Horses graze among large statues, known as moai, at Rano Raraku, the site of the quarry where the stone for the statues was cut.
Many on Easter Island Prefer to Leave Stones Unturned
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: January 9, 2007
RANO RARAKU, Easter Island — As remnants of a vanished culture and a lure to tourists, the mysterious giant statues that stand as mute sentinels along the rocky coast here are the greatest treasure of this remote place.
Commercial and political interests on Easter Island want to unearth and restore more of the moai, but many residents of the island regard the possibility with a mixture of suspicion and dread.
For local people, though, they also present a problem: what should be done about the hundreds of other stone icons scattered around the island, many of them damaged or still embedded in the ground?
Commercial and political interests, as well as some archaeologists, would like nothing better than to restore more — or perhaps eventually all — of the moai, as the statues are known. But many residents of Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island that is favored here, regard that possibility with a mixture of suspicion and dread.
“We don’t want to become an archaeological theme park, a Disney World of moai,” Pedro Edmunds Paoa, the mayor of Hanga Roa, the island’s largest settlement, said in an interview. “If we are going to keep on restoring moai there has to be a good reason to do so.”
The repaired and re-erected moai on display to visitors at the most popular half-dozen or so sites around Easter Island amount to fewer than 50. But estimates of the total number unearthed on the island have now climbed to more than 900 and keep growing as excavations continue, with nearly half of that total found at the hillside quarry at Rano Raraku, where the island’s original inhabitants mined and carved the statues out of compressed volcanic ash.
“Having so many is both a blessing and a curse,” said Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an American archaeologist who has worked here since 1982 and is the director of the Easter Island Statue Project. “Some are already lost, of course, but because there are so many, decisions are going to have to be made about which ones to save.”
Many of the island’s 3,800 residents argue that the moai already restored are sufficient to ensure a constant flow of tourists, the island’s main source of income. Tourism here zoomed to more than 45,000 visitors in 2005 from 6,000 in 1990 as airline flights have increased, but the influx is viewed as a mixed blessing because it has resulted in strains on public services and natural resources.
To restore even more statues, local critics argue, would only divert scarce resources from other scientific work that could reveal more about the culture that existed here for 1,000 years before the Dutch landed on Easter Sunday of 1722.
Nearly half of the island, which is about three times the size of Manhattan and has been part of Chile since 1888, has been set aside as a national park and is thus off limits to settlement and development. An additional 30 percent is a former sheep ranch, now in the hands of the Chilean government, whose use is also restricted, to the frustration of the island’s inhabitants.
Easter Island contains an estimated 20,000 archaeological sites, of which about 40 percent have been destroyed or damaged. But the more land that is protected or set aside for archaeological investigations, the less that is available to island residents for their own livelihoods.
“Some people complain, ‘Oh, I can’t plant, because some archaeologist says I need to protect that stone,’ ” said Sergio Rapu, a former governor and an archaeologist who has studied and taught at several American universities. “Others care more about their horses than the petroglyphs that the horses are trampling.”
Still, many of the people of Rapa Nui regard the moai as a nearly sacred link to their ancestors, thousands of whom were carried off into slavery by raids from Peru in the 19th century or died in epidemics. If they prefer to leave things as they are, one reason may be that they are not satisfied with what they have observed so far.
“Our elders ask what possible reason there can be to restore more moai, when we can see that those that have been restored are deteriorating more rapidly than those that are broken and still lying on the ground,” Mr. Edmunds said. “By exposing them to rain, salt, lichens and chemicals you merely make things worse.”
The best-known of the recent moai restoration projects took place in the 1990s and was underwritten with much fanfare by a Japanese company, which supplied a crane and other equipment. The job of maintaining many of the statues has been undertaken by German and American companies, which have also come in for criticism.
“To be blunt, the big chemical companies are doing experiments here,” said Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, a deputy of Ms. Van Tilburg and a native Rapanui. “They are not offering guarantees that there will not be collateral effects 30 years down the line.”
In addition, Chilean government officials estimate that it costs at least $500,000 to restore and maintain a single moai. “With more than 900 moai on the island, you do the math,” Mr. Edmunds said. “We’re talking about $500 million when I don’t have even a million dollars in my budget and a lot of people on Rapa Nui complain about being abandoned by the state.”
There have also been complaints about researchers who have failed to explain to local people what they are doing or to include them in their projects. “In the past the lack of jobs made local people not receptive to excavations,” said Francisco Torres Hochstetter, director of the island’s sole archaeological museum. “There was a lot of distrust, which even led to some people being detained while doing field work.”
Part of the debate may simply stem from sheer fatigue with archaeology and archaeologists. Ever since an expedition led by Thor Heyerdahl landed here 50 years ago, Easter Island has been a magnet not just for archaeologists, but also anthropologists, ethnographers, musicologists, botanists, biologists and art historians.
“As Rapanui we are tired of people coming here, investigating us and then going away with a ‘Ciao!’ and not giving anything back,” Mr. Arévalo Pakarati said. “What did Heyerdahl really leave behind for us? You have to share the benefits and not just leave me a chocolate bar. Those days are over.”