Navigation (By Liesl Clark)
How did the first inhabitants of
Easter Island arrive? It is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. The
coast of Chile lies 2,300 miles to the east, Tahiti 2,500 miles to the
northwest, and the nearest island, with a total population of 54 people,
is tiny Pitcairn island, 1,400 miles to the west. The answer lies in the
deeply-rooted traditions of Polynesian culture.
The people of the Pacific
are intimately tied to the ocean. They sailed the sea hundreds of years
before Europeans, using voyaging canoes crafted from island materials and
stone tools. The Polynesians approached the open ocean with respect;
indeed, the ocean was integrated naturally into Polynesian culture, as
they came from small islands surrounded by vast ocean expanses. No other
culture embraced the open sea so fully.
For the continental Europeans, on the other hand,
the ocean was looked upon as a menacing world that only the bravest
explorers ventured upon for long periods of time. And even these explorers
felt at odds with the ocean upon which they traveled. One of Magellan's
chroniclers described "a sea so vast the human mind can scarcely
grasp it." To a Polynesian islander, the world is primarily aquatic,
since the Pacific ocean covers more area than land in this region. The
Pacific, in fact, covers one third of the Earth's surface.
In island culture, the double canoe and its
navigator were integral to the survival of the people. As an island became
overpopulated, navigators were sent out to sail uncharted seas to find
undiscovered islands. For weeks, they would live aboard boats made from
wood and lashings of braided fiber. Thousands of miles were traversed,
without the aid of sextants or compasses. The ancient Polynesians
navigated their canoes by the stars and other signs that came from the
ocean and sky. Navigation was a precise science, a learned art that was
passed on verbally from one navigator to another for countless
In 1768, as he sailed from Tahiti, Captain Cook
had an additional passenger on board his ship, a Tahitian navigator named
Tupaia. Tupaia guided Cook 300 miles south to Rurutu, a small Polynesian
island, proving he could navigate from his homeland to a distant island.
Cook was amazed to find that Tupaia could always point in the exact
direction in which Tahiti lay, without the use of the ship's charts.
Sadly, Cook was never able to learn and document Tupaia's navigational
techniques, for Tupaia, and many of Cook's crew, died of malaria in the
Dutch East Indies. Unlike later visitors to the South Pacific, Cook
understood that Polynesian navigators could guide canoes across the
Pacific over great distances.
But these navigational skills, along with the
double canoe, disappeared with the emergence of Western technology, which
mariners the world over came to rely on. In 1976, the Hokule'a', a replica
Polynesian double canoe made by a team of Hawaiian canoeists, voyaged from
Hawaii to Tahiti using the ancient navigational techniques of their
ancestors. Ben Finney, a member of the team, explains their mission:
"Since by the 1960s Polynesian voyaging canoes had disappeared and
ways of navigating without instruments had largely been forgotten, those
of us who objected to Heyerdahl's ...negative characterizations of
Polynesian voyaging technology and skills ...concluded that we would have
to reconstruct the canoes and ways of navigating, and then test them at
sea, in order to get at the truth."
Using no instruments, the canoe team navigated as
their ancestors did, by the stars. They had no maps, no sextants, no
compasses, and navigated by observing the ocean and sky, reading the stars
and swells. The paths of stars and rhythms of the ocean guided them by
night and the color of sky and the sun, the shapes of clouds, and the
direction from which the swells were coming, guided them by day. Several
days away from an island, they were able to determine the exact day of
land fall. Swells would tell them that there was land ahead, and the
surest telltale sign would be the presence of birds making flights out to
sea seeking food. By sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti, Hokule'a's team was
able to prove that it was possible for Polynesian peoples to migrate over
thousands of miles from island to island.
With the success of this voyage came renewed
interest in old world navigation. More double canoes were built, and now
several teams are attempting to be the first to reach Easter Island, using
ancient navigational techniques. No one has navigated a raft or voyaging
canoe from Polynesia to Easter Island since the early settlers arrived
here in AD 400.
For the ancient Polynesians, finding Easter
Island, a small 64-square-mile speck in this vast ocean, must have been
like finding a needle in a haystack; but the Polynesian community today is
convinced their navigators intuitively discovered and settled this island.
"At the backbone of the maritime tradition lies the outrigger
canoe," explains Jo
Anne Van Tilburg
"the quintessential symbol of Polynesian mastery
of the sea. The outrigger canoe is today part of every Polynesian island
child's upbringing, except on Easter Island. There, the outrigger canoe
was lost sometime in the mid-1800s." Van Tilburg has been
instrumental in reintroducing three outrigger canoes to the island. The
islanders' loss of their sea-faring past, according to Van Tilburg,
"took away the traditional link people had with the sea."
For Van Tilburg, the Polynesian canoe is a
metaphor in her theories of how
the Easter Islanders transported and erected their 15-ton moai.
"It's not much different from erecting a mast on a very large canoe.
It's a transfer of technology from one industry to another. The people who
built these structures were both sailors and farmers, and they used their
sea-faring technology to help them in moving and erecting their
moai....Erecting a mast on a ship or a statue on a platform requires
similar abilities, skills and tools."
On average, they stand 13 feet high
and weigh 14 tons, human heads-on-torsos carved in the male form from
rough hardened volcanic ash. The islanders call them "moai," and
they have puzzled ethnographers, archaeologists, and visitors to the
island since the first European explorers
arrived here in 1722. In their isolation, why did the early Easter
Islanders undertake this colossal statue-building effort? Unfortunately,
there is no written record (and the oral history is scant) to help tell
the story of this remote land, its people, and the significance of the
nearly 900 giant moai that punctuate Easter Island's barren landscape.
What do they mean?Archaeologist Jo
Anne Van Tilburg, who has studied the moai for many years, believes
the statues may have been created in the image of various paramount
chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized
representations of powerful individuals. The moai may also hold a sacred
role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for
communication with the gods. According to Van Tilburg, their physical
position between earth and sky puts them on both secular and sacred
ground; secular in their representation of chief and their ability to
physically prop up the sky, and sacred in their proximity to the heavenly
gods. Van Tilburg concludes, "The moai thus mediates between sky and
earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods."
The moai and ceremonial sites are along the
coast, with a concentration on Easter Island's southeast coast. Here, the
moai are more 'standardized' in design, and are believed to have been
carved, transported, and erected between AD 1400 and 1600.
They stand with their backs to the sea and are believed by most
archaeologists to represent the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other
high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Easter
Island, or Rapa Nui, the name given by the indigenous people to their
island in the 1860s.
What is an ahu?
The word "ahu" has two meanings in
Easter Island culture. First, an ahu is the flat mound or stone pedestal
upon which the moai stand. The ahus are, on average, about four feet high.
The word 'ahu' also signifies a sacred ceremonial site where several moai
stand. Ahu Akivi,
for example, is an ahu site with seven standing moai.
The following statistics on Easter Island's moai are
the results of Van Tilburg's survey in 1989. She reported, "A total
of 887 monolithic statues has been located by the survey to date on Easter
Island...397 are still in situ in quarries at the Rano Raraku central
production center.....Fully 288 statues (32% of 887) were successfully
transported to a variety of image ahu locations....Another 92 are recorded
as "in transport," 47 of these lying in various positions on
prepared roads or tracks outside the Rano Raraku zone."
Number of Moai
- Total number of moai on Easter Island: 887
- Total number of maoi that were successfully
transported to their final ahu locations: 288 (32% of 887)
- Total number of moai still in the Rano Raraku
quarry: 397 (45%)
- Total number of moai lying 'in transit'
outside of the Rano Raraku quarry: 92 (10%)
Less than one third of all carved moai actually
made it to a final ceremonial ahu site. Was this due to the inherent
difficulties in transporting them? Were the ones that remain in the quarry
(45%) deemed culturally unworthy of transport? Were they originally
intended to remain in place on the quarry slopes? Or had the islanders run
out of the resources necessary to complete the Herculean task of carving
and moving the moai?
Size and weight of Moai
Measuring the size,
weight, and shape of the 887 moai on Easter Island has been a 15-year
process for Van Tilburg. The most notable statues are listed below:
- Largest moai:
Location: Rano Raraku Quarry, named "El Gigante"
Height: 71.93 feet, (21.60 meters)
Weight: approximately 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons)
- Largest moai once erect:
Location: Ahu Te Pito Kura, Named "Paro"
Height: 32.63 feet (9.80 meters)
Weight: approximately 82 tons (74.39 metric tons)
- Largest moai fallen while being erected:
Location: Ahu Hanga Te Tenga
Height: 33.10 feet (9.94 meters)
- Smallest standing moai:
Height: 3.76 feet (1.13 meters)
Van Tilburg's painstaking effort to inventory and
carefully measure the nearly 900 moai statues on Easter Island has enabled
her to construct a digital version of an average moai. This digital statue
has informed her hypothesis for a potential
transport method for moving the moai; the statue which Van Tilburg's
team will attempt to move and erect for the NOVA program has been made to
the exact dimensions of this digital moai. The dimensions are as follows:
Statistically average moai:
Height: 13.29 feet (4.05 meters)
Width at Base: 5.25 feet (1.6 meters)
Width at Head: 4.86 feet (1.48 meters)
Depth through body at midpoint: 3.02 feet (92 cm.)
Total volume: 210.48 cubic feet (5.96 cubic meters)
Center of gravity: 4.46 feet (1.36 meters)
Total weight: 13.78 tons (12.5 metric tons)
For more information on the Sights
of Easter Island, go to: