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  • Writer's pictureAnna Luna Rossi

Discovering Easter Island's traditional medicine

Easter Island is well known for its gigantic stone statues; known as moais. But it also has a lot to tell us when it comes to traditional medicine and healing practices. Wandering around the island of Rapa Nui, its traditional name, for two weeks taught me how full of surprises and of ancestral knowledge the culture of its people is.

On a quiet summer morning, walking along the island coast in hopes of getting some pictures of the Pacific Ocean in the early light of the day, something catches my eyes. A young man is walking on the rocks, cupping saltwater and splashing it across his body. He seems to be looking for something.... but what?

Curiosity pushes me to walk down the hill and ask him. When you get closer to the sea, you notice that the volcanic rocks are actually engraved with old symbols: spirals, fish, or shell drawings mostly. Those symbols are petroglyphs: you can find them everywhere on the island, memories of ancient ceremonies, offerings, or stories.

"I'm collecting seaweeds" is what I get as an answer to my questions. The young man signals me to wait, strolls to the water, and comes back with a handful of fresh seaweed, glistening with sea droplets. "In ancient rituals, seaweeds were used to strengthen the body and the skin." He mimics the gesture. "Men rubbed seaweeds across their torso, their back, their arms before important events."

In traditional Rapa Nui healing practices, seaweed is also eaten as both a remedy and a prevention for colds, asthma, but also skin conditions. Preventive medicine, through medicinal plants or rituals, has an important place in the islanders' traditions. "When you're sick, your mana is weakened." Mana is the word given to the energy that flows through your body, but also through every part of the nature around you, and through the moais of the island. "Rituals, traditional medicine, can help strengthen the mana.". Those who believe in mana know that it can be found in everything that surrounds you.

Medicinal plants play a central role in the healing arts on Easter Island. This is because of the relationship existing between people, the land, and the ocean: this connection is called kaiŋa. The islanders have strong faith in the ability of the island's resources to both nourish you and heal you.

"Sea snails, too, are used as food but also to craft jewelry or objects." He illustrates his words by showing me the small mollusk he just found between the rocks. Opening it with his knife, there is nacre inside the shell. This is one of the parts used for artifacts.


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