Earth Ovens + Mystery on Easter Island

Easter Island is full of mystery and wonder. The island’s Moai statues stand in silence, but Umu Rapa Nui (Easter Island curanto)—the island’s most traditional dish—speaks volumes about the island’s culture and history. As I explored the island and marveled at the oral stories from the islanders (…and ran the half marathon at Easter Island on June 5), I came to understand why Umu Rapa Nui continues to be the celebrated dish of today.

Easter Island is a magical place that seems untouched at times. ♣ 

Moai - head statues - all around Isla de Pascua (Easter Island).

Moai - head statues - all around Isla de Pascua (Easter Island).
Moai – head statues – all around Isla de Pascua (Easter Island).

Isolation in the Pacific Ocean: Unknowns + Intrigue

Easter Island, a special territory of Chile, is one of the most remote islands in the world. The island’s isolation in the Pacific Ocean makes it challenging to fully trace its history and culture, but at the same time made it possible to develop its uniqueness from other cultures. Easter Island’s triangular shape emerged out of volcanic eruptions—from three main volcanoes named Rano Kau, The Poike, and Mauna Terevaka—that happened thousands of years ago. Today, all Easter Island volcanoes are dormant.

On top of the highest peak on Easter Island. The Terevaka volcano is the highest point in Easter Island. Standing at 511 meters above sea level, its summit offers a wonderful 360 ° view of the island, the chance to get an id
At Terevaka volcano, the highest point with a 360° view of Easter Island. Meandering on foot up the volcano, 511 feet above see level, was an amazing and unforgettable journey.

How did people get to this remote island? Radiocarbon dating and archaeological studies establish early settlement in Easter Island between 1100 to 1200 AD.[1][2][3] It may have been Polynesians—known for their remarkable sea navigation abilities—who braved 1,600 to 2,000 miles (2500 to 3200 Km) in canoes from the Marquesas Islands.

Moai head statue.
Moai head statue.
Moai head statue.
Moai head statue.

These early settlers may well have come from South America, supported by archaeological evidence of the sweet potato, a crop that originated in South America and favored by the Polynesian society, indicating a historical linkage between these two areas. Similarities in languages also tie the Polynesians and the island people.

Known as Rapa Nui, the island became know as Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) when the first Europeans arrived on the island on Easter Sunday on April 5, 1722 led by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. The epicenter on the island is Hanga Roa (means “wide bay”) where the majority of the 6,000+ islanders live.

The 800+ Moai—head statues though most have bodies found atop ceremonial stone platforms called ahuare the island’s cultural hallmark. Locals and oral tradition will tell you that it was Hotu Matu’a, a Polynesian King and the island’s first chief, who brought the first Moai to the island. Today, most experts acknowledge that it was the first settlers (1100-1680 AD) who sculpted the stones, using raw material from the volcanoes and carving the statues with stone made hand tools.

The Moai continue to baffle historians, scientists, and other curiosos to the origins of these stone giants, including why they were constructed, how they were moved, and why the majority face with their backs to the sea. Experts suggest the statues were positioned inward so they could watch over their island’s descendants. Interestingly, a more speculative idea is that the mindset, lifestyle, and diet of the islanders before the Europeans arrived may have focused “inland,” that is, on the land rather than the sea and may, in part, provide some insight into the lack of seafood in the diet of the islanders’ ancestors.[4]

Easter Island’s Food Footprint

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, archeological excavations suggest islanders lived off cultivated crops, mainly sweet potatoes. Taro, yams, sugarcane, plantains, turmeric, and arrowroot were also grown—most likely introduced from the Marquesas Islands. The islanders also lived off berries and eggs from seabirds. Fish provided some protein, but fishing was not a major activity. Villages most likely had cooking shelters, earth ovens, chicken coops made of stone, and stone-walled gardens.

Pumpkins were used by Easter Islanders as water containers. Source: Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert

From information at the island’s Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert:

  • Rapa Nui people developed special cultivation systems such as Mana Vai, a subterranean system with protected walls that conserved humidity and protected the vegetation. Some plantations did not have walls but were often weakened or destroyed from rainfall.
  • Entire family was involved in agriculture, and the Ariki (social class of noblemen) determined the dates for cultivation and harvest, based on the positions of the heavenly bodies.
  • Plantations were Tapu (taboo) until the first fruits of the harvest were offered to the king in ceremonies and festivities.
  • Banana trees were introduced by the first Polynesians. There are 7 different varieties on the island alone, and they are present everywhere.
  • Early inhabitants brought chickens, but no pigs or dogs. Rats, likely stowaways on the canoes, provided a source of protein for the islanders.
  • Fishing was restricted for most of the year, and only the Royal canoe, Vaka Vaero, was allowed to go fishing in the winter. Eating fish was restricted to important people on the island. During open season, women fished close to shore while men fished in the open seas.
  • 167 specifies of fish have been found around the island with approximately 28% exclusive to the island.

The islanders are proud of their food and cuisine traditions. The islanders continue with small farming plots. Sheep and cattle, introduced by the Europeans, are the primary sources of meat. However, most goods are brought to the island and sold in stores.

Rape Rape, a local small lobster to Easter Island. Source:
Rape Rape, a local small lobster native to Easter Island. Source: Easter Island Travel

Island cuisine is sourced from products native to the island as well as from flavors and foods introduced to the island over hundreds of years.[5For the most part, the Chilean cuisine has replaced the native diet. The dishes and cuisine on the island benefit from having fresh sea products though increasingly limited amounts due to overfishing.

Fish used in island cuisine include tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish or kana kana, and seafood include shrimp, rape rape (a small local lobster native to the island), and other lobsters are bountiful in island dishes.

Sweet potatoes, plantains, yams, taro, and sugarcane are the cornerstone of island cuisine.

Hot Stones + Earth Ovens

The islanders have a tradition dating back hundreds of years of cooking food in an uma pae, an earth oven.  Umu Rapa Nui (Easter Island curanto) is cooked in an uma pae and the island’s most traditional dish. This dish is popular in the south of Chile, and is a community dish to be enjoyed with others. Of historical interest, archeologists found a 6,000 year old curanto dish in Puento Quilo in Chiloé Archipelago, and curanto may be one of the oldest food dishes in the world. [6]

Today, Umu Rapa Nui is made pretty much the same way as it was by the island’s ancestors. Basically, the dish is cooked in a 1 to 3 foot (up to 1 meter) deep hole. Wood is placed at the bottom of the hole and covered with stones. It is heated for several hours.

An earth oven: wood is placed in the middle with stones on top and around the perimeter of the hole.

Once the stones are hot…hot…hot, preparation for cooking the curanto begins. The hot stones are removed with a layer of stones remaining at the bottom.

Once the stones are hot, they are removed in preparation to cook the curanto.
Plantain leaves are placed on top of the hot rocks.

A layer of plantain leaves are placed on top of the hot rocks. Then, the fish, meat, chicken and vegetables are placed on top of the leaves and covered with stones, and covered again with more leaves and stones as it cooks for several hours. In some variations, the food is wrapped in the plantain leaves.

The food is placed on top of the plantain leaves.
The entire dish is covered with plantain leaves.

Finally, it is all covered with plantain leaves, rocks, and dirt to cook for several hours. It is a very, very slow and long process.

As it was raining sporadically, the curanto was covered with plastic to allow it to cook.

Scrumptious! While all the meats and vegetables were well prepared and seasoned, the mouth-watering sweet potatoes were a special treat.

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Cooked meat from the curanto. Credit: Scott Dean
Side dishes served with the cammmm. Credit: Scott Dean
Side dishes served with the curanto. Credit: Scott Dean
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The results! The curanto included fish, meat, chicken, chorizo, and sweet potatoes with a variety of side dishes and wine served.

More Earthly Delights

You can not miss the traditional tuna empanadas that are fried and stuffed with fresh tuna from the island, or the many other fish dishes on the island. Apparently, we did not have any qualms about trying most of these juicy sea wonders!

Grilled Kana Kana, a local fish, with a shrimp sauce.
Atún Crocante, crispy tuna fish breaded in panko with a shrimp sauce.
Mixed seafood dish with a side of fried sweet potatoes.
Ceviche with coconut milk. Credit: Scott Dean
Ceviche with coconut milk. Credit: Scott Dean
Sweet potatoes. Credit: Scott Dean
The best Rapa Nui sweet potatoes! Credit: Scott Dean

Giant Moai that stand in silence. Extinct volcanoes. Ancient Polynesian people. Unique flavors and food traditions. Rapa Nui—no place like it.  

A special thanks to Vai Te Mihi and the wonderful people at this establishment for cooking a curanto just for a group of us to relish and, most importantly, to experience the island’s tradition of cooking in an earth oven. Following our private dinner, we enjoyed the show with unique Rapa Nui music and dances. Mauru-ru! Muchas gracias! 

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Hanga Roa is the only part of the island with water and electricity, and functions as the epicenter of island with a hospital, pharmacy, some stores and restaurants, few banks—all located on both sides of Atamu Tekena, the city’s main street.
The only Moai eye that has survived over the centuries, housed at the island's Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert.
The only Moai eye that has survived over the centuries, housed at the island’s Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert.
Fruits at a small open cafe at the bottom Ahu a Kivi, a national park. The first restoration of the Moai of Easter Island into their upright positions was a project started in 1960
Fruits at an open cafe at Ahu a Kivi, location of the first restoration of the Moai into their upright positions that started in 1960.
Festive cemetery in Hanga Roa.
Moai image on a store sign.
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Bananas, introduced to the island by the first settlers, are everywhere!
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Hanga Roa Harbour.
Local woodworking.
An islander carving wood figurines, a lost trade and mostly for tourism today.
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My friend Sheila, fellow runners Mark and Scott, and I waiting for the sunset while sipping pisco sours and drinking cerveza Escudo on a beautiful and sunny winter day in June.
Venilde exploring the island’s mysteries and wonders.

**All photos and images are copyrighted work of Venilde Jeronimo unless otherwise noted.

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