The Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Machu Pichu, the Moai; these monuments are some of the world’s most popular “cultural” destinations. But how much do we really know about the people that made them possible, and the cultures they represent today?

On this Saturday Around the World, we’re heading to the island of Rapa Nui; known to many as Easter Island. You may recognize this island for its iconic stone statues called Moai, but the cultural heritage that surrounds them is just as wonderful. So, let’s explore and meet those who are working to preserve it!

Image: A line of Moai statues on Rapa Nui also called Easter Island

Source: Pixabay

A Quick History of Rapa Nui…

This remote island off the coast of Chile was settled by Polynesian explorers around 800 AD, though this date is contested by the local legend that says Rapa Nui was initially settled around 450 AD. 1 The Moai, those famous giant stone statues pictured above, were carved and placed around the island from around 1000 to 1650 AD to represent important ancestral figures. 2

During this time, the population on the island reached around 20,000 Rapanui people. But in the following two centuries, warfare, environmental degradation, European colonization, and a scarcity of resources, decimated the population. By the mid-1800s, the Rapanui population was at less than 1000. 3, and today, only 800 native speakers remain. 4

Now, as a tourist destination and Unesco world heritage site, Rapa Nui sees more than 100,000 visitors a year. And this influx of people on this once remote island has a deep impact on the island’s culture.

Preserving a Legacy

Heu Rapu Haoa is one of those remaining native speakers. He’s on a mission to preserve the legacies, traditions, and culture of his ancestors. This beautiful short documentary, Amo, directed by Max Lowe, explores what all this change means, and how islanders, like Heu Rapu Haoa, are working to pass their knowledge and way of life down to the next generation.

“It’s in the strength of our roots that we must invest.”—Heu Rapu Haoa

As with everything, change will happen—it’s only natural. But there is strength in preserving heritage. In a quickly globalizing landscape, making sure traditions are passed down is critical to ensuring that the planet remains rich with the beauty of diverse cultures as the world gets smaller.

Exploring Rapa Nui

For a little more information on Rapa Nui and the Moai, take a moment with this short video from National Geographic.

What are we missing when we visit a place for just the destination, beaches, or photos? When we choose to see a place through our own lens, without experiencing traditions like language, art, food, music, or local folklore, are we really getting the full picture?

Learning the rich histories of the people who grew up, live, and work in these places is an essential part of understanding and appreciating them.

A Deeper Dive into Rapanui Culture and History

If you have a little more time, I suggest you take a few minutes to listen to this beautiful interview between Dr. Wayne Ngata, Matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Dr. Steven Zucker, co-founder and executive director of Smarthistory.

This video covers the beautiful history of the island dating back to the very first Polynesian explorers, and details the Moai’s deep significance and the richness of Rapanui culture. Of the many videos we came across for this article, this one most intricately described how much we lose if traditions like the native language are lost.

“Endangered cultures are minority cultures, and minority cultures require friends in dominant cultures.” —Dr. Wayne Ngata

Our experiences with one another are only made richer by the expression, celebration, and sharing of culture. In the face of changes like globalization, how can we learn to balance our own identities while embracing others?

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Histories, like those of the Rapa Nui people, add to the beautiful complexity of humanity. And we need stewards to carry on telling those stories and sharing them with the world.

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!

-Liesl

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Notes:

  1. Lonely Planet. “Subscribe.” Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet, n.d. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.lonelyplanet.com/chile/rapa-nui-easter-island/history>.
  2. Kahn Academy. “Easter Island Moai.” Khan Academy. Khan Academy, n.d. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/the-pacific/a/easter-island-moai>.
  3. Buder, Emily. “Tourism to a Dying Ancient Culture.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10 July 2018. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/564797/easter-island/>.
  4. Buder, Emily. “Tourism to a Dying Ancient Culture.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10 July 2018. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/564797/easter-island/>.
  5. The Atlantic. “A Tourist Attraction and a Dying Ancient Culture.” YouTube. The Atlantic, 10 July 2018. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcqBP5t4GvM>.
  6. “The Mysteries of the Moai on Easter Island | National Geographic.” YouTube. National Geographic, 23 June 2018. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KljZ28SXz0c>.
  7. “Voyage to the Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).” YouTube. Smarthistory. Art, History, Conversation., 09 Aug. 2017. Web. 19 July 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b06FwTP9TOU>.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

COO Ever Widening Circles

Liesl is a camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—yoga lover. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV