Polynesia could swallow up the entire north Atlantic Ocean. It’s that big.
Only half of one per cent of Polynesia is land, and 92 per cent of that is New Zealand. Then there’s Tonga and Samoa, the Cook and Hawaiian islands, the French possessions, and back in its own lonely corner, Rapa Nui, the famous Easter Island. Four and a half hours flying time to South America and six hours to Tahiti, Rapa Nui is a mote, a tiny place that feels tiny, forlorn, a footnote.
How in the world did proto-Polynesians cast their civilization from Papua New Guinea all the way to Rapa Nui in canoes, with thousand year old tech, sailing against prevailing winds and all odds?
If you think about it at all, you might suppose Rapa Nui was an accidental discovery, storm-damaged canoes drifting off course, perhaps, or voyages of exile dashed upon obscure rocks. Who imagines resolute, purposeful voyages of discovery on stone-age ships no match for the vastness of the sea?
I do. I fancy single-minded voyages of exploration carried out by well-provisioned scouts sailing with, say, a month’s food, who set out in the more difficult direction, “close to the wind.” If no land were found in a fortnight, when half the food was gone, they could sail home downwind, faster.
By the time Europeans first explored open water, the farthest bits of Polynesia – more than seven times the size of the Roman Empire – had already been settled. Let us not sell the Polynesian navigator short.
I think this is how, from Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes in Melanesia, the vastness of Polynesia was wound together, one island at a time, arteries from the heart.
When a voyage of discovery succeeded, the explorers would return to a heroes’ welcome and the king would set about settling the new land. How to provision the settlers? Ropes and reeds for the ships, patches for the sails, food for the journey, seeds and tubers for planting, domestic animals, pigs and chickens.
I imagine a royal council of elders gazing into a crackling fire, kava at hand, debating the necessary skills, selecting the best settlers. There must be canoe-builders, planters, stone masons. Wizened fishermen and promising apprentices. Daughters of child-bearing age. Tears would surely be shed.
A holy man privy to counsel from the gods, (a Tahitian tahu’a with special knowledge of navigation, perhaps), would be called to preside over ceremonies on both the home island and the new.
Today’s navigator consults his own oracles, the blinking, reckoning, chart-following machines on his bridge. And in Micronesia today, the art of navigation by the stars is still passed along orally, in the dark, on the sea, as it always has been.
In legend, Rapa Nui’s first colonizers arrived on two ships, one led by Hotu Matu’a, the other by Ava Reipua, Hotu Matu’a’s wife or sister, it’s unclear. Petroglyphs on a Rapa Nui cliff called Orango tell this tale. But how did they find this place?
In 1999, the Hawaiian historian Herb Kawainui Kāne and the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out to “discover” Rapa Nui using ancient methods and materials. Kāne and crew sailed from Hawaii via Mangareva to Rapa Nui in a canoe called Hōkūle‘a.
Polynesian canoes of exploration didn’t preserve well; scant evidence remains. Drawings from a 1773 British expedition that called at Rapa Nui show double-hulled canoes in the harbor. Excavated fragments of ancient canoes have turned up on New Zealand. A bog on Huahine near Tahiti yielded bits of a canoe. A petroglyph of a canoe at the Orongo cliffs suggests a possible ancient design.
Beyond these clues Kāne and the Voyaging Society found little hard evidence, so they guessed. They crafted a double-hulled canoe 62 feet four inches long, with a draft of two and a half feet and a sail area of 540 square feet.
Nainoa Thompson, the Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, devised a scheme for finding Rapa Nui at once straightforward and ambitious. Rather than hoping just to blunder onto a trifle of land, the Hōkūle‘a would approach from the west, targeting a box 300 miles by 240, two degrees on either side of 27 degrees south of the equator, the island’s latitude. It would sail the box top to bottom, zigzagging back and forth, hoping to pass within sight of Rapa Nui.
A crew member named Sam Low kept a dairy of the mission that glides through the stuff of a sailor’s days – sunrises, stacks of cumulus, sharks and sunsets. We thrill with the crew when just before dawn on October 8th, 1999, seventeen and a half days out of Mangareva, Max Yarawamai, the crewman standing lookout, spots a vague black line on the horizon and the crew celebrates with garlic eggs for breakfast.
Rapa Nui’s suzerain, Chile, is its own enigma. The Atacama Desert in Chile’s north is the driest place in the world. Places there have recorded no measurable rainfall for decades. Because of its altitude and aridity, the Atacama hosts the world’s most advanced telescope.
Though a Pacific nation, at the Strait of Magellan, its storm-hammered southern tip, Chile opens to the Atlantic. A settler described Tierra del Fuego as “65 unpleasant days per year along with 300 days of rain and storms.”
Between desert and strait, Chile’s skeletal finger points the distance from Reykjavik to Ankara, 2,675 miles, but is only 40 miles wide at its narrowest, barely the width of Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
In the Andes to the east Mount Aconcagua towers over all the Americas, at 22,841 feet the western hemisphere’s highest peak. Off the western shore the Atacama trench plunges 26,460 feet beneath the Pacific ocean. From trench to peak: 49,301 feet. Mt. Everest: 29,029 feet.
The length of the country, conical peaks serve as picture-perfect tourist lures. They can also be agents of epic havoc.
The ire of the mountain gods rose with the sun on a Sunday morning in winter, 1960. A 7.5 Richter predawn earthquake chased coastal Conception’s faithful to church and that was good, providential even, as people fled houses fated to collapse.
Another 7.5 crumbled the walls of old Conception just past two o’clock, rolling and shaking for four minutes. Andean ridges skittered and slid. Survivors fled to high ground but the high ground plunged into lakes. Six old and three new volcanoes brewed up, and all this, incredibly, was just the opening act.
7:11 p.m: the strongest earthquake in the history of the earth shook the Pacific Ocean, at 9.5, beyond human experience. Waves rocked the Pacific basin for a week.
Coastal villages simply disappeared under a ghastly eighty-two foot tsunami. Docks and coastal roads, desert to strait, fell into the sea.
Waves bent parking meters in Hilo, Hawaii, 6,600 miles away. Water drew back from the harbor seven feet below normal then bored back in in a flattening scowl.
Ten thousand miles from Concepcion tsunami waves destroyed the entire town of Shizugawa, now called Minamisanriku, and more than a hundred died elsewhere on Honshu, Japan.
Between Japan and Chile lay little Rapa Nui.
Rapa Nui’s famous statues are called moai, and the base on which a moai stands is an ahu. Ahus are holy places, ancestral graves. Likely as not you’ll hear admonitory shouts if you try to touch a moai or walk across an ahu. They are Rapa Nui’s patrimony.
The gods went bowling that day in 1960, scattering the moais at Tongariki two thousand feet inland and dashing their ahu to bits. The Tongariki moais are giants, the island’s greatest achievement, but the heavens’ pique cast them like matchsticks onto the plain.
Thirty years on from the earthquake, Chile’s President Patricio Aylwin sent a replica moai to the destroyed Japanese village of Minamisanriku. The Japanese crane manufacturer Tadano returned the gesture, sending heavy cranes to restore Ahu Tongariki. Until a quarter century ago, the massive Tongariki statues, the island’s iconic, unexplained, unforgettable images, still lay scattered.
We have saved Tongariki for the night of the full moonrise. Fabiola, in whose taxi we have come, is intent, no nonsense, a devoted smoker with one son at university in Santiago and her younger boy here on the island. Her university son will bring a telescopi from the mainland this year, her Christmas gift to her younger boy.
Fabiola demonstrates her expectations for the telescopi, cigarette between her fingers, arms apart and eyes wide, awed by what it will reveal. She must be right because you hardly need a telescopi. Just look to the heavens.
What a place to view the planets. Hardly a view-obscuring light for 2,300 miles. Just here, in a heartbeat, we follow where Fabi is pointing and find two fast-moving satellites.
Counterclockwise through the roundabout we catch the coast road. Children get dirty on the curb. Women on a veranda erupt into theatrical laughs. A slow rider clops by on horseback. We drive for half an hour at a leisurely pace because leisurely is the thing here.
The coast is close; the waves crash in. They’ve come a long way, got up a good head of steam.
Brine in the mist. Lick your lips and you taste it.
Horses graze on shore, unbound by fences. They’re not wild, exactly. They all belong to somebody, they’re branded. But since there’s nowhere for them to go, they go where they will. The surf pounding behind them frees you, too.
Horses and cows and a produce stand. This planted field and that on the inland side. We are running up the east road, sun casting shadows the length of the island, darkness creeping in from the sea.
Here, a moai has been toppled on the ahu where it once stood. Looks like they knocked it over in just such a way to add insult to injury, back broken at the neck in two pieces. Naked conflict, right here.
You read about violence in the late statue-building period and now you see it before you, its cruelty magnified by this smallest canvas. On Rapa Nui the most advanced instrument of war was the adze, a hand tool.
Stéphen-Charles Chauvet imagined it thus: “The attacking warriors set off before daybreak, followed by their women and children, who wailed or intoned ‘protective’ chants.” Women and children found seats along the neighboring slopes to watch the triumph or death of their fathers, husbands and brothers.
Arriving at Tongariki for the first time is hard to describe, an experience you can only have once. The Tongariki ahu aligns with a natural bay hundreds of yards wide, a moor gradually rising inland, a natural amphitheater.
The indifference of towering stones, far out in the Pacific, draws the three of us to quiet. The biggest moai of all is here. Eighty-six tons. Imagine.
The ancients got it and its siblings here somehow, rolled them on logs, rocked them side to side with ropes, somehow. It is just plausible because the quarry, on the slopes of the volcano Rano Raraku, is line of sight from here.
All the half-unearthed, nodding moais you’ve seen in pictures are up there, never finished, never extracted, never put into place, buried to the shoulders, never making their statement.
They say they built them bigger toward the end, perhaps growing more plaintive to the gods, perhaps making more desperate claims on immortality.
The moais’ obsidian pupils stare into the past. We assume a pilgrim’s pose at the base of the ahu. Isolated in the back corner of an obscure island, alone in the twilight, it’s a feeling unlike any other. It’s entirely unique.
A man taking pictures, one other man and a boy are leaving as we walk through one of the rusty turnstiles they’ve put up and long abandoned. Turnstiles?
Campers’ lanterns twinkle down along the shore and besides that there is no one. Only the full moon ascending through broken clouds, a crashing surf, the Rapa Nui moais and us.