South America Travel

Iorana Rapa Nui – Seeing is Believing

Location: Easter Island

Seeing is Believing



The Tahai site

There are numerous theories. Some hotly debated; others proven wrong. Still others, developing. Will we ever really know for sure how those ancient people managed it? How in the world did they move the giant statues (moai) of Easter Island 15 miles or more and what happened to the ancient people and their society?


I have spent the last week on this surprisingly beautiful island and I have been inspired and informed. What a most remarkable place it is. I feel so blessed to have been witness to it; knowing how few people will ever stand among the stone statues. To have been one is a true blessing.


By luck or fate, I know not which, we booked a hotel owned by an American man who has spent most of his life studying and restoring and developing his own theories of Rapa Nui and the statues. Paul Pownall ( imparted to us a wealth of information that our curious minds devoured and had us asking for more. Paul’s unique perspective on the culture, the history and the current Rapa Nui was a perfect mix of information, facts, stories and myths – as well as first hand knowledge.


This is the first in a series of blogs I will post regarding our amazing time on Rapa Nui – Isla de Pascua – Easter Island. (Watch for more blogs in the days and weeks ahead as I catch up, including blogs on the moai quarry, the Birdman, hiking, caving, dogs, sunrise and of course, food).


Our host Paul first came to Easter Island in 1968 at the age of 16 to spend six months with William Mulloy – one of a handful of archeologists whose work over decades on the island made an important impact.


The first site we visited in our tours with Paul (we toured with Paul and also stayed at his hotel, Tekarera, was the Tahai site. A stone’s throw from our hotel, this restored site is the closest to the town of Hanga Roa. During our week on the island we walked to town every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and always on the path right through Tahai. What a view to enjoy.



The original eyes would have been coral, but these are cement replacements

This restored moai (see photo) with the replica eyes is one that is often photographed and seen around the world. It is one of three ahu platforms at this early Rapanui village that was restored by Mulloy and his team, included our friend Paul. We learned from Paul that Tahai is a wonderful example of how the Rapanui lived in communities and families on such sites. Within the Tahai village are ruins of sleeping quarters known as “boat houses” because of their canoe shape, chicken houses, as well as other “replica” structures built recently.


As the first stop in our tour, the restored moai are of course the biggest attraction as you marvel at the size of them and wonder how did they get there? Only secondary are you aware of the importance of the ahu, the raised platform on which the moai rest.



Our guide and host Paul talking about the history and restoration of Tahai

The ahu serve as an important burial ground where bones were buried after cremation. Many of the raised platform ahu are built on top of older ahu and the majority still contains remains of ancestors of the Rapanui people. The island is dotted with ahu everywhere, many without Moai, and after a few days on the island you begin to easily pick out the ahu distinctly as they are different than other random piles of rocks or lava flows once you know what you are looking for.


The current most accepted theory on the how the moai were moved into place on the ahu – sometimes traveling 15 miles or more from the quarry on the other side of the island, is that they walked.


The walking theory holds merit over rolling or sliding or dragging because of the condition of the moai that safely made the journey as well as the numerous deserted moai that fell from the walking position and were left behind. The walking theory uses an analogy of moving a large piece of furniture in your home and how you tilt and turn and “walk” the piece upright using many different methods depending on the terrain you need to cover.



Mulloy’s Memorial

An accepted theory is the statues were carved as a memorial to chiefs and important people on the island. The leaders possessed powerful “mana” and their descendants placed the moai always facing inward (many people believe the statures face the ocean as protectors but this is incorrect) to watch over the people with their powerful mana life force. The walking theory promotes the important Rapanui belief that ‘mana” (a life spirit) was in each moai. If the moai toppled along the route from the quarry the mana was released and the moai no longer was good.  A moai’s mana is particularly important for afterlife as the moai watched over the people and protected them.


The Tahai site is a wonderful way to begin any visit to Rapa Nui and we were blessed (with pure coincidence) to choose a wonderful hotel so near to the site. We visited Tahai every day of our time on Easter Island. The Tahai village site also has a small memorial where Mulloy’s ashes are buried and he is remembered fondly for his contribution to the study and restoration of the moai and ahu of the island.



The older and smaller and rounder head found in the ocean

One additional item I found interesting at the Tahai sight was this smaller round head (see photo), which is very different in style and facial features than the standing restored moai. This head was pulled out of the water behind the large ahu and is thought to be significantly older than the others; supporting the theory that over the hundreds of years that the Rapanui culture was carving and transporting the stone moai the style changed and the skill-level developed.


As I will be writing several more blogs, hopefully more in-depth, about our adventures on Easter Island I thought I should give a quick history of the island and some significant events as they are known. These facts I have lifted from the book “A Companion to Easter Island” by James Grant Peterkin.


  • 3 million to 750,000 years ago – the island was formed by three separate volcanic eruptions giving the island its distinctive triangular shape
  • 10,000 years ago – the last volcanic eruption – long before human inhabitants
  • 700AD – first Polynesian settlers arrived from islands of a distance of at least 2000 miles
  • 1000-1600 AD – carving of the stones began as ancestor worship. The mana of the human spirit was believed to be able to influence the outcome of events long after a person’s body left the living.
  • 1722 – while searching for Terra Australis under the flag of the Dutch West Indies Company, Jacob Roggeveen stumbled on the island on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. The visit of the first white explorer resulted in skirmishes that killed 12 natives and thus began a demise in the cultural history of the people
  • 1770 Spanish Explorer Felipe Gonzalez laid claim to the island for Spain but never returned to collect
  • 1774 Captain James Cook and the HMS Resolution carrying a very sick and starving crew and Captain visited the island but stayed only briefly not finding fresh water or supplies they so desperately needed
  • 1770-1838 the visit of the three previously mentioned ships began what some historians believe was the demise of the culture and tribal warfare that resulted in the moai being toppled to release the mana. However other theories, including our friend Paul’s, believe the moai were toppled as a result of earthquakes and tsunamis during this period.
  • 1838 – the final year in which outside visitors recorded seeing statues standing
  • 1862 – Peruvian ships began capturing Rapanui natives and enslaving them to work in agricultural fields in Peru. Some 1500 slaves were taken
  • 1877 – the population of Easter Island had dropped due to slave raids and small pox from a one time high of 12,000 to only 111 people. Near extinction
  • 1883 – Easter Island annexed by Chile
  • 1903-1953 – the William Balfour Company leased the island from Chile for sheep farming and actually corralled the natives and forced them to work in the sheep farming trade.
  • 1914 – Katherine Routledge and the Mana Expedition began the first archaeological survey of the island
  • 1935 – Father Sebastian Englert arrived on the island and would spend the next 34 years as a missionary priest there. He is fondly remembered even today.
  • 1953 – After WWII the Chilean Navy occupied the island
  • 1955 – Thor Heyerdahl began his archaeological expedition on the island working to prove his pre-conceived theories, some of which he proved but many he did not. Mulloy was on this team with Heyerdahl
  • 1955-1978 – Mulloy did extensive work and research and restoration on many sites on the island
  • 1956 – Heyerdahl raised the first moai back into place at Anakena
  • 1965 – the Rapanui began a new era with the election of a mayor and in 1966 were granted full Chilean citizenship
  • 1967 – the first LAN fight landed on Easter Island opening up a new world with all the good and bad that comes with it.



If you have been to Easter Island or know additional details I encourage you to weigh in, as I am no IMG_2051historian or archeologist, rather just a curious traveler with a desire to share my experiences. I will be posting more in the days ahead.


Until then, Iorana and Mauru – uru.






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1 Comment

  • Reply John W. Holmaas

    I was completely thrilled/enthralled by our experience on Easter Island. It was one of those bucket list items I wanted to see and it did not disappoint. Only wished we would have had more time to spend on the Island.

    Amazing how the people got there … and some of their activities, like the wall climbs, etc.
    And Marching the statues to their locations.

    A fascinating place.

    January 4, 2019 at 12:37 pm
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