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Island of mysteries

May 11, 2010

Easter Island: The more I learn about this tiny volcanic triangle in the Pacific Ocean, the more mysterious it becomes. The island, it turns out, has 13 different football (soccer) teams each with their own strip. Thirteen, in an island just 24 kilometres long, with just one largeish village to speak of and a population of less than 4000 people.

There’s also a prison here, currently with 6 inmates, one of whom is a man who murdered his wife. There’s an island brewery, a large pineapple production plant and other industry, apparently. But we see no sign of them in the two-street village of one- and two-storey buildings.

Cycling around the island – very sore behind, now – we see a couple of gauchos on horseback, a few dogs and some wild horses. No people; no houses. I start to wonder if there are hidden villages lurking off the neat tourist map we were given. Perhaps, this isn’t an island at all…

Dirt tracks, dating back at least 800 years, criss-cross the island, many emanating from the quarry nursery. One theory was that the tracks were created as transport routes to take the stone men from the quarry to their alter sites. And that statues found on the route had been abandoned mid-journey. But this month, new geophysical surveys carried out by British archeologists seem to show that the tracks were ceremonial routes and that each ‘abandoned’ moai is next to the site of a sacred platform. The moai must have been intentionally stood at these sites.

So if the tracks are ceremonial, where are the practical roads leading to all these villages that are large enough for a football team? That is the biggest mystery of Easter Island.

Solving mysteries on Rapa Nui is something that some sectors of the local community would rather you didn’t. This week, a few locals have been arrested on the island for stealing scientific equipment belonging to foreign researchers and inadvertently damaging a moai. The locals (the Rapa Nui Parliament) were protesting against scientists working on relics that the Parliament says belongs to them. The scientists should have to pay the Parliament for the privilege, the protestors say. The equipment was being used by US researchers to investigate the way that humidity and associated lichen growth damages the statues.

The schism between Rapa Nuis who want to limit foreign (including Chilean) presence on the island and those who want to encourage tourism (which includes the mainland Chilean tourism ministry) is growing. The island’s ecosystem and social cohesion are fragile, and with hoards expected to descend on Rapa Nui during next year’s July solar eclipse (said to be the best place on the planet to view the solar spectacle), it’s likely that some will protest harder to preserve their mysterious home.

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