The Ghosts of Easter Island

In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond wrote of the mountain from which Easter Island’s Moai were sculpted, “No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku.” Diamond felt as if he had entered a factory “all of whose workers had suddenly quit for mysterious reasons.” The sense of abandonment doesn’t only hang over Rano Raraku. At Hanga Tee o Vaihu, just a few miles away, a statue lies completely intact, as if it, too, had suddenly been abandoned when something more important came along.

Easter Island is the world’s greatest sculpture garden, the work not of a single artist, or even a band of artists, but the work of generations, an entire people. What a pity that it is on the most remote inhabited island on the planet. On the other hand, that is its special appeal. Whatever the message of the Moai, it has to be whispered. Like ghosted notes in music. The world is too far away to hear.

What is the message? Like all oracular messages, it is ambiguous. The Moai stand erect, unbending, a few looking out to sea, but most, their backs to the world, looking island-ward. They are harbingers of order. Things are under control. Don’t worry. Everything is in good hands.

Then there is the chaos. Signs of ancient disruption are everywhere. At Hanga Tee o Vaihu, seven statues have been toppled, rocked forward so that their topknots lay strewn about like random boulders. To add insult to injury, blocks of the ahu, the platforms on which they stood, were strategically placed so that when a statue was toppled, it would be decapitated as well. How angry must one have been to decapitate a statue? Had the Moai failed their people? Chaos rolled in like a sea fog.

That is what is at the heart of my reaction to Easter Island. Amid all this natural beauty, this ceaseless sea, this eternal blue sky, these rolling green hills, as beautiful without their palms as they must have been with them, amid all this paradise, there are quiet signs of chaos, of riot, of violence, of disillusionment, of desperation, of despair, ultimately of resignation. As Dostoyevsky’s novels attest, humanity is capable of the greatest heights and the greatest depths. That is the lesson of Easter Island.

An archaeologist told me that Easter Island made him sad. He didn’t know why. It just did. I asked his colleague if Easter Island had the same effect on her. She said no. When she was back home in Chile, she felt nostalgia for the island. She missed the sound of the sea’s drumbeat against the shore. But when she was on Easter Island, she missed the noise of the city. She thinks of place in terms of its sounds. She told me that one day, when she was walking with her fellow researchers in the center of the island, suddenly, as if on command, everyone fell silent. They were listening to the absence of sound. That, she said, was the sound of the people who had lived there, the ones who raised the Moais. She told me that they all had this uncanny feeling of walking amid a crowd of ghosts, just like Jared Diamond. Diamond and the island’s researchers are right. Ghosts are everywhere: the ghosts of the people who raised the Moais, the ghosts of the trees that once covered the hills and the ghosts of the Moais that have yet to be restored, the ones that lie face down in the earth like prisoners of war.

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