The Ahu are sacred sites. At first glance, they appear like a stone platform with a moai sitting on top. Nevertheless, inside, they are home to tombs where the remains of the leaders of each family were laid to rest. Every single one boasts its own unique characteristics, but they all reflect the importance of respecting and protecting the memory of our ancestors. For example, Ahu Tongariki, on the eastern end of Easter Island, is one of the most impressive, with 15 moai. Ahu Akivi, at the foot of Terevaka volcano, is the only one whose seven moai look out over the sea, celebrating the memory of the seven young sailors who departed from Polynesia in search of the island in the sixteenth century, as the oral tradition would have it.
At the end of the day, travelers often get together in front of Ahu Tahai, in Hanga Roa, the island’s biggest town, to watch the sun set exactly behind the moai. The ritual is repeated day after day, not only because tourists hope to snap a photo in the long shadows cast by these figures, but also because in some way, you can feel the Mana come alive, the mystic power of our forebears on Easter Island, emanating from the most profound depths of each Ahu.
Rapa Nui was born of violent volcanic eruptions which forged the island’s geography in fire and lava. Nowadays, none of the volcanoes on the island is active, which means that they have played an essential role in the development of the Rapa Nui culture; their craters contain the freshwater necessary to live (Easter Island has no lakes or rivers), which is why they have been christened with their own name: Rano.
On one of the far ends of the island is the Rano Kau crater. Inside, some 250 meters down, water accumulates, in which small islands formed by cattail reeds float, where rainwater is stored, so it does not flow out into the Pacific Ocean. The birds migrating from the mainland are undoubtedly thankful for this water source.
On the other end of Easter Island rises up Rano Raraku volcano, where freshwater accumulates in the crater. It is the same volcanic cone that served as the quarry furnishing the rock from which the moai were carved. They have found 397 of these sculptures at the skirt of the volcano in different stages of progress. Some, with their head down, as if they were just emerging from the mountain, Others, rising slightly above the surface, leaving their real size up to the imagination.
The motu, those islets facing the southwestern end of Easter Island, were the stage for worshiping the birdman. The most impressive of these is Motu Kao Kao, a nearly 20-meter-tall rock that rises up like a stake in the middle of the sea. In the high seas, a bit further out, is Motu Iti, which is more protected, so it offers better conditions for scuba-diving and snorkeling. Its waters are so clear that visibility can reach 60 meters.
Finally, Motu Nui is the peak of a huge mountain rising up over 2,000 meters from the seabed. Its location is important, because it was to there that the competitors in Tangata Manu had to swim, as part of the ceremony in which representatives of the different lineages sought to capture the first egg of the manutara seagull. From Orongo, on the summit of Rano Kau volcano, the contestants had to descend from the cliffs to the sea and swim out to Motu Nui, where the legendary bird, a symbol of good luck, preferred to nest. Once the contestant got the egg, he had to swim back to the island as quickly as possible, traversing the more than 1,500 meters separating Motu Nui from the island, and then climb up the cliffs of Rano Kau and deliver the trophy to the judges. The winner was proclaimed the birdman, the reincarnation of the creator-god Make Make, and earned a series of privileges for the subsequent year for himself and his tribe.
Motu or Pope, on the edge of the southern coast, is one of explora’s favorites. Unlike the bigger motus where the birdman competition was held, Motu o Pope is no bigger than a meter tall. Located on the seashore, it forms a perfect pool where you can float and let your mind wander.
With these three terms alone—Ahu, Rano, and Motu—, it’s not enough for us to decipher the code of Rongorongo, the ancient system of Rapa Nui writing, but learning more about their history sets us on the path to a more profound exploration of Easter Island’s volcanoes, coastlines, and seas.