The loss of a small 47 gm ancient Hindu brass-like metal idol of extreme antiquity called the Kalpa Vigraha has caused the American Central Intelligence Agency considerable anxiety. This unusual disclosure was made recently by a retired CIA agent on condition of absolute anonymity.
Firstly, what was the importance of this idol; what was the CIA doing with an ancient Hindu relic; and why the angst?
The story begins almost half a century ago. A heavy chest containing the idol was reportedly given to CIA officials for safekeeping at Lo Monthang (called "Mustang" in CIA files) by a Tibetan monk accompanied by Khampa bodyguards sometime in 1959-60. The monk apparently related to the CIA officials the importance of the chest and its contents. A curious CIA official meticulously wrote down the details of what the Buddhist monk told them about the chest and its contents. Why he thought it important to record the Buddhist monk's story is anybody's guess. But it also appears that the Americans were initially not quite impressed with the quaint values attached to objects of Oriental worship at that time when their priority was conducting a guerrilla war against the Chinese forces advancing into Tibet.
In the same week that the CIA officials received the chest a skirmish erupted with Chinese forces in which the Tibetan monk and his guards were killed. The CIA officials not knowing what to make of the curious chest loaded it onto an aircraft and had it sent to a secret airbase in India, later transporting it to Camp Hale, a now-abandoned Army base near Vail, Colorado. A few weeks later the chest wound up at a CIA store-room in Washington DC labeled "ST Circus Mustang-0183".
Many months would elapse before someone in the CIA decided to take an interest in the chest and its contents. A strange manuscript found inside and the unusually age-worn chest coupled with its noticeably unique design prompted them to conduct a radiocarbon test of the timber with which the chest was made. The results given to them by the University of California Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley astounded the CIA officials. The antiquity of the worn-out wooden chest and the idol was mind-boggling to say the least. It did not belong to this "yuga" or epoch on the Hindu time scale just as the monk had claimed. That is to say, it belonged to a period called the Dwapara yuga, making it the oldest human artifact in existence. Radiocarbon (C14) dating conducted by the University of California Radiation Laboratory on the heavy 9-inch thick timber sides and lid of the chest in which it was discovered arrived at readings that indicated a period around 26,450 BCE. That would make it over 28,450 years old today, and about 23,300 years older than the legendary Hindu Kurukshetra war. The idol was also tested by experts who concluded that it was the oldest Hindu idol in existence. None of the known ancient excavated civilizations of history – Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Indus Valley existed before 6000 years ago.
The Kalpa Vigraha idol was reportedly found placed inside this heavy metal-lined wooden chest with a socket-and-pivot hinged lid and an ancient loop-and-rod lock assembly. The chest itself presented a curiosity, as the space within the box was barely 8 X 8 X 8 inches while the timber pieces used to construct all its five sides was about 8 inches thick each! The timber of which the lid of the chest was made also measured about 6 inches in thickness. The teak-wood timber was further protected by a 1-inch thick bronze-like alloy plate on all sides which despite severe external corrosion had preserved the teak-wood of the box to a fair extent. The metal plate appears to have been riveted into the teakwood with nails of some similar metal alloy. Though many rivets were missing, the metal casing held well. The appearance of the chest suggested that it might have lain buried for a considerable period of time, though scrape-marks from attempts made to clean the corrosion on the outside were visible.
Corrosive salts or dampness had not crept into the chest despite its age, though some degree of natural oxidation and decay was noticed in the contents of the chest which included a manuscript written on wooden slats and the small brass-like crude metal idol. The old pre-Rigvedic Sanskrit-type manuscript was translated by the CIA with difficulty. In fact it reportedly took two long years to decipher, employing experts including some Indian and Nepalese. They concluded that the language belonged to the proto-historic period of Hinduism when it was thought no language existed and that the Vedas were being passed down orally. The manuscript appeared to be something akin to Sanskrit, but not quite anything any archaeologist or historian had ever encountered before. The manuscript mentioned the name of the idol – "kalpa maha-ayusham rasayana vigraha" abbreviated in CIA files to "Kalpa Vigraha."
The Kalpa Vigraha is a small crude brass idol weighing about 47.10 gms depicting a deity resembling the Hindu god Shiva kneeling or seated on one knee, a serpant's hood forming a canopy above the head of the idol. In the right hand of the figure was a discus or circular weapon, perhaps the "sudharshan-chakra" of Hindu mythology. Around its neck was a string of beads. The metal formed three "loops" on one side caused by the snake, an arm holding a conch-shell and the discus. It measured about 5.3 cm tall and about 4.7 cms wide, with an oval base 2.5 cms long and 1.7 cms wide. There was no doubt the small statue was of some extreme importance to have been preserved with such care in a chest of such strength and durability.
But following the translation of the manuscript, events surrounding the Kalpa Vigraha suddenly took a mysterious turn. The UCRL's records were impounded by the CIA and a shroud of silence was cast over all matters regarding the chest and the Hindu idol. "ST Circus Mustang-0183" was removed from the inventory at the CIA storehouse records, and the whole episode was swept under the carpet for some inexplicable reason.
However, the unnamed source, a retired CIA agent, revealed recently that based on the text of the manuscript found along with the idol, a series of top-secret experiments were conducted by the CIA on unsuspecting human subjects in the United States and elsewhere in the world. According to this unnamed source in Langley, Virginia, an "inner-circle" of the CIA dedicated most of their time in the early 1960s conducting experiments based on the ancient manuscript, and the Kalpa Vigraha idol itself played the most important role in this bizarre research.
The source, who was partially involved in the research, explained that one of the experiments was particularly intriguing. It required a human subject to consume a tumbler of water each day for 3 days. This water was earlier "charged" by CIA agents by simply placing the idol in a large copper vessel containing drinking water for nine days before the human subject was required to drink it. What results the "inner circle" officials expected to see by this innocuous experiment was not known to anybody at that time, but top CIA officials evinced great interest in it. The "charged" water was also sent to various laboratories under heavy security and all reports and documents received from the labs were sent directly to the CIA director, John McCone.
The unnamed source also recalled that during this period a number of packages containing literature on homeopathy and ayurveda were received from various parts of the globe and often circulated in the department with markings and footnotes. Barring perhaps the inner-circle, nobody quite knew what this was all about.
A month later, the source was asked to head a nine-member team consisting mostly of women whose sole task was to feed this water to unsuspecting citizens in the US. They called themselves the "Watering Team". It was not known to the Watering Team whether the subjects to whom the water was to be fed were randomly chosen by the inner-circle officials, but what was certain as the team met up with the target recipients of the water was that they were of all ages- some in their teens, some even past their middle-ages and many being above the age of sixty or sixty-five at least. Detail instructions were handed out as to how they were to go about the "watering". What was also apparent to the team later was that all the subjects were born Americans, both black and white from various walks of life. Many were African American women. The "watering" had to be done without the subjects' knowledge by befriending them or by looking for innocuous opportunities to get them to consume a glass of water for three consecutive days in a row. The team often failed, with some other members of the target recipient's family ending up drinking the water inadvertently. The CIA required them to report such slips also.
This went on for a few months. Some of the human test subjects chosen were in far-flung states and in remote towns and cities of the United States. Apparently the CIA had some system in place to monitor their subjects for whatever results they expected as an outcome of the experiment for the "Watering Team" was not required to hang around once the subject had consumed the water over three days. "Ease-out of the acquaintance without raising any questions", they were told.
For the purpose of keeping a personal record, the source also made notes in his private diary - the names and addresses of the various recipients his team was required to befriend to feed the water. Maintenance of any such record was forbidden by the agency, nevertheless many agents did it and the CIA was aware of it.
The source recalls with amusement that during this time the agents in the CIA who were in-the-know about these experiments, including the members of their own "Watering Team" often doubted and double-checked their own drinking water, often leaving the office to fetch drinking water for themselves or settling for coffee, juice or soft-drinks. "It was a period of discomfort and uneasiness for reasons we could not fathom," the source recalls.
Soon after the "watering" experiments were completed, the assignment was abruptly called off. In the subsequent years that the unnamed CIA official served in the agency not much was heard or spoken of this experiment, except as a joke. The inner-circle members were deployed to more pressing assignments around the US and the world. The reason for the bizarre experiment was never revealed, neither were the results ever known. Over time it was quite forgotten, and treated as some of the many idiosyncrasies that the CIA indulged in during the cold war years.
A recent long-distant telephone call from another state in the US on the morning of December 2008 changed all that. The source, now long retired, with great-grandchildren playing around him, was unexpectedly informed one night by another retired agent of the CIA that the Kalpa Vigraha was "missing". The agent who made the call was once a member of the "inner circle", a man who knew what the experiments conducted in the early 1960s was all about.
As he listened, it took our long-retired CIA source some time to remember what "idol" was being referred to, as today he was more familiar with the popular "American Idol" music competition program he enjoyed watching on TV with his grand and great-grand children.
"The Hindu idol, my dear Mac (name changed), don't you remember, the one they called the Kalpa Vigraha?" the voice said. "Don't you remember the experiments that put you in charge of the Watering Team assignment? I'm only calling you this morning because I knew for certain that you would be alive and well to hear this news."
"Ken (name changed), you call me today, thirty-two years after my retirement to tell me about an old forgettable idol that never made sense to any of us! So, what if it's missing? What's the big deal here, Ken?"
The Big Deal
The voice at the other end of the phone had an astounding story to tell.
The inside story of CIA experiments involving the Kalpa Vigraha as revealed to Mac was stuff that would rival even the fictional and immensely popular X-File TV serial.
Ken the CIA agent who made the telephone call to his former colleague on the morning of December 2008 and who was once a member of the inner-circle was a microbiologist with expertise in immunotherapy when he was initially recruited by the CIA in 1946 to analyze "Lebensborn" data confiscated from Nazi Germany after the downfall of Hitler. Ken was only 38 years old then. That makes him about 100 years old when he made the telephone call to his former CIA colleague Mac (our source), aged 98 years on the morning of December, 2008.
Ken, the inner-circle CIA agent reminded Mac of the many subjects the CIA had targeted for consumption of the "charged" Kalpa Vigraha water back in 1960-61, many of whom had been fed the water personally by Mac. Mac could recall many of the names and even crossed-checked in his own diary to confirm and refresh his memory of all the people he had surreptitiously befriended to feed the "charged" water.
A week later Ken and Mac met to discuss the matter. They went over the list in Mac's old diary, and for the first time in decades, recalled the events of more than 45 years ago. Ken updated Mac with facts of the CIA's Kalpa Vigraha experiments that were not revealed to him earlier. For the first time Mac learnt that there had been other "watering teams" operating in many parts of the world in the early 1960s. Ken had brought with him a much longer list, showing corrections made over time to the names of female test-subjects who had married or remarried and stopped using their maiden names.
The CIA had been keeping a meticulous watch ("kalpa-tag", they called it) over almost all test-subjects around the globe, and monitoring their lives in secrecy. There was not much to monitor, really. CIA's kalpa vigraha cell's job was, and still continues to be, to report back if a recipient of the charged water (wherever he or she was in the world) was alive. The Reason? All persons subjected to the Kalpa Vigraha experiment were expected to live very long lives, past the age of 100 at least, perhaps crossing 110 and even reaching the age of 120. Of course this does not include those who died unnatural deaths in road-accidents or other mishaps, murder, suicide, accidental poisoning, or dying in conflicts or war.
Mac updated and corrected the names on his own list, of people whom his own Watering Team had subjected to the experiments in the United States. In some cases he replaced the word "negro" to "African American" as it is accepted today. Ken would not have him keep the names on the larger list of people world-wide. It was irrelevant, he said.
Ken also revealed to him that he had learnt many years after he had retired that both he and Mac apart from a dozen other CIA staff had also been unsuspectingly subject to the Kalpa Vigraha experiment before being allotted their watering team assignment. Both men shed tears following this disclosure. It was deeply disturbing now despite the loyalty with which they had served the agency.
Mac, our source, the now-retired CIA agent who led the Watering Team in the United States chose to disclose his own list to us. But before he did that he removed the names of those test subjects he believed were still alive, as he felt he would not be able to "face" any of them if they were to ever appear on TV against the CIA when the list was published by us.
The list of those who had died comprised of the following names. What is astonishing is that all the persons whose names Mac gave us had lived to an age of above 110 before they died, some even reaching the age of 115 and above.-
Fannie Thomas, Sarah Knauss, Mary McKinney, Lucy Hannah, Margaret Skeete, Elizabeth Bolden, Maggie Barnes, Edna Parker, Bettie Wilson, Susie Gibson, Zora Wriggle, Maude Davis Farris-Luse, Delina Filkins, Mathew Beard, Carrie Lazenby, Myrtle Dorsey, Elena Slough, Wilhelmina Geringer Kott, Clara Huhn, Ettie Mae Greene, Emma Verona Johnston, Odie Mathews, Florence Knapp, Irene Frank, Emma Tillman, Grace Thaxton, Minnie Ward, Arbella Ewing, Catherine Hagel, Fred H. Hale, Sr., Bertha Fry, Mae Harrington, Agatha Mitchell, Moses Hardy, Corinne Dixon Taylor, Bettie Chatmon, Mary Christian, Johnson Parks, Mary Parr, John Ingram McMorran, Mary Electa Nobel Bidwell, Martha Graham, Gladys Swetland, Mary Randall, Mary Anna Boone.
Four names, that of Ruth Golonka, Willie Lee Morgan, Steven Martin and Bert Jenkins were found to be of people who had died "accidentally". Ruth Golonka, died of a car accident, Willie Lee Morgan was murdered. Both Steven Martin and Bert Jenkins had died in Vietnam.
The Loss of the Kalpa Vigraha
(The following information was sought and received by us from another source (No. 2) still working in the CIA)
The Kalpa Vigraha, the CIA store-room inventory item labeled "ST Circus Mustang-0183", was not seen or heard of for many decades. An audit conducted in 1996 revealed that the heavy metal-lined chest was very much in the store, but that the idol and the manuscript had been "misplaced". In a search conducted over many weeks, spanning many states, and enquiries made from many retired personnel, the agency was able to trace the manuscript from the house of a microbiologist the CIA had many years ago hired for analysis of the "charged" kalpa vigraha water. The manuscript was found but the whereabouts of the Kalpa Vigraha is still a mystery. Following the discovery of the manuscript, a spate of mysterious deaths of microbiologists followed. The media and the internet were rife with conspiracy theories on the death of the rather alarming number of them, but few laid suspicion on the CIA until our above-mentioned source No 2, a serving agent of the CIA spilled the beans. However hard it will be to pin all these inexplicable deaths on the CIA, the coincidences are equally hard to rule out if source No.2 is honest regarding the facts. We would not like to go into the details revealed to us and would rather allow police and the investigation agencies to arrive at their own conclusions with regard to the deaths.
According to our CIA source no.2 the Kalpa Vigraha has since been smuggled out of the United States to India. The latest information received at the CIA headquarters is that it lies in the possession of some software employees or IT professionals at Hyderabad, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. For the first time in 48 years, photographs of the Kalpa Vigraha, depicting the idol from four different directions were circulated around the world by the CIA with an enormous cash reward for its recovery.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009
Spread out amongst the dense jungles of Cambodia hide the remains of an ancient and grand civilization. Once inhabited by a people known as the Khmer, today millions of tourists visit the temples at Angkor to get a glimpse of the majesty of this once proud city. While most visitors focus on the beauty of the city’s towering temples, another story lies in the intricate stone carvings adorning the buildings. These inscriptions tell of everyday life, grand military conquests and perhaps most intriguing of all, strange mythological creatures. But are all the fantastic animals depicted at Angkor purely myth, or are some of them based on real creatures that once lived?
The Khmer began to develop as a unique culture in Cambodia around 2000 years ago. Early contact with Indian Garudatraders had a tremendous influence on this developing society, bringing agricultural, mathematical and literary knowledge to the coastal regions of Cambodia. This contact also brought with it Hindu beliefs, in particular the worship of Vishnu and Shiva.
In later years, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to the Khmer, followed by Theravada Buddhism in the thirteenth century.1 Even a casual perusal of the stone carvings at Angkor shows the importance that Hindu and Buddhist beliefs had to these ancient people.
The most common creatures represented at Angkor come from Hindu mythology. One of the most unique of these is the Garuda, a creature comprised of the head, wings and talons of an eagle with the body of a man. One of the three principle animal deities in Hindu mythology, the Garuda is the king of the birds and enemy of the serpent.
Some of the most impressive examples of the Garuda at Angkor can be found along the outside walls at Preah Khan. This impressive site also contains many wonderful examples of giant trees fused with the natural stonework of the site.
While the Garuda is most likely a purely mythological being based on a combination of two real creatures (the eagle and man), our next animal may share its mythological heritage with a living animal. NagaThe highlight of any trip to Angkor is usually a visit to the vast and towering temple complex known as Angkor Wat. Upon passing through the outer gates, a causeway flanked by seven-headed naga serpents leads to the central temple complex.
Known from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the naga is a snake of gigantic proportions. A staple of Southeast Asian architecture, in Thailand the naga is depicted as a large crested serpent. However at Angkor, the naga loses its crest in favor of a more ominous multi-headed appearance reminiscent of the Hydra from Greek mythology.
Many fantastic abilities are attributed to the naga of myth and legend, including the power to shape shift into human form and walk among man. Buddhist scriptures describe a variety of killing methods available to the naga, including a fatal poisonous bite, the strength to constrict its victims within its deadly coils, and the ability to spit a paralyzing venom.
Most ominous of all, the naga is said to be able to kill simply by staring into the eyes of its victims. 2 Nagas This same power was attributed to another mythological snake, the basilisk of mediaeval Europe whose powers were brought to a wide audience in the third Harry Potter book and movie.
But is the naga purely a creature of myth, or is its legend based on a real animal that once lived? Belief in the naga is strong among the inhabitants of Southeast Asia. Every year hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists gather along the shores of the Mekong River to take part in the Bang Fai Phaya Nark festival during which naga fireballs can be seen rising from the water along Thailand’s border with Laos.
The source of this strange luminous phenomenon is attributed to the naga, with some legends describing the balls of reddish light as the eggs of the serpent floating out of the water. In recent years, the appearance of the genuine phenomenon has been obscured by modern sound and light shows on the Thai side and Laotians who send up fireworks from the opposite side in an attempt to fool the Thais.
Modern skeptics dismiss the naga fireballs as nothing more than Laotian fireworks witnessed by gullible Thais. However, the long history of the fireballs, dating back hundreds of years, argues that there may be something more to the show than just modern trickery.
Sightings of giant serpents continue to this day in Southeast Asia. In October of 2000, cryptozoologist Richard Freeman journeyed to Thailand with the Discovery Channel in search of the naga. The findings of this expedition were mixed.
While real evidence such as a reputed naga bone and a video of the creature both turned out to be misidentifications, Freeman found the eyewitnesses he spoke with to be sincere and credible. The results of their investigations led Freeman to conclude that a genuine giant serpent most likely does inhabit the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia.2
Another Hindu deity commonly found around Angkor is the monkey god Hanuman. Particularly impressive depictions of him can be found at Banteay Samre. Monkeys certainly abound in the tropical forests of Cambodia, but another much more intriguing apelike creature is said to inhabit the region as well.
Known as the orang dalam to the indigenous people of Malaysia, legends of this mysterious creature in many ways seem to be almost Hanumanidentical to stories of Bigfoot in North America. Said to stand between six and eight feet tall and give off a pungent odor, encounters with this jungle inhabitant have occurred with some frequency over the last 200 years.
Intrigued by the stories of the orang dalam, author and explorer Harold Stephens mounted an expedition in search of the creature in the early 1970’s. As recounted in “Return to Adventure Southeast Asia,” Stephens journeyed deep into a mostly unexplored part of the Malay jungle near to an area the orang dalam was said to inhabit.
Upon reaching their destination, the expedition discovered a game trail used by a variety of animals. Among the tracks they documented was a long series of enormous footprints 19 inches long and 10 inches wide. The native guides confidently identified the prints as those of the orang dalam.3
Due to the credibility of the witness and the remote location in which these prints were found, fraud seems unlikely, but skeptics remain unconvinced. While the ape-man carvings at Banteay Ta ProhmSamre are merely depictions of Hindu deities, when viewing them one can’t help but be reminded of the orang dalam, a very similar being with strong evidence in favor of its existence.
But not all of the mysterious creatures depicted at Angkor come from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. One of the last sites I visited was the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, said to contain an animal carving unique in the reqion. Ta Prohm is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the area with an incredible blending of ancient architecture and aggressive jungle growth.
Fig trees weave in and out of the crumbling stones both dismantling the fragile construction and yet holding it together. Archeologists involved with restoring Ta Prohm are left with a difficult decision. Cutting away the trees will prevent further destruction of the site. However, their removal will undoubtedly cause damage to both the stonework and perhaps just as importantly, to the atmosphere of this sacred site.
After wandering through the temple and marveling at the twisting fig trees for over an hour, Dinosaur GlyphI finally located the glyph I was searching for near the exit to the complex. Before me, enclosed in a round circle, was a clear depiction of what could only be a stegosaurus.
The creature had a small neck and four short legs with a long tail. Along its humped back, a series of plates were clearly carved. As I stared in a wonder, a guide leading two American tourists approached the spot and casually asked them if they believed dinosaurs lived 800 years ago? He then proudly showed them the stegosaurus carving to their utter amazement.
Stylistically similar circular carvings can be found all over Ta Prohm, but none of them show this same creature. While to my knowledge reputed sightings of a living stegosaurus have not been made, other saurians have been glimpsed. In 1999, Papua New Guinea’s The Independent newspaper reported that a “dinosaur-like reptile” was witnessed near Lake Murray.
The creature was described as having a long neck and tail with a body nearly two meters wide and “as long as a dump truck.” It walked upright on thick hind legs and had two smaller forelegs. Most intriguing of all, the creature was said to have “largish Ta Prohmtriangular scoops on the back” very similar to a stegosaurus.
The dinosaur-like creature was witnessed by local villagers traveling in a canoe and was glimpsed the following day by a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and a church elder.4 Obviously the creature did not match any wildlife indigenous to the region and to this day the sighting remains unexplained.
The most famous of all living dinosaur legends comes from the Congo. Here it is said that a creature resembling a small brontosaurus lives to this very day. Known as the mokele-mbembe, the animal is described by locals as having a body similar in size to an elephant with four short legs. Unlike an elephant however, the creature is said to have a long serpententine neck with a small head and a matching tail.
Numerous expeditions have gone in search of the mokele-mbembe and have brought back tantalizing clues to its existence. In 1992, a Japanese film crew working on a documentary filmed a creature moving rapidly through Lake Tele, one of the places where the beast is said to live. The footage showed what appeared to be a creature with a long neck that yet again matched no known local wildlife.5
A more mundane explanation for the carving found at Angkor is of course that the Khmer unearthed the fossilized remains of a stegosaurus 800 years ago and it was these fossils that prompted the carving. Unfortunately we will probably never know what the real motivation was for showcasing this fascinating monster.
From dinosaurs to ape-men to giant snakes, the plentiful stone carvings at Angkor offer much to ponder over. While most visitors gaze in wonder at the massive towers and grand architecture, the subtle details of the intricate stone imagery offer a much more intriguing puzzle. Whether the Khmer meant to incorporate depictions of fantastic animals they knew to exit locally or whether they were simply carving based on Hindu and Buddhist mythology, we may never know. But either way, the carvings at Angkor rank among the best of the ancient world and can be appreciated by all.
Friday, January 30, 2009
With my first two days on Easter Island behind me, I decided I had explored as far as my feet would take me and it was time to rent a car. Shopping around turned out to be pointless as most places seemed to have similar 1980’s Hyundai Sidekicks for the same price. I searched in vain for one with an automatic transmission but was told that there were no automatics on the whole island. Reluctantly I slid behind the wheel of my chosen Hyundai and tried to remember how to work a clutch. Luckily, Easter Island has no traffic lights and only a couple of stop signs so it makes for a pretty relaxing place to get re-acquainted with driving stick. After a few embarrassing lurches and stalls, I was in gear and on my way out of town to my first stop, Vinapu.
One of Thor Heyerdahl’s most visually compelling arguments for a Pre-Incan presence on Easter Island can be found at the superbly constructed stone platform known as Ahu Vinapu. Countless visitors have remarked on its shocking similarity to the great cyclopean stone walls found around Cuzco, Peru. Heyerdahl states that “Vinapu alone stands as a mirrored reflection of the classical masterpieces of the Incas or their predecessors.”1
World traveler and writer David Childress remarked on further similarities between the two architectural styles.
At Ollyantaytambo, Sillustani, Cuzco and other sites in the Andes, many of the large polygonal blocks have strange knobs on them, the function of which has never been understood. Here on the southeast corner of the wall [at Vinapu] was a knob, just like the ones in the Andes!3
Walking around the platform I thought back to my own time at Cuzco just weeks before. I had seen many examples of the knobs Childress refers to and they are visually very distinctive and hard to miss. Some examples of the stone knobs I saw in Peru can be seen in the photo on the right. After twenty minutes of searching I could find nothing at Vinapu that resembled the protrusions so common in Cuzco, especially in the southeast corner of the wall. Because these knobs are so unique, the existence of one at Vinapu would provide compelling evidence for the influence or Peruvian architects on Easter Island in ancient times. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t relocate whatever Childress had seen 20 years before.
Even without the stone knobs, at first glance, the masonry does look almost identical to Incan architecture. The large stones along the face are precisely fitted together using no mortar. The entire structure also has a slightly rounded shape and across the face and each individual stone is slightly convex or pillow-shaped. Incorporating beveled stones like these was another signature of Incan construction.
However, orthodox researchers point out that a closer inspection of the site shows some flaws in Heyerdahl’s logic. The greatest Incan walls were built of large boulders of various shapes superbly fitted together so that not even a thin blade could be inserted between them. But the wall at Vinapu simply gives a similar illusion. The large stones on the outside are merely a cosmetic facing for an interior filled with rubble. Closer inspection renders the similarity of the sites to be largely superficial.
Skeptics of a Peruvian influence at Vinapu also point out that the superb construction in evidence at this site is unique on the island, rather than being the norm. However, when Captain Cook arrived on Rapa Nui, he described the existence of another platform similar to Vinapu in Hanga Roa.1 Unfortunately this ahu was dismantled so that its stones could be used in the construction of a harbor. Since it was taken apart before it could be properly studied, most researchers choose to ignore its existence.
Another ahu with stonework resembling that found at Vinapu was documented by William Thomson in 1886. Along the north coast he described and sketched a platform called Ahu Ahau that has since fallen into the sea.1 Lastly, while conducting excavations at Anakena beach in 1987, Thor Heyerdahl’s team unearthed another finely-constructed massive stone wall just beneath the surface.1 While still available to researchers, no follow-up digs have occurred to further explore the underground ruins at Anakena.
So certainly in ancient times, the fine construction in evidence at Ahu Vinapu was not unique. Unfortunately most of the stone walls to which it could be best compared are no longer in existence or visible. Whether or not Vinapu genuinely represents a South American influence on Easter Island is a point that will no doubt continue to be debated.
After marveling at the fine stone work, I climbed back into my jeep and continued east stopping at several platforms and moai until I reached Ahu Hanga Te’e. From a distance this ahu didn’t seem to be particularly impressive as all the moai that once stood atop it now lay face down. But a walk around the site revealed a number of interesting features. The generally accepted chronology for stone carving on the island identifies the earliest moai as those with rounded bald heads, while later moai were carved with flat heads to allow a topknot or pukao to be placed on top. These topknots were carved from a soft red scoria and increased the height of moai that were already being carved larger and larger.
Around Hanga Te’e a variety of pukao lay strewn about. Some even featured deep petroglyphs and designs. As I got closer to the platform, I noticed another curious feature. Just in front of the ahu in the ceremonial center was a ring of stones 60 feet across with a single larger stone marking the center. At one time these stone rings were quite common on Easter Island, but now only a few examples remain. Early accounts tell how the islanders used the stones ceremonially to track the position of the sun, the moon and the stars.4 How exactly this was accomplished and interpreted is no longer known.
As the sun fell lower in the sky I decided I could make it to one more major site and continued east towards the largest stone platform on the island, Ahu Tongariki. Measuring almost 700 feet across, this great stone platform is an imposing sight. Atop it sit 15 carefully placed moai varying in height from 17 to 26 feet and weighing an average of 40 tons. Tongariki suffered a near disaster in 1960 when an earthquake off the coast of Chili generated a 25 foot tidal wave that swept ashore reducing the ahu to rubble and scattering the statues more than 400 feet inland. An intense restoration project in 1990 restored the platform to its former glory.2
Currently no other ahu supports more statues, but during Thomson’s stay in 1886 he documented an ahu on an inaccessible terrace along the coast east of Rano Kau that supported an impressive 16 statues. Unfortunately, as with Ahu Ahau, this platform also succumbed to the sea as the fragile volcanic cliff it was built upon was slowly undercut by the relentless waves below.1 In fact a number of the island’s most mysterious and perhaps most ancient sites have been lost to the ocean in just the last hundred years. Now smothered in the waves below, we’ll never know what secrets these unique sites once held.
The next morning I visited the birthplace of most of the great statues on the island. I steered my jeep to a stop next to the only other car in the parking lot and made my way along the trail up the slopes of Ranu Raraku. The soft volcanic tuft of this long extinct volcano provided perfect working material to carve the vast majority of the moai found around the island. So far, 887 moai have been counted on Easter Island and of these, all but 55 were carved from the slope before me. In fact, the statues were carved in such abundance that almost 400 moai still surround the slopes or lay in various stages of completion and never made it to a coastal ahu for display.
As the carving of the moai continued through the years, the stone monuments were made to be larger and larger. Still attached to the quarry is a moai of truly astounding proportions. Known as El Gigante (The Giant) it measures almost 72 feet in length and is estimated to weigh almost 300 tons. If it had ever been completed, and a topknot placed on top, El Gigante would have stood taller than an 8-story building.
Walking along the length of this massive carving I pondered the question that has intrigued and perplexed all who visit Easter Island. How were the moai transported to their ahu? The largest moai ever to be placed on a platform stood over 32 feet high and weighed around 80 tons. The question of how such colossal monuments could be transported over as many as 12 miles of rugged terrain has been the subject of much speculation throughout the years.
Eric Von Daniken suggested extraterrestrials with anti-gravity technology as the most likely explanation, but it’s hardly necessary to resort to such far-out speculation. Some have theorized that in the days when trees could still be found on the island, the trunks were used as rollers to ease the transport of the moai. Others have suggested that the ground was greased with a mixture of vegetable products and that the moai were then dragged to their ahu on sleds.2 Neither of these explanations is completely satisfying though.
Throughout the centuries, the native population has stuck to a single story. They describe how the chief would use his mana or spiritual power to command the statues to walk to their desired locations. Most researchers dismiss these claims, but in 1986 Thor Heyerdahl was able to recreate a walking movement using two teams of islanders controlling ropes attached to a moai. By pulling back and forth on the ropes, the teams were able to “walk” the statue forward by tilting it side to side.1
However, recent excavations along the ancient roads that radiate out from Ranu Raraku have cast further doubt on how that moai were moved. Sections of the road were found to be broad and flat, suitable for “walking” a statue or using rollers. But other sections were V-shaped, rendering most transportation methods suggested thus far impossible.2 The roads also traveled up and down slopes and did not lead all the way to the platforms that were the moais’ final destination. The mystery of the monuments’ transport still remains unsolved but new developments may bring us closer to the real answer.
I followed the branching path to the left and climbed up a narrow gap into the interior of the crater. Dotting the slope, surrounding the banks of a fresh water lake, over a hundred stone faces basked in the sunlight buried up to their necks in eroded soil and volcanic chunks dislodged from the cliffs above. Hundreds of years ago, as the environment collapsed, water sources dried up, leaving the lake before me as one of the few remaining locations with fresh water.
Along the banks of this valuable resource, a thick crop of totora reeds have been a point of contention for over 50 years. Thor Heyerdahl claimed that the reeds were identical to those found at Lake Titicaca in the Andes, and must have been imported by the earliest South American settlers. However, pollen analysis carried out by John Flenley in the 1980’s clearly showed that the reeds have grown in the lake for over 30,000 years and thus made their way to the island by natural means.2
As I walked around the edge of the lake, I took a moment to examine one of the stone faces along the path. The moai found at Ranu Raraku have a unique appearance in that they have no eyes. Instead the giants were completed and polished in every other way, but the eye sockets were carved last, etched out only once a moai had reached its designated ahu.
It was long believed that the great statues on Easter Island had no real eyes, but in 1978, native archaeologist Sonia Haoa discovered fragments of coral and red scoria that exactly matched the eye sockets of a statue above.2 The discovery that the moai did in fact have inlaid eyes proved shocking to many researchers as this practice was not a Polynesian custom. The practice was common in many other ancient cultures however, including those from the Middle East and Central and South America.1
As I continued along the shore I thought about all the conflicting evidence I had seen so far. Mainstream archaeologists insist on a purely Polynesian heritage for the original population of Easter Island. But the artifacts and sites Thor Heyerdahl and others had documented seemed to paint a very different picture. In the days ahead I would continue to discover that Easter Island’s history is a complex puzzle with no easy solutions.
Stranded in isolation, 2000 miles from the nearest inhabited shore, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui has become famous as one of the most mysterious places in the world. Known in ancient times as Te Pito o te Henua (the Navel of the World), the island is most well known for its massive statues recognized throughout the world. But a plethora of other enigmas have intrigued researchers as well.
I stepped off the plane and soaked up the warm tropical air in the last rays of daylight. After a five-hour plane ride I had finally made it to one of the most remote unexplained places in the world. In fact, this lonely island can only be reached two ways, from Santiago, Chile in the east as I had come, or from Papeete, Tahiti to the west as I would go one week later.
After picking up my bag in the small terminal, I slid into the backseat of one of the few taxis on the island and took a two-minute ride to the Hanga Roa Hotel. The accommodation options on Easter Island are relatively limited. Only one hotel has air-conditioning and it wasn’t mine. My room did come complete with a fan and a small television. Unfortunately there was only one electrical outlet in the room, so I had to choose between the two. It wasn’t much of a choice though since the TV only received one or two channels and they were both in Spanish.
With a full week to explore the island, I was in no rush.
My hotel offered full-day tours whisking visitors to all the major sites in a single day, but I wanted to discover the island at a more leisurely pace. The next morning I decided to walk around Hanga Roa, the only town on the island. Consisting of one main road, two craft markets, a few small hotels and several surprisingly good restaurants, Hanga Roa can be covered on foot quickly.
Just west of town, down a shaded dirt road I made my way to the island’s only museum, the Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert. Housing a small collection of artifacts and statues discovered on the island, the museum is a good place to learn more about the island’s history and what is known about its unique culture.
The first confirmed European vessel to reach Rapa Nui was a Dutch ship commanded by Jacob Roggeveen that encountered the isolated shores on Easter Sunday, 1722 thereby giving the island its modern name. Roggeveen was actually searching for the islands of Mangareva far to the west and came upon Easter Island quite by accident. Stormy weather and rough seas prevented the Dutch from venturing ashore for more than a day, but even in this limited time, they were able to record a great deal of information on the status of the island at the time.
Roggeveen found the islanders to generally be friendly and accommodating. They seemed to have ample food and were in good spirits. The Dutch marveled at the colossal statues standing around the island and noted that the islanders seemed to pay the monuments great respect. It would be nearly fifty years before the next Europeans would lay eyes on the island.
In 1770 a Spanish expedition reached Easter Island and reported conditions to be much the same as the Dutch had recorded. However, four years later when Captain James Cook arrived, he found the island to be utterly changed and in a dismal state. Cook recorded the islanders as being thin and miserable with scarcely enough food to get by.
Even the land had transformed. In fact he did not see “anything which can induce ships that are not in the utmost distress to touch at this island.”1 Cook’s expedition was also the first to note that many of the massive statues that once proudly gazed out from the shore were now toppled and lay face-down or were purposely broken or disfigured.
Over the next hundred years a variety of vessels visited the island culminating in a massive slave raid in 1862 in which eight Peruvian ships decimated the local population taking with them the island king, his family and nearly all the learned men and people of stature on the island. Almost 1000 people were taken to work as slaves before the Peruvian government intervened and agreed to send the survivors back.
Disease and harsh working conditions had laid waste to these once proud people and only 100 individuals boarded the ship for the journey home. By the time they reached Easter Island, only 15 had survived the return trip and with them they brought a smallpox epidemic that few would escape. Within a few years, a population of thousands had been reduced to a mere one hundred and eleven.1
Of those who escaped the slave raids or survived the epidemic, much was learned about early life on the island. Unfortunately a great deal of information was lost forever. Many of the earliest foreign residents on the island were missionaries, intent on converting the local populace to Christianity. Through this process, many of the old beliefs were lost or suppressed and countless artifacts were destroyed in the belief that they represented pagan idols. This tremendous loss of early history has contributed greatly to the aura of mystery that still surrounds Easter Island to this day.
With a better understanding of the island’s past, I made my way back down to the coast to investigate some of the sights near town. Clouds were blowing in with a darkening sky as I arrived at Cook’s Bay, just north of Hanga Roa. Walking past three horses grazing lazily, I stared up at two of the great stone statues that the island is so famous for. Known as moai, these towering giants are the first images conjured when most people think of Easter Island. However all of the moai currently standing atop their platforms known as ahu were re-raised in modern times, having all been toppled by around 1860.
But what caused the great stone monuments to fall? Speculation has ranged from earthquakes to a volcanic eruption, but more recent evidence clearly indicates that the statues were felled by the locals themselves. Early accounts of the island tell us that the moai were built in the image of great rulers and that each had its own name. Indeed, while similar, no two moai look alike.
It seems that sometime in the late 1700’s, warring tribes finally turned their aggression towards the relics of the past and during this period many of the moai were toppled or defaced. Over the next hundred years the violence escalated and retaliation ensued causing the statues to be systematically brought down until none were left standing.2 What caused the individual island groups to become so destructive towards a past they once cherished is still an area of intense speculation and we may never know the real answers.
As the sky continued to darken, I pressed on, walking further north along the coast. It’s hard to stop walking on Easter Island since there is always another moai, ahu or other fascinating sight just out of reach. I passed platforms with standing moai and others where they still remained toppled, lying face-down in the earth. As I walked along a cove, the sky finally broke and pelted me with a light shower of rain.
Spotting a nearby cave, I dashed inside to wait out the storm. Easter Island is speckled with caves, and many are well hidden and now serve as hiding places for ancient family treasures. I looked around my cave, but couldn’t find anything of interest except for an old Coke can. As the sky cleared, I decided it was finally time to head back towards town.
The next morning I took a taxi south from Hanga Roa up to the top of the extinct volcanic crater Rano Kau, home to the ancient ceremonial site of Orongo. With a stunning view west across the Pacific, it was here that one of the most important ceremonies on Easter Island took place. Every Spring, chiefs from the major tribes throughout the island would come together at this village to participate in the birdman competition.
Each tribe would enter its own competitor who climbed 1000 feet down the steep cliffs and plunged into the ocean below. He would then swim through shark infested waters for over a mile to reach the tiny nearby island of Motu Nui where he would wait for the laying of the first egg from a migratory bird known as the sooty tern. The first competitor to return with the egg won the honor of becoming birdman for his master. Upon being crowned birdman, this individual went off to live a life of seclusion for one year where all his needs were attended and he was afforded many privileges.2
Since the birdman cult was a relatively late invention on Easter Island, the ceremonial center at Orongo has survived into modern times relatively intact. I walked along a well worn path past low circular stone-houses built into the hillside. Some of them contain painted artwork that is still barely visible. Unfortunately entrance is not permitted.
Past the houses I continued south along the edge of the cliffs. Early accounts of the island described an ahu called Rikiriki with a series of moai suspended impossibly mid-way up the sheer cliff-face between Orongo and the ocean below. Sadly, erosion from the fierce waves caused these statues to topple into the sea before they could be properly studied. Although documented by the Smithsonian in 1889, some researchers have even gone as far as dismissing the accounts of this ahu to pure fantasy and indeed many books on the island no longer mention this mysterious site.3
Returning back along the path, high above Motu Nui I came to a series of boulders called Mata Ngarau with images of the birdman and other motifs carved into them. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl spent many years trying to convince the world that the great stone monuments found on Easter Island were created by an expedition of Pre-Incan explorers arriving from Peru.
On the surface, much of his evidence seems compelling, but over the years many of Heyerdahl’s theories have not stood up to scrutiny. One of Heyerdahl’s dubious claims is that “the practice of ear lengthening is unknown in Polynesia, but Incas of royal birth adopted the habit of their predecessors by piercing their earlobes and putting large plugs in them.”1
While it is true that similar images can be found in both places, birdman symbols also show up in Polynesia as well, I had even photographed some myself on the distant island of Maui, Hawaii earlier in the year. It is true that there are striking similarities between Easter Island birdmen and motifs found in South American pottery, but the representation of a human-bird hybrid is by no means a concept exclusive to South America.
Heyerdahl tried to shape the island’s history in South American terms. He believed that Pre-Incan explorers first discovered the island and later set sail further west where they captured Polynesians whom they enslaved. However, over the years historians and archaeologists have come down strongly against Heyerdahl going as far as to portray many of his theories as racist
The currently accepted history of the island as described by mainstream scientists describes the earliest inhabitants coming solely from Polynesia. Any South American influences are attributed to Polynesians from Easter Island setting sail to South America and not the other way around. Even this contact is described as being extremely limited and is downplayed in the extreme by most researchers.2 The more I walked around the island and the more I saw, the more I became convinced that the true island history was more complex than either side wanted to admit.