Reveling in the Enigmatic Beauty of Easter Island

With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Benjamin Lowy shares a collection of photographs from Easter Island.

Some 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is among the world’s most remote inhabited islands. When I visited in 2008, it took nearly 20 hours of travel to reach its shores.

In recent years, Easter Island has drawn more than 100,000 annual visitors, most of whom are lured by its ancient monolithic statues, called moai, around 1,000 of which dot the landscape.

Much of the history of the island — including that of its sculptures and the Polynesians who discovered it 1,000 years ago — is shrouded in mystery. Many of the descendants of the Polynesian settlers have fallen prey to tribal fighting, European disease and the Peruvian slave trade.

Who were these ancient craftsmen, and why did they build these human figures? How did they transport massive stone figurines, some weighing nearly 14 tons? What happened to their ancient civilization? No archaeologist has been able to answer all these questions definitively.

I spent a week on Easter Island, exploring the awe-inspiring moai, whose long faces look out across the landscape. They were made in ancient quarries: gigantic factories where the stones were mined and carved. When European settlers arrived in the 18th century, there were hardly any trees; one theory suggests that they were all harvested in efforts to move the moai from the quarries to the seashore. (There are certainly other theories, too.)

Massive deforestation — and the lack of trees for boat production — led to a collapse of fisheries and, eventually, it’s theorized, to cannibalism: a gruesome end for an ancient and unique society.

The land here is lush but treeless, a fertile carpet of swaying grass covering long extinct volcanoes. Wild horses roam free, galloping along the seaside crests of rocky hills.

Though beautiful, the island faces its share of challenges. Fishermen use huge numbers of rocks to sink their nets, contributing to the erosion of the shore. Garbage is often left to wallow in giant pits away from tourists’ eyes. And the ocean, with its rising levels, is swallowing up the island inch by inch.

Nearly half of the island’s population considers itself to be native Rapa Nui. Many islanders are mired in poverty and receive little support from the Chilean government.

The chasm between their daily experiences and those of the island’s tourists — many of whom withdraw to high-end secluded resorts ensconced in dense rolling valleys — has led to tensions and standoffs.

Still, the moai continue to attract visitors en masse. They have long inspired outrageous tales of U.F.O.s, ancient magic and secret societies. And it’s easy to understand why.

As the sun set in the Southern Hemisphere, with warm golden rays burning off the moisture of the rainy season, I stood before head after massive head. Dwarfed by history, I was left to grapple with archaeological mysteries that no one can — or likely ever will — fully explain.

But perhaps the explanations don’t matter. Perhaps here, as with the great pyramids and other ancient human endeavors, what matters is that we bask in the beauty of their mystery.


Benjamin Lowy is an American photojournalist based in New York, N.Y. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.