The Moai monolithic human figures that guard Easter Island are now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Erected between1250 and 1500, they are said to depict deified ancestors. There are 887 known Moai, the majority of which are carved from tuff – a compressed volcanic ash.
Easter Island – Long Read

Lives controlled by an ancient taboo

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Easter Island – Long Read Lives controlled by an ancient taboo

Hello Easter Island, a tiny rock in the South Pacific, and the remotest inhabited place on earth. With its semi-tropical climate and white sandy beaches, it is like paradise – but not for the Rapa Nui, the aboriginal inhabitants. Their lives are controlled by an ancient taboo which keeps the beautiful local women off limits to its young men.

Isabel Dias
Isabel Dias

The sun is hot and the air is humid. The trade winds from the endless Pacific are building high rollers that hit the shores of Easter Island without missing a beat. It is the time of the , the cultural festival that is held every February. For this, the women are dressed in their traditional attire, with skirts made of dried banana leaves and tops made of coconuts.

They have practiced their songs and dances for weeks and are now ready to perform. In their backyards they mix paint to create all kinds of earthy colors and decorate each other’s bodies with Rapa Nui symbols. They share sweet potatoes and throw stones at the stray dogs that come too close to the chicken stew. They sing songs about the great king Hotu Matua, who was the first man to set foot on the island thousands of years ago. Everybody is smiling and seems happy.

I wander off to a nearby beach, where I meet a woman whom I have befriended during my stay, Patricia. She is sitting there doing nothing while her two children are playing and running in and out of the sea. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “Why are you not taking part in the festival?” She takes a handful of fine white sand and watches as it runs through her fingers. “I am in love with someone from the island,” she says. “When we were young we dreamed of getting married, but our families stopped us because somehow, in the shadows of our past, we are related. We are family.

“Despite this, we secretly continued our relationship and had two children even though I was married to someone else, a Chilean man whom I later divorced. I now live with my Rapa Nui man, but our love is cursed. Our families have banished us and made our lives a misery. Our children cannot carry their father’s name.”

At lunchtime, I talk to Maria in her kitchen where she is preparing a meal for the guests at the hostel she runs. She uses the fruit and vegetables which grow in her own garden. This is the land of plenty. I sit down at the kitchen table to listen to her stories, which are mostly about her children and grandchildren. “What about your son Urvano?” I ask, curious, because Urvano is the only child she never mentions. Maria looks at me in shock and I see tears well up in her eyes. I realize suddenly that these are tears of anger, rather than sadness:

“A long time ago he fell in love with a girl. Their love couldn’t be, because she was a cousin of his. My husband and I told him to stop seeing her, but he simply denied the whole affair, turned his back on us and left. The next thing we knew he was on a plane to Tahiti, together with the girl. It was horrible. He knew that what he was doing was wrong! So I took the next plane and arrived just in time to stop them from getting married. Now he lives just down the road. He never married.” It is only weeks later that I find out that Urvano is the man who is living with Patricia.

Society is still also influenced by ancient Rapa Nui laws

Easter Island is a tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean belonging to Chile. It was first discovered by a sailor called Roggeveen some 300 years ago. Ever since the arrival of the Europeans the Rapa Nui have been exploited, enslaved and kept prisoner on their own island. Now, for the first time in four centuries the Rapa Nui are living in freedom and prosperity. But something seems terribly amiss. “What is wrong with Easter Island?” I ask my friend Juan, a journalist from Chile who now runs Easter Island’s first newspaper the Gazetta Te Rapa Nui. He says: “Easter Island is governed by Chilean law and most of the inhabitants are Roman Catholics and believe in the Bible.

However, society here is still also influenced by ancient Rapa Nui laws that date back to the days before the island was discovered. Some of these laws, known as the Incest Avoidance Rules, says that it is forbidden to marry and have children with someone who is from the same family. A reasonable idea, it may seem, but one is required to go back seven generations in order to determine who is family. At the end of the 19th century the total population of Rapa Nui was at its lowest ever level – there were only 111 people living on the island and a few hundred more on Tahiti. This means that if you go back seven generations, almost everybody turns out to be related to each other.”

As it gets dark, millions of brilliant stars appear in the sky. I have never seen such an amazing sight. I watch it in silence until the Southern Cross becomes visible. But while the sky demonstrates the beauty of the universe, the Rapa Nui focus on themselves and seem to be oblivious to the rest of the world. They have gathered close to the historical Tahai site, one of the places on the island where the world famous stone heads can be found, to watch the Kari Kari dance group bring their ancient dances back to life.

The girls and boys move their bodies sensually to the rhythm of the drums, leaving no doubt as to their youth and fertility. One girl in particular catches the eyes of the audience. Her smile is magical, her eyes shine and her body glows. Her presence is electrifying. Although they dance far apart, it seems to me as if she is linked to another dancer, a young proud Rapa Nui man, as if they are connected by an invisible string.

Meeting Javier felt like coming home

After the show I find her name is Vai-a-Heva, which means morning dew. “Who is that other dancer?” I ask her. “He is my boyfriend!” she says. In Chile, where she grew up, she did not meet anybody with whom she felt comfortable. But on Easter Island, where she was born and where her family’s roots are, she met Javier. “Meeting Javier felt like coming home!” She looks as if she still can’t believe it.

A couple of weeks later, I see her again, together with Javier, away from the crowds and holding each other closely. As I call them they look up and I notice something has changed. She says: “Javier and I found out that we have the same ancestors if we go back four generations. A funny idea that actually gives me a warm feeling and makes me love him even more, because we share a past. In Chile we would have celebrated the fact and lived happily ever after, but here on Easter Island it is a serious problem that is threatening our happiness.”

On Easter Island the concept of tapu, the word from which our word taboo is derived, is very strong and forms an integral part of the culture. Incest is referred to as Kai Toto, which means ‘drinking your own blood’, and there is little differentiation made between having a relationship with your second cousin or with a cousin to whom you are related six or seven generations ago. Doctor Gutierrez, who is in charge of the local hospital, explains that there is no need to go back so far from a medical point of view.

So why were these rules established? I put this question to Grant McCall, an Australian anthropologist who has studied the Rapa Nui for decades. He says: “Incest is a conceptual rather than a medical issue. It is often used as a way of directing people to certain marriage partners.” Hence, it was a powerful tool in the hands of the ruling class. Of course the ordinary people were not told about this and even nowadays most Rapa Nui still simply follow these rules unquestioningly. It is something they believe in, something that used to have a purpose, but doesn’t anymore.

Cursed, banished and die within a year

During my first week on the island I met Esperanza, who is one of the oldest Rapa Nui women. Her opinion is highly respected. In a dramatic voice she holds up a warning finger and explains: “Kai Toto is satanic. Anybody who indulges in it will be cursed, banished and die within a year!” At first I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but when I told this story to other people, nobody laughed.

“Imagine,” they say, “what it means to be ignored by everybody, to have nobody to talk to, or to help you. Letters don’t arrive, things you need are always out of stock. You are utterly alone on the remotest inhabited place on earth. Think about it.” Whether one believes in the tapu of Kai Toto or not is irrelevant, because other people do, and the pressure they exert and the strength of their reactions are very real.

So how does this effect people’s lives? If a girl wants to know who she is allowed to marry she asks her parents – since everybody calls each other aunt, uncle or cousin it is very difficult to know who is actually related to you and who isn’t. Her parents will explain that nearly everybody on the island is ‘Taina’, which means family and so she cannot marry them. There are a few people known as ‘Tumu’. If somebody is Tumu, they are eligible and she can marry them.

Normally there are only two families which are Tumu, one from the father’s side and one from the mother’s side. This leaves the girl with very few potential marriage candidates, maybe as few as ten. This girl may therefore prefer to marry somebody not from the island, and often this is what her parents want her to do. They might send her to Santiago to study and hope she comes back with a husband, which is sometimes what happens.

I love Rapa Nui men – the way they are built, the way they smell

Emilia Tepano says: “I love my island, I teach young girls how to dance so our culture won’t disappear, but I married Jose Manuel from Spain because there was no Rapa Nui man.” Rose Hotu adds: “Five years ago my parents sent me to Santiago to separate me from a Rapa Nui boy I was in love with, but during the holidays we continued our love affair until finally I got tired of keeping it secret and we broke up. Now I have a boyfriend from Switzerland. I love Rapa Nui men – the way they are built, the way they smell. But there is nobody to marry.”

One additional complicating factor is that quite a lot of children, born from young and single mothers, are raised by their grandparents, and don’t carry their father’s name. This means that a surname can be very confusing if it is used to indicate whether somebody is a relative or not. To avoid potential trouble, Rose and other girls have learned to find strangers to marry. But not everybody gives in so easily. Many girls keep meeting their forbidden Rapa Nui lovers in secret.

Sabrina is watching the horse racing. She wears a flower in her long black hair as all Rapa Nui women do, but hers is bigger and brighter, because she is one of the two candidates for the title of Miss Rapa Nui. Throughout the Tapati festival, competitions are held where the participants can win points for their favorite Miss. In the final of the horse racing, two boys take the lead and fight for victory, leaving a big cloud of dust behind them.

Then finally one of them breaks away from the other and wins the race. Sabrina jumps up and gives him a kiss on the cheek to thank him. He picks her up and together they make a little victory parade on his horse. Ana Maria watches this and sighs: “She is one of my students. These girls and boys grow up together on a small island, they play together, go to school together, But they are not supposed to fall in love with each other. Isn’t that cruel?”

These girls think they have done something really bad

Ana Maria is the English teacher at the island’s secondary school. She is from Chile and married to Danielito, a young Rapa Nui man. “Many of my students confide in me, because I am the only grown-up they can trust and they are desperate for advice. They come to me, crying, because their parents have found out about them being in love with a cousin. These girls think they have done something really bad and that they will be cursed for it and banished.

“But there comes a time when they get over this, become angry about the unfairness of it all, and continue their relationships in secret. They simply refuse to give up what they feel is true love. The real problem starts when they get pregnant, as they too often do. The sex education is very poor. There is a 14-year old girl in my class who is five months pregnant. She doesn’t want to say who the father is. She is grounded until the baby is born.”

Doctor Gutierrez acknowledges the problem of teenage pregnancies, due to the , but, he says: “ Nobody confides in me, or anybody else. We are Roman Catholics, we don’t talk about or carry out abortions. When a girl gets pregnant, she is on her own. As far as I am aware some girls go to visit their family on Tahiti...” To learn more about it, I ask Rose, who answers me cryptically: “You don’t know half of the things that are happening here...” she says. “Like what?” I ask. Silence. Ana Maria: “If a girl gets pregnant, she is afraid her child will be ‘meio’, strange, because that is what a lot of people believe. Then she sometimes panics.”

I talk to Jacquelina, the only pregnant girl I know, but she is also reluctant to touch on the subject. She is happy with the little baby she carries in her womb and her Rapa Nui man, who is accepted by her family and loves her. I ask other people, too, but nobody wants to say much about it. I only realise how sensitive this subject really is and how strong the ‘tapu’ is, one morning, when I find that all the wires on my motorbike have been cut.

The most beautiful woman on the island

Meanwhile the Tapati holds everyone in its spell, especially Carolina who is without doubt the most beautiful woman on the island. She took part the Miss Chile contest and ended fourth. “I am a Rapa Nui ambassador” she says. “ I was hoping to win the title Miss Chile to promote my island. Now I am running for Miss Rapa Nui, which is not about who is the most beautiful, but about who knows the most about the Rapa Nui culture and has the most supporters”, she explains with a radiant smile. She is wearing the banana leaf skirt with such a grace that it looks as if it is the latest fashion.

She is careful not to say anything bad about the island, but she does have something on her mind: “Most people here marry somebody from the outside world. At home they don’t speak Rapa Nui but Spanish. If we lose our language, we will lose our culture. Our island is beautiful, but vulnerable.” She is no longer smiling when she talks about what happened to her when she was 16: “I fell in love with a boy and thought: he is the one! But my dream was interrupted by my grandmother who told me to stop seeing him. I talked to my girlfriends about it and soon realized that the same thing had also happened to all of them.”

Is something changing? Maybe. It seems that Kai Toto or the Incest Avoidance Rules are becoming the subject of a conflict between the generations. Young girls such as Rose and Carolina don’t have a lot of sympathy for the old rules, which have such a great impact on their lives. Maybe when they have children themselves, they will be strong enough to ignore the pressure from the elders and make some changes.

“Two or three decades ago nobody on this island had a car or a TV, and the roads were unpaved,” says Rose. “Boats visited here only once a year. Our parents’ marriages were arranged in accordance with the Kai Toto law. No wonder that our folks still think and act the way our ancestors did a hundred years ago. But we don’t! We know what is going on in the world.”

Can you imagine how happy we were?

Look what happened when Josefina and Ramon got married. “We met each other in the States, where we were both living,” says Josefina. “We fell in love and then decided to go back to Easter Island to build a future there. We arrived on the island, very excited, but within a week the trouble began. An aunt had told my grandmother that Ramon and I are third cousins, and my grandmother explained that I had to end the relationship. But grandma, I argued, where will I ever find a man like Ramon, somebody who knows both my American and my Rapa Nui side? Then a little miracle happened. Our families got together and gave us their blessing. Can you imagine how happy we were?”

Ramon and Josefina asked their brother Francisco Nahoe, who is a priest in the States, to celebrate their marriage. He came, and boy, did he have something to say! Josefina: “The church was full. Everybody expected the usual happy wedding ceremony with happy smiling people and a happy priest. But Francisco had other plans. He lectured the entire community about the injustice of the Incest Avoidance Rules. Some people were shocked. He reminded them that the Bible allows second cousins to marry each other. He asked us why we were making each other unhappy. As an example he told the story of our brother Rene, who was forced to leave the island because there was nobody there he could marry. The next day he got a lot of support, especially from the young people.  “You are right,” they said. “This has got to stop!”

It is the last day of the Tapati festival. Tonight, after two weeks of non-stop dancing and competitions, the winner of the Miss Rapa Nui contest will be announced. It will be either Carolina or Sabrina. The girls are nervous because so far their scores have been very close. For the last time this year everybody has gathered at the Tahal site. Then the mayor of Easter Island stands up and takes the stage. As he starts to speak, the audience becomes deathly quiet.

Finally, after a speech that seems to go on for hours, he makes the announcement they have all been waiting for: “This year’s winner of the Miss Rapa Nui contest is... Sabrina!” Everybody is applauding and smiling, but I know better. Until the Kai Toto taboo is lifted and everybody can marry the person he or she loves, there will be few winners on Easter Island.



TRVL Favorites

…from the TRVL community