Around them is a pervasive smell of smoke from the still smoldering vegetation – the remnants of a wildfire in early October. More than 100 moai were damaged by the flames, most of them blackened by soot, but the effect on the stone remains unclear. UNESCO recently earmarked nearly $100,000 for assessment and repair plans.
In this Polynesian land now owned by Chile and commonly known as Easter Island, the loss of any moai would be a blow to ancient cultural and religious traditions. Each of the moai – about 400 on the volcano and more than 500 elsewhere on the island – represents an ancestor.
Carlos Edmunds, president of the Rapa Nui elders’ council, recalled his feelings when he learned of the fire.
“Oh, I started crying,” he said. “My mom and dad looked like they were on fire.”
It takes a close look at the map of the Pacific to find Rapa Nui, a small triangle that covers about 63 square miles (164 square kilometers). Home to about 7,700 people – about half of whom are Rapanui descendants – it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The fastest way to get there is a six-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, covering 2,340 miles. Much further to the northwest are the more populated islands of Polynesia.
Distance has shaped the community’s view of the world, its spirituality, and its culture. Its small size also plays a role: Everyone seems to know each other.
Rapa Nui was formed by volcanic eruptions at least 750,000 years ago. Its first inhabitants were sailors from Central Polynesia, who gradually created their own culture. The moai were carved between 1000 and 1600.
The first Europeans arrived in 1722, missionaries arrived soon after. Current religious activities mix ancestral and Catholic beliefs.
The arrival of foreigners had dire effects: Hundreds of Rapanui were enslaved by Peruvian raiders in 1862 and taken to South America, where many died in brutal conditions.
In 1888, Chile annexed the island and leased it to a sheep company. Although there are no written annals of Rapanui describing their early history, it was only in the 20th century that the islanders began to regain their autonomy.
Without such records, the Rapanui left their mark on their people’s memory in activities and traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. Even music is not just music.
“You write books; “We write songs,” said Jean Pakarati, chief adviser to the Ma’u Henua indigenous community. “Dancing is an expression, and that expression is history.”
Pakarati’s duties include assisting in the management of Rapa Nui National Park; The damage done to the moai within the park’s boundaries shook him.
“Anything that affects archeology, as you call it, is very important,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s a part of us.”
At 2 a.m. on October 4, when the fire was finally under control, those who risked their safety around the burning crater were untrained volunteers using shovels and stones, cutting trees and branches.
The fire covered 254 hectares (about one square mile). It originated on a cattle farm, far from the volcano, but the wind brought the flames to Rano Raraku.
Each moai hides valuable information about his tribe. When an important Rapanui died, some of his bones were placed under the ceremonial platform called the ahu, and a master had the possibility of respawning a moai toy spirit like him. Thus, each moai is unique and bears its own name.
When the moai were carved, the island was divided according to clans, but most of the statues were made in Rano Raraku. Ahu was built close to the sea.
It is unclear how the moai, which average 13 feet (four meters) high and weigh many tons, were transported to their ahu. One theory is that they were moved as if they were standing, dragged in small turns, like in a refrigerator.
The Rapa Nui council of elders, headed by Carlos Edmunds, brings together leaders whose predecessors were born in the Rapanui tribes. Among other responsibilities, Edmunds, 69, fights for the island’s autonomy, prevents the sale of land to foreigners and insists that certain areas be regulated solely by Rapanui.
His ancestors were born in Anakena, where King Hotu Matua is believed to have landed 1,000 years ago, a beach with white sands and clear waters.
When Chile leased the island, the foreigners who took over took all the Rapanui tribes’ property, but a few ahu and moai can still be seen in the lands they used to control. Edmunds recently visited the moai carved by his ancestors in Anakena; she says that the protection of her loved ones never left her.
Between the arrival of Europeans and the mid-19th century, all moai planted on platforms were overturned, perhaps due to environmental factors or neglect. Major restoration projects and archaeological research led by foreign experts began in the 1960s and 70s.
Rapanui historian Christian Moreno said many islanders at the time did not understand why foreigners were so attracted to statues that no longer serve a specific religious or cultural role.
Gradually, Moreno said, he began to explore the collective memory of the community, talking to the elders, and – gradually – getting the moai’s history.
“Then the Rapanui realized once again that the moai represented ancestors who walked on the same land as us, breathed the same air as us, and saw this ocean,” Moreno said.
Now in Rapa Nui, people can trace a family history by knowing only their surnames and where moais bearing their ancestral name were placed.
The mayor of Rapa Nui, who has served for 25 years, is Pedro Edmunds, brother of Carlos Edmunds. He worries about the future of his community, but he also has hope.
“Our daughters and sons have not lost their essence of being Rapanui, and this assures that this culture will have a future,” he said. “We are a society that respects its environment and takes great care of its culture”.
This culture includes the Rapanui language, which consists of only 14 letters. Yet a single word can simultaneously embody metaphor, parable, and philosophy.
“Many times I asked people from other countries: who are you? They all tell me their names,” said Jean Pakarati. “When someone asks me this question, my answer is ‘I am Rapanui’.”
Associated Press religious news receives support through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. Only AP is responsible for this content.