Fire on Easter Island: What happened to the stone heads and how they will be saved

Fire on Easter Island: What happened to the stone heads and how they will be saved

Easter Island, or Rapanui, the territory of Chile, located in the south-eastern Pacific, is largely known for moai, which are stone statues of compressed volcanic ash; Rapanui National Park is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List; and prior to the coronavirus pandemic, tourism was the foundation of the island's economy.

The forest fire, which began on 5 October and affected a significant part of the National Park, according to local authorities, caused "irreparable damage" to some of the famous stone-cut monumental heads, some of which were completely destroyed and others severely damaged.

Easter Island Heads

Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world and is located in Chile, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of South America, and about 1,000 statues with an average height of 4 metres are located throughout the island. All these statues are believed to have been manufactured between the 13th and 15th centuries by the island's indigenous inhabitants, Rapanui.

Though moai are statues of the whole body, they are often called Easter Island heads.

Moai are monolithic statues cut out of compressed volcanic ash. Human figures were first painted in a stone wall and then the extra material was cut out until only the image was left.

Sculpture figures are characterized by heavy eyebrows and long noses with characteristic hooked nostrils. Massive statues are poorly painted, but sometimes the clavicles are marked with stone. The hands are cut with barrels and rest on the body in different positions. The backs of the performers are usually lacking parts, but sometimes the buttocks and the backs are shown with rings and belts. With the exception of one kneeling moai, the statues have no regular legs.

About half of the sculptures are still in Rano Raru's quarry, a volcanic crater containing the ashes of ancient eruptions, but hundreds of statues have been moved from there and installed on stone platforms all over the perimeter of the island.

The reasons for the creation of the sliced figures that are believed to represent the ancestors of the Rapanoui people are unknown, and one study pointed out that stone pieces were placed near freshwater springs.

What happened?

The forest fire, which began on 5 October, spread throughout a large part of the island. According to the Mayor of Pedro Edmunds Paoa Island, the area affected by the incident is at least 100 Ga.

As a result of the fire, several stone heads were completely burned, and about half of the sculptures were crushed, and the mayor also noted that as the stone cracked, with heavy rain or over time, it bursts, falls and becomes sand, and the sculptures that were completely dug up were the most affected.

The local authorities suspect that the fire was not an accident, but was the result of human activity; it was not the first time that ancient sculptures had been damaged; for example, in 2008, a Finnish tourist was fined $17,000 for cutting off a piece of his ear from one of the sculptures; he was also banned from returning to the island for three years.

And in 2020, a resident of the island was arrested for damaging one of the sacred statues, and the man left the truck on the slope, setting a stone instead of a parking brake, but the car rolled into one of the sculptures.

What happens next?

Local authorities noted that problems with monitoring the state of the World Heritage Monument were related to the lack of funding and the State ' s low level of participation in the preservation of monuments; the main burden, he said, was placed on the municipality and volunteers, who were unable to provide adequate protection.

On 12 October, the City Hall held a meeting with UNESCO to request assistance for the restoration and protection of the monument, and a statement issued following the meeting indicated that the organization would participate in the reconstruction work.

Local authorities and representatives of the international organization will form a working group to assess the damage and develop a plan for the restoration and protection of the remaining sculptures.