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December 21, 2022 GMT

RAPA NUI, Chile (AP) — The hillside of Rano Raraku volcano on Rapa Nui feels like a place that froze in time.

Embedded in grass and volcanic rock, almost 400 moai – the monolithic human figures carved centuries ago by this remote Pacific island’s Rapanui people -- remained untouched until recently. Some are buried from the neck down, the heads seemingly observing their surroundings from the underground.

Around them, there has been a pervasive smell of smoke from still-smoldering vegetation – the vestige of a wildfire that broke out in early October. More than 100 moai were damaged by the flames, many of them blackened by soot, though the impact on the stone remains undetermined. UNESCO recently allocated nearly $100,000 for assessment and repair plans.

In this Polynesian territory that now belongs to Chile and is widely known as Easter Island, the loss of any moai would be a blow to ancient cultural and religious traditions. Each of the moai – the nearly 400 on the volcano and more than 500 others elsewhere on the island -- represents an ancestor. A creator of words and music. A protector.