There are many things that give visitors pause when contemplating the realities of Easter Island. How did this tiny speck of land in the Pacific Ocean—2000 miles from the Chilean coastline—come to be populated? And how did the vast moai stone statues arrive at the ahus (ceremonial platforms) where they were erected? Visitors often find themselves asking questions such as: Did travelers really sail from Polynesia through the broad Pacific Ocean and happen to hit this tiny island in roughly the middle of nowhere? If so, how did they navigate here? How did they know the land was there, and how were they able to find it with such precision?
As for the moai, the statues which represent deified ancestors and which are often referred to by outsiders as being of “giant heads,” there is a great mystery about how they came to rest in their current locations, many of them several miles from Rano Raraku, the quarry where they were carved. There have been multiple scientific investigations into whether they might have been moved on a system of wooden sleds and rollers, or piles of rocks, or whether they were walked into place using ropes.
Though the science behind how it all came to be is fascinating to many visitors, many of these topics of investigation are probably best left to scientists. But something that even a short visit to the island is perfect for is contemplating is not just how these things came to happen, but why. Why did people risk sailing the open ocean, why did they dedicate their lives to carving the moai out of tuff, a compacted volcanic ash? Why did and do the Rapa Nui (as the indigenous people, island and language are all called) venerate these statues?
Easter Island: Mana
For many people, the answer all lies in mana, which is a concept shared among several Pacific cultures (for example, Polynesian, Melanesian and Maori). In Rapa Nui, mana has been described as meaning any of the following: knowledge, wisdom or a source of energy that engenders strength. And while it is said to have been directly inherited by the descendants of a few, deified ancestors, importantly, it can also be acquired. Early explorers are said to have been motivated by mana and carving the moai in reverence to the ancestors was another way to create mana. By doing so, people were also able to create a link between ancestors and current day descendants. Continuing to honor the moai assures distribution of mana to the people.
Mana has long been a motivation for many of the things that the Rapa Nui do. It is said to have secured their prosperity and their survival. It is what makes the crops grow, and it makes fish jump into nets and into boats. In a subsistence economy, before commerce and tourism came to Rapa Nui, these were of prime importance, and they continue to be important to this day, with parents continuing to teach their children about mana, together with teaching them where to fish or how to ensure a healthy harvest.
But Mana is not only about prosperity. It is also considered to be the source of talent and creativity. Continued mana is not only attributed to the moai, although you may see Rapa Nui visiting the reconstructed ahus. It is important to point out that every inch of Easter Island has history on it, and that historically, there were ahus and moai and permanent or temporary settlements on many different parts of the island. Many families have specific parts of Rapa Nui that they have a historical connection to, and they will return to these small bays and inlets to fish and harvest sea urchins or other shellfish, as well as camp out or have barbecues and spend time in nature. It’s a common practice to leave an offering on the rocks before leaving these areas. And all of these actions also impart mana. That said, mana is very individual, and different people even within the same family may have different locations on Rapa Nui where they feel mana, or a slightly different feeling about mana itself.
Visiting Easter Island
Which brings us to visitors to the island. Many people who travel to Easter Island say that they feel a sense of spirituality, of growth, of clarity or of connection with different spots on the island, or the island itself. For many people it’s an important place to visit at some point in their lives, and many visitors find themselves moved by the experience.
It might be on a hike on the north coast, or watching a sunset at Tahai, a streaky, brilliant sunrise at Tongariki, or a quiet walk through the quarry where the moai were carved, or maybe on a visit to the round magnetic rock at ahu te pito kura, or any infinite number of experiences visitors have here, but many people say they simply feel something. The vast majority of us are not descendants of Rapa Nui, and many of us have never even heard of mana before. Even so, it is worth asking whether the experience of feeling touched by a visit to the island is in some way related to this intangible force of mana that drives the Rapa Nui.
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