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Can Easter Island’s treasures withstand storms of climate change?

Spectacular giant statues evoke history and mystery on Easter Island, a place that has symbolized what humans can achieve and then destroy. Now everywhere you look on the island, home to about 6,000 residents, there are signs of coastal erosion and dangers of climate change. As part of our series Culture at Risk, Jeffrey Brown reports on efforts to document and preserve their heritage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, what humans build, what humans destroy.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us to a magical spot in the South Pacific for his series Culture at Risk.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's one of the most spectacular sights in the world, the 15 giant statues, some as tall as 40 feet, at Tongariki on Easter Island.

    The island, called Rapa Nui in the Polynesian language, is one of the most remote inhabited spots on Earth, some 2,200 miles from the coast of Chile. The statues, called Moai, are said to portray the Rapa Nui ancestors and evoke history and mystery.

    UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg has worked here for more than 35 years.

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg:

    To me, they're a challenge. To me, they're friends in a lot of ways. To me, they're frustrating and upsetting and difficult.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Because?

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg:

    Because they elude me sometimes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The statues were made from around 1100 to 1600 A.D., from hardened volcanic ash called tuff, and most were carved here in the Rano Raraku quarry, where Van Tilburg and her Rapa Nui colleague, Cristian Aravalo Pakarati, have been excavating two statues, while they document the more than 1,000 others around the island.

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg:

    Once the Rapa Nui people discovered this material, I think that the process and the progress of carving increased very quickly, because it's a remarkable material, wonderful for sculpture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The people who carved them arrived here from Pacific Islands to the west beginning as early as 940 A.D. The Rapa Nui people survived and thrived. The population may have reached 15,000 to 20,000.

    But something, or things, happened. Just what is still much debated. An overuse of resources, including cutting down forests. The importation of seed-eating rats on the Polynesian canoes. Civil wars among the people here that left the Moai toppled.

    All the statues we see standing on ceremonial sites today have been restored since the 1950s, this one by the famed explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

    Finally, the coming of Europeans, first on Easter Day in 1722, thus the island's name. Easter Island became a symbol of what humans can achieve and then destroy. And it is once again today. The new threat, climate change.

    Laura Gallardo directs the Center for Climate and Resilience Research at the University of Chile.

  • Laura Gallardo:

    Easter Island is already interesting because it's a sentinel of changes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A sentinel of changes, meaning what?

  • Laura Gallardo:

    That you can learn about the changes that are going on. And it is a very sensitive place, so you're going to have a signal relatively early on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean from climate change?

  • Laura Gallardo:

    From climate change.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oceans rising.

  • Laura Gallardo:

    Exactly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Stronger surges and storms, new wave and wind patterns, everywhere you look, signs of coastal erosion.

    Unlike some Pacific islands, much of Rapa Nui is on higher ground, the windswept plains and extinct volcanoes that dot this extraordinary landscape, like the breathtaking Rano Kau Crater.

    The more immediate problem here, most of the Moai and ahus, the platforms they were built on, were set along the coast, where they face battering seas.

    Rafael Rapu has worked with archaeologists here for decades to survey and restore sites. At Runga Va'e, he showed us a statue, now face down on the ground, that had fallen into the sea and been raised out by crane.

    To protect this site, Rapu and a team reinforced the cliff with tons of rock.

  • Rafael Rapu (through translator):

    It is very difficult because we have to get the big rocks that weigh thousands of pounds and we have to bind and tie them together in place. Unfortunately, today, we see these sites are deteriorating rapidly, and we do not have the funds to restore them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The statues, petroglyphs, and other archaeological artifacts here, more than 30,000 in all, are the island's economic lifeline.

    Tourism has taken off, with more than 100,000 people a year visiting an island with a population of just 6,000. That's brought new money, but also new pressures on this resource-strapped island that must import almost everything consumed.

    Climate change adds one more layer of threat.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    You have to look at Rapa Nui as a big open-air museum.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The whole island?

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    The whole island.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pedro Edmunds Paoa is the longtime mayor of Hanga Roa, the island's one town.

    He traces his ancestry to the people who settled here and built extraordinary sites, such as Orongo, a ceremonial village high above the Pacific. It was sacred ground in the past, and it's still magical today.

    But the mayor has reason to fear the future.

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    Orongo is a very special site. It's the last part of our ancient culture, the last changes of the culture. It's in danger because it's right on the top of a cliff. As the ocean rises, there's more waves hitting that bottom part of the cliff.

    And all the weight that you have on top of that, it's going to collapse, and it's going to bring down the sites. That's a huge engineering thing that we need to design quickly to protect that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And do you have the resources to do that?

  • Pedro Edmunds Paoa:

    We don't have the resources. It's millions and millions of U.S. dollars.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the midst of all the natural and built beauty, it can be easy to overlook the people who did all this.

  • Sonia Haoa:

    I think that's the mistake that we do sometimes. We're just thinking of the statue, and we forget the human part.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rapa Nui Archaeologist Sonia Haoa says the key to understanding life here is adaptation, how people learned to survive even as the environment and culture changed. The volcanic rock, for example, was used to form agricultural gardens.

  • Sonia Haoa:

    These people have to adapt to the rock. First is keep the soil.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The hold the soil in.

  • Sonia Haoa:

    They hold the soil. Nutrients.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Nutrients from the rocks.

  • Sonia Haoa:

    From the rocks. And humidity protection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    By the 1860s, though, after Western contact brought disease and enslavement, the indigenous population here fell to just 111.

    Today, Rapa Nui people run local businesses and some send their children to the mainland and abroad for college. There's a continuing struggle for greater autonomy from the Chilean government, which has controlled the island since 1888.

    And, as we saw at this Heritage Day celebration at the island's sole archaeological museum, a continuing effort to pass along musical and other traditions.

    There are also artists, like 71-year-old Bene Tuku Pate, holding onto the artistic ways of the past. A master carver of wood and stone, he sells his sculptures here and abroad.

  • Bene Tuku Pate (through translator):

    This is the art of my land, my ancestor's art, and I have to keep doing it this way. When I create the statues, I often think that the Moai are alive. They show me the form the wood should take.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Cristian Aravalo Pakarati, who works with archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, is also an artist and graphic designer, a skill he puts to use in documenting the condition of the statues.

    His initial sketches, done in the field, aim to capture what he calls a feeling.

    When you're looking at the statues, do you see personality?

  • Cristian Aravalo Pakarati:

    Yes. They really represent the faces of the ancestors. Actually, there are many features out there — I'm talking about these statues — which are really like people that you see in the town in the street.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The people today?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Cristian Aravalo Pakarati:

    … nose, long ears, whatever.

    And some of these statues look like they are smiling, even when they are like a kind of straight line as a mouth. They seem like they really are smiling like people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Aravalo Pakarati and Van Tilburg are now training a new generation of Rapa Nui to document and help preserve the statues, including with the limited use of chemicals to hold the rock together.

    And they're creating a digital archive with detailed information on every statue and artifact on the island, now with new urgency.

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg:

    It became very clear to us that if we didn't keep at this, no one else was going to do it. And it also became clear to us that we were losing the detail that we had been documenting.

    So, each time we would go back and revisit one of the statues, we would find that it had changed. The environment had changed it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What kinds of decisions have to be made? And how do you prioritize these vs. those vs. the ones we have seen all around the island?

  • Jo Anne Van Tilburg:

    That's a good question. You have hit on exactly the right question.

    I think the biggest threat to the statues today is that the community is required to mobilize itself, to make decisions about what they want to do and how they want to do it, and do it rather quickly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sunset at Tahai on Rapa Nui's western shore, a once-in-a-lifetime place to ponder both human achievement and folly.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Easter Island.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A remarkable place.

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