Easter Island: One of the lands that time forgot

Some places haunt the imagination. The mystery and allure of remote destinations – increasingly easier to visit in a world that can be explored by both real and virtual travellers – captivate and enchant.

American physicist Richard Feynman (left) tells how, as a boy, his father interested him in stamp collecting. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Tuva Republic began issuing postage stamps. The stamps (right) were produced during a brief period of Tuvan independence and had many philatelists in a furore, as they did not conform to philatelic standards. Tannu Tuva now is part of the Russian Federation and lies at the geographical centre of Asia, in southern Siberia. Forests, mountains, and steppe make up a large part of its landscape.

In the late 1970s Tuva was still isolated by its mountainous geography, making it a tempting object of adventure in Feynman’s mind. Determined to find a way to journey to Tuva (right) and see the fabled land of his childhood memories, he researched all the available literature written on Tuva and made plans to go there. Feynman’s fascination with what he imagined as a lost land and his efforts to reach it are chronicled in the book Tuva or Bust! (1991) by Ralph Leighton and the video The Quest For Tannu Tuva: Richard Feynman – The Last Journey of a Genius (1988). Sadly, cancer put paid to his dream.

The captivating memory of my own childhood is Easter Island. Located in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is a special territory of Chile that was annexed in 1888. It is famous for its 887 monumental statues, called moai (left), created by the early Rapanui people. The name “Easter Island” was given by the first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Sunday 1722, while searching for another island. The current Polynesian name of the island, Rapa Nui, “Big Rapa”, was coined after the slave raids of the early 1860s.

Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon-Tiki fame) led the first archaeological expedition to Easter Island in 1955-56. Noting that at some unidentified date prior to 380 CE the first settlers landed on Easter Island – discovering a verdant island covered by trees, shrubs, and palms – Heyerdahl proved that there were three separate epochs in the island’s history. Archaeologists have named them Early, Middle and Late Periods. In the Early Period there was no production of giant statues, only altar-like elevations of very large, precisely cut and joined stones, erected with their façades towards the ocean and a sunken court on the inland side. They were astronomically oriented and constructed by highly specialised stone masons who mapped the annual movement of the sun in their religious architecture.

Not until the Second Period were the well known Giant Statues quarried and placed on the platforms. Archaeologists believe that during this period, around 1100 CE, the Birdman Cult marked the beginning of the large ancestor statues. Over less than six centuries, more than 600 giant statues were carved from quarries after the forests had been cleared. At the peak of statue production islanders were able to erect statues up to 40 feet tall, weighing more than 80 tons, and balance a red stone cylinder hat, weighing up to 12 tons, on top of its head.

Today, Easter Island is a tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But it retains its mystery, only partly explained, perhaps, in books and documentaries. One of the best is The Lost Gods of Easter Island, a BBC documentary written and presented by Sir David Attenborough. First transmitted in 2000, it sets out to discover if a carved wooden figurine really came from the island French ethnographer Alphonse Pinart – in his book Voyage à l’Île de Pâques (1877) – called the “Navel of the World”.

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