Easter Island's moai statues face environmental threat

If you have always been intrigued by the mysterious moai - the giant stone statues of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island - and they are on your must-do list, do not delay.

Easter Island's moai statues face environmental threat
Seven moai of Au Akivi [Credit: ABC/Greg Wilesmith]
Make your way, whenever you can, to this small, rocky, triangular-shaped and extremely isolated island in the South Pacific, 9,354 kilometres due east of Brisbane.

"These objects are very friable, they're fragile, they're not going to last forever," Dr Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an American archaeologist who has been studying the moai for 30 years, says.

Dr Van Tilburg's co-director at the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristian Arevalo Pakarati, says there is evidence time is running out.

"I've been seeing already in 27 years statues being degraded to the ground," he said. "It's melted to the ground. It's soil now. It's not a statue anymore."

Rapa Nui, a colonial possession of Chile, is particularly open to severe weather.

"We have the rain, we have the strong wind, we have these extreme temperatures in summer and winter where, for example, the statue would be exposed to the sun for eight hours with a very strong heat and then suddenly a cloud would appear," Mr Pakarati says. 

"You can imagine the reaction of dropping (water) onto a very hot surface, so that would provoke a lot of breaking, microscopic breaking at that point, little by little on the surface of the stone."

Dr Van Tilburg says the threat to the moai is very serious.

"We have a database that we can go back and look at the pictures of the statues whenever we feel like it over the years, and we can see when we visit them in the field that they don't look the same," she said. 

"Details are gone. But they live in Cristian’s drawings, they live in our photographs, they live in our biographies, our records."

Scientists track weather patterns to find cause of erosion

Dr Van Tilburg and Mr Pakarati have documented and mapped every moai on Rapa Nui – all 1,045 of them.

Easter Island's moai statues face environmental threat
The classic Easter Island profile [Credit: ABC/Greg Wilesmith]
Their current focus is moai 156, which they have been excavating in the inner crater of the extinct Rano Raraku volcano.

A small weather station has been erected in front of it.

"We're monitoring the ambient temperature, the rainfall, the sun, the temperature, the wind direction, the wind velocity, all of these things," Dr Van Tilburg says. 

"And at the end of a five-year period, when we complete our work in this, in this particular quarry, we'll be able to report what we know is attacking the statue."

Since the oldest moai may date back as far as 900 years, it is perhaps not surprising that some have not aged well.

Many of those that were erected on ceremonial platforms, known as ahu, and closest to the coast, are quite battered.

The definition of elongated ears, deep set eyes, long hands fashioned into wings and heads have been eroded or in some cases obliterated.

Equally, though, some statues, made of the hardest rock and in sheltered locations, remain in good shape. Some stand tall in dramatic locations, others are leaning over or lying back in the grass as though enjoying a siesta in the sun.

A significant number no longer stand, having either fallen or possibly been pushed over in the tumult of clan warfare. Face plants are common, particularly alongside the paths on which the multi-tonne monoliths were being transported to pre-determined locations.

Coral-eyed statues pass on power of ancestors

Rapa Nui was settled by Polynesians who had sailed thousands of kilometres across the Pacific.

Easter Island's moai statues face environmental threat
The only moai with eyes [Credit: ABC/Greg Wilesmith]
About 1100 to 1200AD their society, which had evolved in isolation from the rest of the world, embarked on an extraordinary period of religious and artistic expression.

Using stone tools, Rapa Nui people carved out of volcanic rock increasingly large and elaborate representations of their ancestors.

The moai were believed to have supernatural powers and were placed so as to watch over their clans and lands.

They were said to pass on their full power – or mana – when fitted with coral eyes. Only one moai at Tahai, near the island's only town, Hanga Roa, has eyes permanently in place.

But even without them many moai, by virtue of their exceptional size and expression, project power.

"There are some Rapa Nui people who have said to me, if the statues are dying that’s natural," Dr Van Tilburg said.

"The body over time will cease to exist. That's one point of view. There's another point of view which says that once the spirit is no longer in the statue, the statue itself is of no value."

She does not share that view.

"I care what happens to it (the moai) and so do conservators and archaeologists and the vast majority of Rapa Nui people. Because it's an icon, it's a symbol, it's something that recalls the tremendous effort that was made by people on this island to express themselves, to speak in one voice, which is a tremendous human accomplishment."

Process of conservation' needed to protect cultural icons

Mr Pakarati says that the moai have been an enormous gift to modern Rapa Nui people, driving Chilean and international tourism, which is the "wheel" of the local economy, providing accommodation, food and services for more than 50,000 people a year.

Easter Island's moai statues face environmental threat
Excavating moai 156, known as Papa [Credit: ABC/Greg Wilesmith]
Therefore, he says, at least some of the moai need to be protected.

"Like under a dome or at the museum or in a chamber or whatever," he says. "If you are not allowed to do that maybe group some of them right there in the field without moving them. Put something on top."

Interim protection is being trialled in the form of a chemical water repellent which has been applied to the surface of some of the moai. In the longer term more radical options might be needed.

Dr Van Tilburg says: "Could a museum be built on the island within which five or six, perhaps - statues of the most importance - could be taken and erected and protected? Yes, that's a real option and that should, in my opinion, be considered."

This is a contentious issue for Rapa Nui people, for whom the moai have deep cultural significance.

Mario Tuki, a clan elder and an MP in the local parliament, which is campaigning for independence from Chile, says there needs to be a "process of conservation" because the erosion process has already started.

"If the idea is to take them to a museum, so archaeologists can repair them, I have no objection to that," he said. "Take them, repair them. But you must bring them back to their place. This is the land of the moai and our ancestors."

Authors: Dominique Schwartz and Greg Wilesmith | Source: ABC News Website [September 24, 2013]

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