Twilight at Easter

Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island

by Jo Anne Van Tilburg
Scribner, 351 pp., $27.00


No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as did Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved. To begin with, the island is the world’s most remote habitable scrap of land, lying far out in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, 2,300 miles west of the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles east of Pitcairn Island. Rano Raraku itself is a volcanic crater six hundred yards in diameter, which I entered by a trail rising steeply up to the crater rim from the plain outside, and then dropping steeply down again toward the marshy lake on the crater floor. No one lives in the vicinity today.

Scattered over the crater’s walls are 397 stone statues, each representing in a stylized way a long-eared legless human male torso, most of them 15 to 20 feet tall, the largest of them 70 feet tall (taller than the average modern five-story building), and weighing from 10 to 270 tons. The remains of a transport road can be discerned passing out of the crater through a notch cut into a low point in its rim, from which three more roads radiate north, south, and west for up to nine miles toward Easter’s coasts.

Scattered along the roads are ninety-seven more statues, as if abandoned in transport from the quarry. Along the coast are 113 stone platforms that formerly supported or were associated with 393 more statues, all of which (until the recent re-erection of a few) were no longer standing but had been thrown down, many of them toppled and deliberately broken at the neck. Yet Easter Island’s Polynesian population had possessed no cranes, wheels, machines, metal tools, draft animals, or means other than human muscle power to move the statues.

Statues remaining at the quarry are in all stages of completion. Some are still attached to the bedrock out of which they were carved, roughed out but with details of the ears or hands missing. Others are finished, detached, and lying on the crater slopes below, and still others had been erected in the crater. Littering the ground everywhere at the quarry are the stone picks, drills, and hammers with which the statues were being carved. The scene gave me the sense of a factory all of whose workers had suddenly quit for mysterious reasons, thrown down their tools, and stomped out, leaving each statue in whatever stage it happened to be at the moment. Who carved the statues, how did the carvers move such huge stone masses, and why did they eventually throw them all down?

Easter’s mysteries were already apparent to its European discoverer, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who spotted the island on Easter Day (April 5, 1722), hence the name that he bestowed and that has stuck. Like all subsequent visitors, Roggeveen was puzzled, not understanding how the islanders had transported and erected their statues. No matter what had been their exact method, they would…

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