NASA and a Mystery : For Easter Island, a Frantic Year

Times Staff Writer

Normally, there is lobster every day on Easter Island, but the latest newspapers are available only on Wednesday, when the weekly flight arrives from distant South America.

Such isolation is appropriate for a mid-Pacific mote that proudly calls itself "the loneliest little island in the world." Today, volcanoes still outnumber discotheques, three to two, but that may change. This is a frantic year.

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who put Easter Island on the map, is back after three decades, stalking again in inquisitive reverence among giant stone carvings by the sea. As much a legend among the islanders as the statues themselves, Heyerdahl has returned to seek new answers to an old mystery--how did a primitive people move the massive statues into place?

Easter Island jumped centuries in the mid-1960s when the United States built an air base here. Now, like Heyerdahl, 71, the Americans are also returning to the island.

Emergency NASA Runway

Millions of dollars from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will stretch Runway One Zero at Mataveri Airport to 10,704 feet and drape it with Space Age electronics as an emergency runway for the U.S. space shuttle. No road on the 55-square mile island is paved, but should California-launched shuttles ever need to abort after launch, Mataveri will be waiting.

"If the astronauts come down here, we will get them out," promised fireman Pedro Ojeda, who drives the airport's lone Oshkosh crash truck.

Here's Heyerdahl wrestling with an elusive yesterday, the Americans jousting with tomorrow and cruel space and both counting on splendidly lonely Easter Island. What is happening here is as exotic as the ancient fireside tales told here of statues that walked onto the beach.

And it is heady stuff for the 2,060 residents of an island 2,230 miles from South America, where spice is usually provided by an average of 40 tourists a week.

Of the total population, there are about 1,200 people of Polynesian stock, 64 of them pure Polynesians. There are 700 school kids, 700 workers, half of them government-employed, and 700 idlers who gossip pretty much full time. Gossip, called varu varu, is Easter Island's national sport.

Fierce Rivalries

Everyone knows everyone else on the island and most are related. Social, political and economic rivalries--many of them over land, which only the Polynesian majority may own--are as fierce as in most small towns and are waged sotto voce .

On indolent tropical nights with a fresh breeze stirring under an impossible canopy of stars, it is easy, thrilling and frightening for varu varu to conjure up a coming invasion of American spacemen.

There is even one theory that some other planet's astronauts have already been here and that they were the inspiration for the island's 1,000 majestic stone figures. Good varu varu, but Heyerdahl for one isn't buying. "Why would spacemen have left broken stone picks in the quarries?" he said. "They would have had better tools."

Gossip apart, Chile's agreement with NASA to allow use of Mataveri for emergency shuttle landings is straightforward and parallels others the United States has reached with countries as diverse as Spain and Senegal, according to Joel Cassman, science attache at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.

Up to 20 Americans will come for short stays as backup for future launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which are designed to put the shuttle into polar orbits. The NASA schedule, announced before the Challenger disaster and now subject to modification, called for two launches per year in which Mataveri would be a long-shot emergency landing strip.

Wagging Tongues

The shuttle crews will be military and their mission classified, but Cassman insists that does not change the essential civilian nature of the enterprise: "If a general flags a taxi, it's still a civilian cab." Still, the military component is enough to set island tongues wagging.

"We don't want 'Star Wars' here. We are afraid if war comes we will be a target. This arrangement was reached without consulting us, and without our consent," said Julio Alberto Hotu, a retired Chilean navy petty officer.

Hotu and sidekick Juan Chavez also say the project is fraught with danger for Easter Island's delicate ecology and its archeological treasures. They head an ad hoc 36-member council of elders, one member for each island surname, and their objections are belated echoes of complaints raised by opponents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet when the NASA air strip was first proposed.

Rado Miro Pomic, a former presidential candidate, charged in a recent interview in Santiago: "The real purpose of the airport expansion is to enlarge the strategic possibilities in the event of a war with the U.S.S.R. It is logical."

The NASA varu varu is titillating, but there's no substance behind it, asserts the island's governor, Sergio Rapu, a Pinochet appointee. "People support the project," Rapu said. "Some have complained in letters to newspapers, but at public meetings here, no one opposed it."

Pay Packets for Islanders

Heyerdahl says the NASA plan will "have no archeological impact. But that does not mean I support it." Once construction begins, the immediate effect will be the pay packets of 150 islanders employed by the Chilean contractors.

"It is like the debate we had about 15 years ago over whether to have television," said Lucia Tucki, 43, a schoolteacher who is the island's newly appointed mayor. "Television won, and it has been good for some things and bad for others."

Television programs, delivered on the weekly flight, have helped the islanders relate better to the outside world, but they have also come with a price.

Bob Weber, a linguist-missionary from Huntington Beach, Calif., says that interest in Rapa Nui, the island's Polynesian language, is up among adults but that fluency is flagging among children in the island's schools, where it has been taught alongside Spanish for the last decade.

Easter Island was so isolated for so long that it is a prized laboratory today by scientists of every sort. The earliest carvings date to around the 4th Century after Christ, but European discovery did not occur until a Dutch captain sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722.

Islanders Made Slaves

Trauma came in 1862 when slavers shanghaied about 1,500 of what California-born social anthropologist Grant McCall estimates was a total population of around 3,500. The next year, a French warship returned a dozen survivors. Some of them had smallpox, and by the 1870s the population was reduced to 110, said McCall, now a university professor in Australia.

In 1888, Chile claimed sovereignty, and in 1904 the Chilean government leased the island to a British company, which ran it for half a century as a sheep station.

"Until the company came, the people wore no clothes," said Pedro Avaka Bakamomo, 68, the dean of the island's fishermen. In those years, one ship a year visited the island. After the company left, the Chilean navy ran the island on ship's orders from 1955 to 1966, when it was legally incorporated as a part of Chile.

The United States almost off-handedly ended the island's historic isolation with construction in the 1960s of the original airstrip and establishment of an air base. Then, the Chilean international airline began weekly flights, and permanent change came.

At the airport, the U.S. Air Force operated what was advertised as an ionospheric observation center. Closed abruptly after the 1970 election of Marxist President Salvador Allende, the base was subsequently reported to have had intelligence functions in monitoring Soviet and French nuclear tests and intercepting low-frequency Soviet submarine radio traffic.

Little Poverty

Today, Easter Island is underdeveloped and untroubled by it. Apart from the tourism, there is some down-home fishing, and there is some commerce amid the potholes, but poverty is negligible by mainland Chilean standards.

Island families run 90% of the tourist industry, and while most people would like to see more tourists, few are anxious to build glitter to attract them. "We want the kind of tourists who like slow-talking people and dusty roads," said Rapu.

When Heyerdahl arrived by boat in 1955, Easter Island had no roads, no electricity, no doctor: Everything was that yearly ship away.

"He was tall, slender and very famous. To me he seemed like a white god," said Rapu, recalling Heyerdahl's first visit.

The island has changed more in the last two decades than in the previous two millennia. Lucia Tucki had a daughter at home with a midwife in 1963. Her grandchildren are delivered at the island hospital. Heyerdahl lived in a tent the last time. Now he stays at a rustic hotel; there is no air conditioning, to be sure, but there is usually a breeze.

A Jump to 20th Century

"These are one of the few people who have made the jump successfully from the 17th to the 20th Century," said Heyerdahl, who is pleased at how well the island character and archeology are being preserved.

The islanders call Heyerdahl "Kon Tiki," after the balsa raft on which he floated to fame and scientific heresy in 1947 by asserting the Pacific was settled east to west. Nostalgia competes with scientific purpose on his current expedition.

In describing his 1955 finds, Heyerdahl expressed puzzlement at how the islanders had managed to manhandle the giant statues from volcano quarries to their resting place at seaside. The largest weigh upward of 80 tons and have been moved nearly five miles.

Pavel Pavel, 28, a Czech mechanical engineer, first read "Aku Aku," Heyerdahl's account of the expedition, as a young man.

"Over the years, I read it again and again. I made some calculations. Thor thought it would take 180 men to move a 20-ton statue. I thought it could be done with 17. In Czechoslovakia, we built a 20-ton replica, and we 'walked' it standing up as in the old legends," said Pavel.

One day soon, volunteers tugging alternately on ropes tied to a small statue's head and base will test his theory in the field.

In Love With Island

Perhaps as interesting to Heyerdahl is the living legacy of his first visit. One of the scientists with him the first time, Wyoming archeologist William Mulloy, fell in love with the island. On subsequent visits he was taken with a bright-eyed island boy. Mulloy, who died in 1978, arranged for the boy to go to study in the United States.

The boy, Sergio Rapu, is now 36 and an archeologist himself, curator of the local museum as well as the island's governor. Today Rapu has a dig near a picture-book beach which may have been the landing place of the first settlers.

Not much is known about the earliest islanders. Most researchers still think they came from Polynesia. Heyerdahl's own theory that they came from South America is supported by statues with pre-Incan style inlaid eyes and remnants of a palm tree known only to grow in Chile.

Bits of a statue with a ribbed torso that Rapu has found is also of South American ancestry, Heyerdahl says.

Rapu's sandy dig in a rare bit of stratification on the volcanic island may resolve the debate, or quicken it.

The 'Daring Viking'

Either way, Heyerdahl is more secure now than he was in Kon Tiki times. Learned scientists at first dismissed his 1947 Peru-to-Polynesia adventure as the stunt of a "daring Viking."

"People say I go places to prove my theories. Not so. I go to get facts," the sunburned Heyerdahl said in the lee of a toppled statue that appears to have been abandoned en route by its transporters. His team is digging to see if perhaps ancient carvers built rock roads on which to walk their idols.

It is just as well that Easter Island revels in its reputation as a place of mysteries. To Heyerdahl's yesterday and NASA's tomorrow is joined a minor contemporary conundrum. Five hours by jet West from Santiago, Easter Island lives in the South Pacific vastness on Eastern Standard Time. When it is noon in New York, it is also noon among the giant flat-headed statues.

The Chilean government, it seems, with only modest reference to the sun, has decided to keep the island's time within two hours of the mainland. It is no particular hardship to people who live with so many other enigmas, mind you, but it is undeniably a delicious morsel of varu varu.

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