By Ciara Wing
Eighth-grade world explorer and competitive athlete who lives near Lake Tahoe
| After seeing pictures of impervious stone heads standing in a grassy plain with the ocean in the distance, I painted a picture of Easter Island. My imagined landscape was a tiny, isolated, uninhabited grassy island dominated by stony heads worn with time, a mystery just waiting to be uncovered.
Upon arrival, I was shocked to discover a town full of cars and bustling people. Our local guide drove us to our hotel and then on to see the heads. Contrary to my beliefs, there were trees, and the island was quite large. The whole place reminded me of Hawaii, but with more of the Polynesian culture still intact. To be fair, the town was still very small, and I definitely felt very far away from anything.
As we drove to the heads, or moai, along a smooth dirt road, our guide explained how the island has really evolved in the past few years with help from the government of Chilé. The airport was also fixed up when NASA extended the runway for them as an emergency shuttle landing spot. When the Polynesians first arrived sometime between 700 and 1100 CE, the island was covered in palm trees and dotted with lava caves. All of the palms were eventually cut down for building and other uses; one kind is now extinct! The native population was devastated when most of the people were taken from the island to be used as slaves in Peru. Legends explain many things including the technique for placing the moai, but many archaeologists doubt the accuracy of those stories.
Before visiting the moai, we stopped at the quarry for their stone hairdos. The fancy topknots are not usually shown in pictures, but many of the completed moai originally had them. The hairdos are cut out of softer stone than the moai. When a moai was placed upright on its spot over a chieftain’s grave, the eyes were put on, and the red hairdo or hat was placed on top of its head.
When we finally got to see our first moai up close, after spotting them in the distance near the beaches all day, the first thing I noticed was that they had bodies.
All seven of them were not just the heads that I had imagined them to be — each one had a torso too! Every moai had a different expression and slightly different features, and some were chubbier than others. After thinking about it for a bit I decided they were like an ancient Polynesian caricature. They all had prominent brow ridges and large noses with their arms on their sides and large belly buttons, but you could see their personalities and guess at how they really appeared to the artists. These particular seven were the only moai facing out to sea with no human remains buried beneath them. They may represent the seven original tribe’s leaders, looking back towards where they came from.
Thinking about all I saw and learned on this trip, Easter Island was even better than I had hoped. The history and legends were greater than I expected, the landscape was entirely the opposite of what I imagined, and the heads were not just heads!
About the Author
Ciara Wing lives near Lake Tahoe, California and competitively races in four sports: mountain biking, downhill skiing, triathlons, and adventure racing. She loves school, Dr. Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and reading. She has explored more than 50 countries. She starts high school this fall.