Archaeological Area Ahu Tepeu

by Hetereki Huke – Tiare Aguilera

The Village of Ahu Tepeu is one of the major prehistoric settlements on Rapa Nui still in existence and is notable for its size and the large number of archaeological traces that are present at the site, such as ceremonial structures, living areas and farms. These coastal villages were usually elite settlements with structures of a high symbolic value.  Folklore relates this village with the king Tu’u Ko Ihu, a builder and a sculptor who is credited with the creation of the Moai Kava Kava, Hiti Rau and Nuku Te Mangō.  Tuu Ko Iho is thought to have been the husband of Queen Avareipua, sister of the mythical High King Hotu a Matu’a, who had arrived with his people to the Navel of the World.

Ahu Tepeu is located on the northwestern coast of Rapa Nui, dominating the sector of Roiho or Lava of Hiva Hiva, Maunga Terevaka and Ahu Akivi. The village is a typical coastal settlement with its major focus on the ceremonial center made up of one or more Ahu (funerary or ceremonial platforms, which in some cases have Moai statues).  In front of the ceremonial area is a large esplanade and then, on the slopes, the residential structures with houses and fire pits and the productive constructions, all set up in a semi-circle around the Ahu complex.

The major prehistoric villages were political centers which dominated an extensive territory, within which were smaller settlements.  They were situated in privileged areas with visual domination of the territory and where there was arable land, stone material, fresh water and marine resources, all necessary for subsistence.  These villages tended to be located on protected coves which facilitated the movement of boats and which counted on springs of fresh water from the aquifers which drained at certain points on the coast.  Unlike the majority of the villages of this type, Ahu Tepeu is found on top of a high cliff with spectacular scenery, but its nearness to the rocky area of Roiho meant that it could rely on the water resources which arise in the caves found in this sector.

In this ceremonial center, there are five Ahu, three of which still show fragments of Moai which were once erected on the platforms.  Records show that a complete torso of a Moai has disappeared, as noted in 1956 by the team under the leadership of the archaeologist Carlyle Smith during the Thor Heyerdahl archaeological expedition.  Like other archaeological elements, the remaining statues have been impacted by humans and animals, demonstrating the on-going modifications and erasing evidence which could be unique.  As at other ceremonial complexes, here too it is possible to appreciate the distinct stages of construction in which structures were dismantled to make them bigger or to build new ones, utilizing the material on hand.  The ceremonial centers also show traces of a gradual abandonment of the villages, with houses being razed and their stone blocks being utilized in the construction of platforms or agricultural structures, most probably as a result of a decrease in population.

Ahu Tepeu offers exceptional examples of prehistoric domestic architecture, among which is the largest Hare Paenga on the Island, exceeding 40 meters (130 feet) in length.  The Hare Paenga is a type of house in an elliptic form with a base of carved basalt blocks (paenga) notable for having perforations on their upper surface.  The covering of the house consisted of a wooden frame, made of poles set in the blocks and joined in the middle, over which a mat of plant material was placed. Their distinctive shape, looking like an upside down boat, and size make these structures unique in Polynesia.  The front of the house included a Taupea, a terrace paved with Maea poro (rounded stones, eroded and polished by the sea). Generally the houses were clustered in small groups or associated with other structures, such as Hare moa (chicken houses), Manavai (circular stone walls, used as cultivated gardens) and Umu pae (fire pits).

Although the village and its structures fit into the model of traditional architecture, each building here presents unique variations, whether it be incorporating new elements, a special type of stonework or in the addition of primitive rock art.  These petroglyphs are etched on loose isolated blocks or on rock panels (called Papa or Puku) with geometric, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and cultural designs, such as Mangai (fish hooks), Mata (obsidian blades), Make-Make (eyes on a mask) and others. It is in the wealth of these many details that the principal importance of Ahu Tepeu is found.

Currently, the site is off-road for vehicles and can be reached by bicycle, on horseback or by walking, preferably accompanied by a local guide.