Last month I was privileged to travel to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. The isle is a speck in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, 2,190 miles from the Chilean coast. The Pitcairn Islands are 1,290 miles away; Tahiti, 2,700 miles distant. It’s one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, with perhaps 10,000 people visiting or living there at any one time.
The Island pulsates with color and ancient magic. Its interior, deforested centuries ago, is dominated by brilliant green meadows, fields, and brush interrupted by red-grey volcanic rock, surrounded by a hallucinogenic-blue ocean with an endless horizon. There are few animals, apart from the steady presence of free-range cows, horses, and dogs.
Most astonishing are the almost 900 moai, some 33 feet tall, weighing 82 tons, that stand alone and in rows, or toppled facedown into the dirt. The immense stone blocks, carved hundreds of years ago into head-and-torso figures, bear powerfully silent witness to a largely unknown past. Why they were built, how they were erected, and why most were ultimately knocked down is mostly undiscovered. One theory has it that famine prompted the Rapa Nuians to question why so much effort was being expended to create the statues, which didn’t fulfill their essential purpose of safeguarding prosperity. They were pushed facedown, eyes and nose in the ground, to extinguish whatever lingering power they possessed.
Equally mysterious is how Rapa Nui was originally populated, and ultimately depopulated. Evidence indicates that early inhabitants were Polynesian. Somehow, they were able to find the tiny land dot, and travel on modest-sized wooden craft over hundreds of miles of uncertain ocean with sufficient supplies to create lasting settlements.
The subsequent deforestation and collapse of a society capable of creating immense, sophisticated, monuments may have been caused either by aggressive overharvesting of the Easter Island palm – an essential ingredient for food, shelter, and boatmaking – or the proliferation of rats, introduced by the islanders when they first arrived, which gobbled up the palm seeds necessary to regenerate the forest.
The coming of slave-mongering European adventurers, with their nasty diseases, no doubt served as the coupe de grace to an already deeply compromised culture. It’s possible that the moai, seeing what was happening to their once proud acolytes, face-planted themselves in shame.
It’s hard not to think of Rapa Nui as a metaphor. As we plastic-pollute our own Earth Island to a hot catastrophe we distract ourselves by erecting different kinds of head-and-torso figures, mostly on social media. Thousands – maybe hundreds – of years from now, what will tourists from another planet make of our changed but still beautiful Earth, and its mysterious monuments? Before then will we have toppled Facebook as a false god, ultimately forgetting why we’d been so intensely devoted to it? What other beliefs are we worshipping, sacrificing our attention and intention to, using as a distraction to avoid having to deal with accelerating ecosystem erosion and social disfunction?
Rapa Nui infiltrates the subconsciousness, tapping into the earliest of genetic memories, as if its already inside us. It’s easy to contemplate returning to the Island, in mind or body, to revisit a gorgeous, titillatingly terrifying, unknowable past that may be our future.