A Heady Experience

Easter Island
Giant sculptures dominate the landscape and add some unsolved mystery to Easter Island, Chile. (Maryann Haggerty - By Maryann Haggerty/The Washington Post)
By Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005

Anakena Beach is a glittering little palm-fringed cove where families picnic beside the white sand. As one of my fellow visitors observed while we sipped pisco sours -- the high-powered alcoholic drink of Chile -- Anakena looks the way the South Pacific is supposed to look.

Unlike any other pretty beach in the world, though, it sits below a row of Easter Island's famous moai, the giant stone statues that eternally stare at passersby. Even while children shout, Europeans sun and local women hawk snacks and drinks, those ancient presences loom, dignified and more than a little spooky.

On such a small island -- the most remote permanently inhabited spot on the globe, some 2,300 miles off the South American coast -- you can't avoid other human beings, either the living or, overwhelmingly, the long dead.

My husband and I visited recently because we had happened upon a bargain deal from an Internet travel agency that combined a few nights in Santiago, Chile, with three nights on Easter Island, a whirlwind trip to a place that could well be considered the end of the Earth. (The native people, looking from the opposite direction, once viewed it as the center of everything. One spot is called Te Pito o Te Hen ua , or the navel of the world.)

Let's be clear about this: Three nights is not enough time for a relaxing journey to a unique place, no matter how small. With a visit that short, there are things you give up -- mostly interaction with contemporary residents, in favor of their ancestors.

Still, three nights is what most people have, because Easter Island usually is part of a longer South Pacific or South American trip. Just about any mainland Chilean who hears that you are heading there has the same reaction: "Ay, es muy linda!" -- it is very beautiful. That may have more than a little to do with national pride, because most of the island is not beautiful in a conventional way. There are no lush tropical forests. Most beaches are black and rocky, and monotonous grass covers the sides of dormant volcanoes. The sun is strong, and the wind never seems to stop.

But it does have the moai, and for me, that was enough.

On Easter Island, a triangle-shaped volcanic upthrust 13 miles long and 10 miles wide, a society once developed unlike any other on the planet. Prehistoric people who never discovered metal tools carved massive statues out of volcanic rock. The biggest one was more than 30 feet tall. There's an unfinished one that would have been about 65 feet. The best guess among scientists is that statue building began around 1100 and continued into the early 1700s.

Somehow, the people moved the statues for miles from the crater where they were carved and stood them up. They were centers of ceremony, focal points of power and memorials to the revered dead. As the centuries went on, each generation of statues was more immense. They were the ancestors, and my ancestors were bigger than your ancestors.

And then, at some point, for some reason, the people knocked them all down.

By the time European explorers, slavers and missionaries arrived in the 18th century to deliver the final blows, the island was in miserable shape. There were no trees. Food was scarce. Many animal species were extinct.

Modern archaeological theory holds that Polynesians, sailing from the settled islands far to the west, happened upon lonely little Easter Island just once. Their descendants lived in isolation for centuries. Almost all the statues faced inward, toward the people who built them, not out to sea, whence no one ever came.

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