Rapa Nui and its moai
It's been called the most isolated spot on Earth. Located about 3,700 kilometres from the western edge of the South American continent and almost as far from Tahiti, Easter Island lies as solitary as an island can be in the South Pacific. Aside from a couple of rocky islets just offshore, there isn't any other land — inhabited or otherwise — for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. But what makes Easter Island — or Rapa Nui, as it's called by its inhabitants — that much more extraordinary is that it looks completely unlike any other island in the South Pacific.
But where did they come from and who built them? These are now some of the easier questions to answer about Rapa Nui, first "discovered" by Europeans when a Dutch captain happened upon the island on Easter Sunday in 1722.
But whether it was Hotu Matua or someone else, archeologists know that the first inhabitants of the island arrived between 400 AD and 800 AD. University of Oregon archeologist Joan Wozniak says, "we have archeological evidence that people have been there since 800 AD and Bill Ayres (another University of Oregon archeologist) had found charcoal that was dated to 500 AD. So they've probably been there for at least 1500 years."
Like other Polynesians, the first visitors to Rapa Nui brought with them everything they needed to 'set up' on a new island. As Wozniak points out, the only animals they had were those they brought with them, and in this case, that meant mainly chickens. "Other Polynesians brought dogs and pigs, but we've never found evidence for it," she remarks. What there is evidence of — and plenty of it — is a fascination with making human-like statues.
Why the statues?
A staggering total of 887 monolithic statues — or moai, as they're called — have been located around the island, ranging in size from one metre tall to over 10 metres in height. Contrary to popular belief, however, such stone statues aren't unique to Easter Island per se. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archeologist at UCLA and one of the world's leading experts on Easter Island, says the stone statues on Rapa Nui are not unlike other statues found in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. In fact, smaller versions of the statues on Easter Island are also found in Tahiti and Hawaii, she says.
"The moai of Easter Island are not unique from the standpoint of how they were used," she says. "But their form is unique. And that is something that grew out of the individual aesthetic of Easter Island." As to their purpose, Van Tilburg says they were built for three reasons — ideological, political and economic.
In essence, the statues were a way that chiefs could display what in Polynesia is called mana, or political and spiritual power. Patricia Vargas agrees. She's the director of the Easter Island Studies Institute at the University of Chile in Santiago and spent 12 years living on the island. "The moai itself is like the house of the mana of the ancestors," she explains. "It represents a person — a person that is linked very closely to the ancestors and to the gods."
She says that in Rapa Nui culture, when a statue was carved, originally it was just a sculpture. But their belief was that at the moment they carved open the eyes, the spirit of the ancestor came into the statue through the eyes and transformed the statue into a living face."
The question about how the moai got to their final resting places is not quite so clear.
The mystery of the "walking" statues
One of the astonishing facts about the stone statues or moai of Easter Island is that 95 per cent of them all came from the same quarry, known as Rano Raraku. Of the 887 statues known to exist on the island, 397 of them are still in situ at Rano Raraku and 288 are known to have made it to their final destination: the ahus or platforms that were built to support them. But one of the biggest riddles about Easter Island is how the statues 'traveled' from the quarry to their platforms or ahus, sometimes as far as 20 or 25 kilometres away?
As she points out, in every place on the Earth where huge megalithic pieces of statues or stones were transported, the explanation of how they were moved always involves the use of logs and ropes and a lot of people. But that just didn't seem to fit the Easter Island picture. After all, there are only rolling hills and virtually no trees. Or is that what Easter Island was always like?
Moving the moai
How the Rapa Nui people transported the moai across the island has eluded visitors and archeologists alike. That's not to say that there haven't been concerted efforts to come up with a plausible explanation. Rapa Nui legend has it that the moai "walked from the quarry". Indeed, a drawing by a crew member aboard a 1728 Dutch voyage to Easter Island clearly depicts a standing moai being moved by people using ropes and perhaps even logs. But is this the real explanation?
It depends on the size and weight of the statue you're talking about, says Vargas. "Since we have statues that measure from one metre up to 10 metres high, we must search for different methods of how to transport them. Some are very slender and very fragile. Others are very heavy and very easy to transport without a problem."
It is possible that some of them could have been transported standing, which would have corresponded to the way the natives described it, but it's unlikely that was the primary way. As Vargas suggests, "you can make skids out of logs and place the statue on top, standing or on its back, and just pull it. If you have enough rope and people to do it and a lot of time to do it, you could pull a huge weight." This is quite similar to what one researcher from Los Angeles actually tried.
In essence, her theory suggests that the statue was placed horizontally on top of two large logs that were tied to the statue. Then, placing smaller logs underneath and perpendicular to the larger two logs, the statue could be rolled along using ropes and brute force.
To back up her theory she's quick to point out that the average statue on Easter Island is smaller and not as heavy as some of the big hulls of the western Polynesian canoes. "And we know that we moved these over very rough terrain from very high altitudes to low altitudes before they launched them."
So in April 1999 Van Tilburg and some colleagues tried it out and, in short, it worked. "My experiment shows that it took approximately 40 people to move an average statue and 20 people to erect it. And that it could have been done in less than 10 days," she says proudly. But while it theoretically worked, there's no certain way of knowing whether her theory is the 'right' one.
One method or many?
Vargas has seen or heard about all the theories, and there've been many — everything from extraterrestrial visitations to more plausible variations on Van Tilburg's method. Vargas, however, is not quite willing to commit to one single answer. "I think it depends on where the statue was going, the conditions of the terrain and also how big or fragile the statue was," she says. "In my mind, they were probably using more than one method."
Whatever the method (or methods), Vargas does know one thing — having modern, state of the art machinery doesn't necessarily make things easier when it comes to moving and erecting the moai. She and her colleagues from the University of Chile set up an experiment in 1992 to re-erect 15 statues on the southeast coast of the island — at Ahu Tongariti. These megalithic statues — some weighing 70 tonnes — were knocked down and widely dispersed by a devastating 1960 tsunami. "We had a really modern, computerized crane — the most advanced in the world — and we had a lot of trouble," she admits. "In fact, it took us four years of work with a group of 40 people working day after day."
So there's no doubt in the minds of researchers that the Rapa Nui people had highly perfected the art of moving and erecting the moai using ways that might now be considered primitive. But their expertise and zeal in making the statues may have had a downside. Some have suggested that as the people of Easter Island became pre-occupied with making larger and larger statues after their arrival in the island, this pursuit may have been a contributing factor to the eventual collapse of their culture.
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