Someone to Watch Over Me
The sun has been blazing down on you all day, sweat is beading on your forehead, and you’re covered with dust from the rock pit you’ve been working in since sunrise. You decide it’s time for a break, but wait—there, right at your feet, you discover a prehistoric spear point that hasn’t seen the light of day for centuries. As the brooding heads of Easter Island tower above you, you holler out to your teammates, “I found one!” Easter Island is one of the great mysteries of the ancient world, and you’ve just taken another step to helping researchers uncover the secrets of this now-extinct island culture. To be a part of such important work is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Easter Island, a territory of Chile, is a remote volcanic island in the South Pacific. Located about 3,700km (2,300 miles) west of Chile, the island (also known as Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua to the Spanish-speaking natives) can best be reached by airplane from Santiago. Several institutions support archaeological programs here for students and researchers, but Earthwatch Institute, an environmental research and exploration group, sponsors archaeological trips to Easter Island that are open to volunteers from the general public. These and other visitors find lodging and other essentials in Hanga Roa, the only town on the island.
Adventure seekers could hardly choose a more fascinating location to visit or work. An isolated island with three extinct volcanoes looming over its 163 sq. km (63-sq.-mile) landmass, Easter Island’s past is shrouded in mystery. Once heavily forested, it’s believed that the Polynesian settlers of the island cut down the forests, which in part led to the natives’ decline; disease and warfare further reduced the population to a low of about 100 people by the end of the 19th century. As a result, little knowledge of the culture that created Easter Island’s iconic stone heads remained.
Also known as moai, the heads of Easter Island are its best-known archaeological feature, but the island is rich in other cultural remains that are just as puzzling. Dozens of caves show signs of human use. Petroglyphs featuring birdmen, fish, and other creatures, have been discovered at over 1,000 sites. Stone houses have been discovered with human remains inside. The island even has its own ancient form of writing known as rongorongo; though it’s been seen since the 1800s, the writing has never been deciphered, further adding to the sense of mystery and wonder that this UNESCO World Heritage Site evokes. —ML
Earthwatch Institute, 3 Clock Tower Place, Ste. 100, Maynard, MA 01754 ( 800/776-0188 or 978/461-0081; www.earthwatch.org).
When to Go: Oct–Apr.
Santiago, Chile, then flights to Easter Island.