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Remnants of the Polynesians’ early presence are found all over the island, from stone towers once used by priests to chart the stars, to ancient superstitions that persist in the local psyche. Yet their most enduring legacy – one that brings 85,000 tourists a year to the most remote inhabited island on the planet, are the moai. These stone heads, with heavy brows and brooding expressions, are familiar to people the world over despite the fact that few could place Easter Island on a map. Indeed, for a time, they were more coveted overseas than locally: with the arrival of Catholicism in the 19th century, the moais’ spiritual significance waned and they were happily sold to passing whalers, explorers and tourists. London’s British Museum has its own stone head – the Hoa Hakananai’a was picked up by the British Navy on a surveying trip in 1868.

Hakananai’a once presided over the sacred village of Orongo. Round stone houses still sit partly submerged across the spit of land that now forms part of Parque Nacional Rapa Nui. Here, the island’s chief would pick boys from different tribes to compete in the Birdman contest, an event that finds its echo in Tapati. The tribes would live in the village to wait for migrating terns to appear on the horizon; the birds were believed to have been sent by the creator god Make Make, and as such were imbued with incredible spiritual power, or mana. The first boy to bring back an egg would win the competition for his tribal head.

Edmundo Edwards, a genial archaeologist with an anecdote ever-ready to burst from his whiskered lips, points to a small island a mile offshore. ‘The terns would nest there, so the boys swam out and lived in caves until they laid their eggs. According to oral tradition, there were so many birds, the sky would turn black.’ The winner of the Birdman would paint his body red and spend a year in seclusion at Orongo, in order to become part of the spirit world. ‘He was allowed out only at night and was forbidden from washing, shaving or any sexual contact,’ remarks Edmundo drily. ‘It wasn’t a very good prize.’ He leans over to inspect a Birdman symbol carved into a rock. Such petroglyphs are found all over the island and as far away as Hawaii; no-one is entirely sure of their origin. ‘Easter Island is one part of a giant cultural jigsaw puzzle, to be fitted together from pieces in New Zealand, Hawaii and all of Polynesia.’

What is certain is that many of Easter Island’s 887 moai were originally carved out of the soft rock found at the Rano Raraku quarry to the east of Orongo. Today, it is a kind of moai graveyard, with stone heads poking out of the ground at sheer angles and toppled bodies lying higgledy-piggledy on grassy slopes. The biggest rises over 20 metres tall. A nose or stiff eyebrow gradually appears in an apparently featureless wall of rock, testament to the work that took place here from the 14th century onwards. While the practice at Ranu Raraku is to leave the statues where they lie, other sites have been restored to approximations of their former glory. On a windswept bay in the shadow of the quarry, a stone platform, or ahu, holds 15 moai, resurrected in the 1990s. As elsewhere, the moai here at Tongariki are a visible demonstration of the power of each tribe, representing the spirit, and perhaps also the physical likeness, of their ancestors. One wears a distinctive squat red hat, or pukao, symbolic of supernatural power.

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