HANGA ROA, EASTER ISLAND—The human bones lay baking in the sun. It wasn’t the first time Hetereki Huke had stumbled upon an open grave like this one.
For years, the swelling waves had broken open platform after platform containing ancient remains. Inside the tombs were old obsidian spearheads, pieces of cremated bone and, sometimes, parts of the haunting statues that have made this island famous.
But this time was different for Huke. The crumbling site was where generations of his own ancestors had been buried.
“Those bones were related to my family,” said Huke, an architect, recalling that day last year.
Centuries ago, Easter Island’s civilization collapsed, but the statues left behind here are a reminder of how powerful it must have been. And now, many of the remains of that civilization may be erased, the United Nations warns, by the rising sea levels rapidly eroding Easter Island’s coasts.
Many of the moai statues and nearly all of the ahu, the platforms that in many cases also serve as tombs for the dead, ring the island. With some climate models predicting that sea levels will rise by 1.5 to 1.8 metres by 2100, residents and scientists fear that storms and waves now pose a threat like never before.
“You feel an impotency in this, to not be able to protect the bones of your own ancestors,” said Camilo Rapu, the head of Ma’u Henua, the Indigenous organization that controls Rapa Nui National Park, which covers most of the island, and its archeological sites. “It hurts immensely.”
Similar fates are faced by islanders throughout the Pacific Ocean and along its margins, in places like the tiny Marshall Islands that are disappearing under the sea and in the sinking megacity of Jakarta, Indonesia, where streets become rivers after storms hit. Kiribati, a republic of coral atolls north of Fiji, may be uninhabitable in a generation. Residents may become refugees.