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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.

Some of the statues typical of Rapa Nui's past
Some of the statues typical of Rapa Nui's past
Instead of tropical palms and white sand beaches, Rapa Nui has rolling grasslands with hardly a tree in sight. Its shoreline is interspersed with dozens of rocky sea caves, beaches are few and far between and there are no rivers or streams at all. The only hilly areas are the remains of three volcanoes, one on each corner of the island's triangular shape. But aside from the eerie starkness of its landscape, there is one other aspect of the island that sets it apart from any other place on Earth its hundreds of megalithic human-like statues that face inland from the shore.

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.

One of the few beaches on Easter Island. Could Ovahe Beach be where Hotu Matua landed to settle the island?
One of the few beaches on Easter Island. Could Ovahe Beach be where Hotu Matua landed to settle the island?
Although it wasn't known for years whether the inhabitants of Easter Island had come from Polynesia or some other part of the world, ethnographers are now fairly certain that the people of Rapa Nui sailed from other Polynesian islands in what must have been heroic voyages in large double-hulled canoes. In fact, even the remnants of oral history that still remain of Easter Island say that a person named Hotu Matua was the first person to inhabit the island.

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.
Three of the hundreds of stone statues that dot Easter Island
Three of the hundreds of stone statues that dot Easter Island

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.

A moai on the slope of Rano Raraku
A moai on the slope of Rano Raraku
"From an ideological point of view all indications are that there was a deification of chiefly heads of lineages or combined lineages," she explains. "Bear in mind that we don't have any direct ethnographic data with regard to that. It is a conclusion of a lot of individual lines of evidence. From a political point of view, they used the statues as part of consolidating their claims to ancestral lands. And from an economic point of view, it was part of a strategy for the redistribution of food." On this last point, she says that in Polynesian cultures each family has an equal portion of the island landscape on which to produce food. That food needs to be redistributed around the island so that the less successful lineages have access to food.

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."

Moai with a top-knot on a platform or ahu, looking inland
Moai with a top-knot on a platform or ahu, looking inland
The reason the moai were facing inland stems from this belief. As Vargas puts it, "the statue was on top of the platform, but watching inland where the people live. So the statue, or several statues on a platform, would be watching for the good of the community. At the same time, it represents the capacity of a certain group or tribe or lineage to do that. So it's also the status symbol of the tribe."

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?

Rano Raraku in the distance, the quarry from which 95 per cent of the moai originated
Rano Raraku in the distance, the quarry from which 95 per cent of the moai originated
As Patricia Vargas, director of the Easter Island Studies Institute at the University of Chile puts it, "when you have a massive production of these megalithic works on an island that is absolutely barren, with just grass, immediately it captures the imagination and you ask yourself 'how did it all happen?'"

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?

Moai in situ at the quarry they never left
Moai in situ at the quarry they never left
"Until the early 1970s, no one talked about an island with a different environment until pollen analyses were made and until excavations were carried out in detail," says Vargas. Sure enough, those analyses started offering a lot of proof that there was a different landscape when the statue making was taking place roughly between 1200 and 1600 AD. "There is certainty that the island had a wide variety of trees, including a huge type of palm that could get to be one metre wide," she adds. "So, if we assume that the island has a different vegetation, and there were plenty of trees and different kinds of shrubs and plants that would make it easy to make cords and ropes, then the only thing you have to figure out is how they used these materials to transport the statues.



Dutch drawing from 1728 showing the native people of Rapa Nui moving a moai
Dutch drawing from 1728 showing the native people of Rapa Nui moving a moai

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.

Van Tilburg's experiment in action - moving a moai in April 1999
Van Tilburg's experiment in action moving a moai in April 1999
Jo Anne Van Tilburg is an archeologist from UCLA who's made her life out of studying the mysteries of Rapa Nui. Recently she was bold enough to test her own hypothesis as to how the moai were moved. "My personal theory is that they transported them using the same technology that the larger Polynesian community used to build, move, sail, and handle the large voyaging canoes," she says. "What I have developed is a theory which suggests that using the tools, the technology and the engineering expertise of the ancient mariners, they were able to move and erect the statues."

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 of the fallen moai at Ahu Tongariti in front of Rano Raraku. This is the collection of moai that Vargas helped to re-erect between 1992 and 1996
One of the fallen moai at Ahu Tongariti in front of Rano Raraku. This is the collection of moai that Vargas helped to re-erect between 1992 and 1996

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.


Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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