two sides, the structures were rocked forward to “walk” to their destinations.)
No fewer than 397 moai still lie here in various states of completion, as if all the workers had simply vanished at once. Some are mere sketches, their silhouettes barely etched into the rocky slopes. A few lie on their backs, their elaborate fronts finished except for the eye sockets; others have already been cut from the bedrock, ready to be pulled upright, while many seem ready to start descending from the hill.
Made of tuff, or hardened volcanic ash, many of the gray statues have been largely obscured by centuries of erosion and landslides, with only their heads and their stoic faces exposed to the merciless sun. Their sheer size, which can reach 33 feet in height, is hard to fathom until I walk up close to an upright one and realize that its nose is about the size of my whole body.
Though Rano Raraku is one of the most visited sites on the island, all the tour buses have already left. As I amble up and down the slope, the statues obscure the few other visitors. At last, exactly what I came to Rapa Nui for: To be alone with the monoliths and take in the mystery that Neruda called the “kingdom / of the vast solitude, vertical / ruins.”
But instead of feeling joy, I panic. What if everyone else, like the stonemasons who abandoned the moai, really does disappear, leaving me stranded here by myself? Before coming to Rapa Nui, I wondered how prosperous and lavish this Polynesian society must have been to leave behind these engineering legacies. But as I gaze out at the ocean horizon, which stretches to no end, I begin to understand that perhaps it wasn’t excess but desperation that led to the creation of these artifacts. How lonely it must have felt, isolated by thousands of miles of sea, with no certainty that other humans existed beyond the craggy shores.
Wouldn’t I, too, spend my life carving eternal statues to keep my soul company?
Out of the darkness
The stone statues weren’t considered to possess mana, or spiritual power, until their eyes were carved and they were erected on the sacred platforms called ahu. I’m not particularly spiritual, but the largest ahu, at Tongariki, is such an awe-inspiring sight that I begin to feel something stir in me.
It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, and the full moon casts the shadows of the 15 colossal moai toward the sea. As I circle around Tongariki’s 720-foot podium, I’m reminded how small and inconsequential I am. I realize that what I’m feeling is not mana, but just humility. I could never build anything of this scale or permanence with my hands.