On the south coast of the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a dozen or more fallen statues (moai) lie slumped across the rectangular stone platforms (ahu) on which they once proudly stood. This is the ruined ahu complex of the Akahanga, which is but one of dozens dotted around the coastline of the tiny island. Between 1,000 and 500 years ago, when the moai stood erect, rather than looking out to sea their gaze was cast inland. In particular, their eyes fell on a group of curious houses (haré paenga), which lay upslope and were shaped like overturned canoes.
Across Polynesia, canoes had special significance. To some extent, the canoe-shaped haré paenga – constructed by laying carefully shaped basalt blocks (paenga) as foundations, with holes cut for posts that were tied together at the top – assumed the sacred qualities of the canoe, as well as being associated with the ahu complexes. Their fourcourts were composed of rounded stones (poro) obtained from the seashore, where they marked the transitional zone between land and sea. Deployed as part of the haré paenga, they acted as material metaphors marking and creating a transitional area into the house. Undoubtedly, some haré paenga were dwellings for chiefs and their families, and ritual specialists, however, other canoe-shaped structures were over 90m in length and must have functioned as meeting houses and feasting places.
The massive moai, with their red stone topknots (pukao) – such as those at Ahu Nau, shown here – capture both archaeological attention and the popular imagination. However, just as important were the special buildings, the haré paenga, which now lie ruined and difficult to see among the tall grass. It should not be forgotten that in the larger haré paenga great decisions were made and rituals undertaken which led to over 300 moai being carved and transported to adorn ahu complexes across the island.
Text: Colin Richards
Images: Adam Stanford