The statues

Giant stone statues are littered throughout Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a Chilean Island located in the south Pacific Ocean. Their odd shape — large heads with disproportionately small bodies — and seemingly random placement throughout the island has always been a mystery to historians and archaeologists alike.

Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile
Image by De Agostini via Getty Images

The “Easter Island Heads” or moai have drawn tourists and researchers to the island for centuries. Everyone seems baffled and fascinated by these strange statues. Gazing at them, it is impossible not to wonder: Who built these statues, and why? What sort of deity is depicted in the carved stone? To gain an understanding, let’s first recount a brief history of the island…

Polynesians arrive

A small group of Polynesian sailors arrived at Rapa Nui via canoes centuries ago, though even the approximate date of their arrival is widely debated. Some researchers place the date as early as 300 A.D., while more historians contend the date of arrival is closer to 800 A.D. 

Canoing competition during the Tapati religious festival, Easter island or Rapa Nui.
Image by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Popular theory regarding this society as that the small population that arrived on the island thrived and grew exponentially over the course of several centuries, until they consumed all the available resources and starved. Historian and anthropologist Jared Diamond famously referred to the fate of these settlers as “ecocide.” However, recent research seems to contradict this theory. 

Conflicting dates

In 2000, archaeologists and students from California State University, Long Beach discovered evidence that the Polynesians may have arrived as late as 1200 A.D. Tools and other evidence of human activity were discovered only in the top layers of sediment at Anakena (the likely landing point for the Polynesian settlers).When samples of the dirt were sent out for carbon dating, researchers were surprised to learn how relatively modern these items were. 

Tongariki In 1960, A Tidal Wave Shifted And Broke The Fifteen Colossi (Moai) Among The Heaviest Statues On The Island In 1992 Archeologist Claudio Cristino, A Disciple Of Heyerdahl, Set Out On A Great Challenge: Putting The Statues Back In Place - The Thousands Of Fragments Scattered In The Bay Had To Be Identified, Measured - Little By Little The Jigsaw Puzzle Was Assembled On Video Monitors - This Project Will Take About 8 Years - A 70 Ton Statue Is Being Hoisted On The Ahu - This Operation Took Almost 15 Days In Easter Island, Chile In 1999
Image by Yves GELLIE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Disturbingly, this discovery provides evidence that this human society was wiped out much more rapidly than was previously believed. A popular theory is that stowaway rats arrived with the settlers. With no predators to contend with, the rats consumed all the tree seeds hindering the regeneration of the forestry. Theorists believe that this deforestation combined with human consumption led to the demise of the settlers. What do we know of this doomed society?

According to oral history…

Based on legend, the first people to arrive on the island were supreme chief Hotu Matu’a and his captain, Tu’u ko lho as part of a two-canoe discovery expedition leaving the lost Polynesian homeland of Hiva. After the canoes landed, Hotu Matu’a divided the land among his sons and the settlers spread across the island.

A native man, is painted as the old Polynesian Matamua warriors, during the traditional Tapati festival of the Rapanu folklore Easter Island, Chile, 03 February 2005. AFP PHOTO/ Martin BERNETTI
Image by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

According to legend, another ethnic group known as the hanau eepe landed on the island sometime after the Polynesians and attempted to enslave the earlier settlers. In folklore, the invaders are described as being discernable by one specific physical characteristic (hanau eepe translates to long ears). 

Warring tribes

According to legend, conflict arose after a period of harmony between the two groups. The reason for the conflict varies depending on which version of the story is being told. In any case, a decisive battle between the groups ensued, with the hanau momoko (short ears) claiming victory, forcing the hanau eepe into one corner of the island.

A native from Easter Island, 3700 km off the coast of Chile, dressed as an ancient warrior throws a spear 04 February 2005. The Chilean island, located in the Polynesian archipielago, has many archeological sites and its Rapa Nui National Park is included on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list since 1995. AFP PHOTO/MARTIN BERNETTI
Image by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

These stories are mostly folklore — DNA samples have never shown more than one common Polynesian ethnicity in ancient remains discovered on Easter Island. Many archaeologists theorize that the warring groups were not divided by ethnicity, but class. They argue that the hanau eepe were the ruling elite usurped by the hanau momoko who represented the working class of laborers. 

So why is the shape of ears said to define the groups?

The difference in the ear shape is traditionally explained by the practice of earlobe stretching, though many linguists contend that the difference between groups had nothing to do with ears. These researchers argue that the translation of ‘E’epe to earlobe is problematic, that the primary difference between the clans was their body stature.

long ear, depiction, Rapa Nui
akhenatenator/Wikipedia

Father Sebastian Englert, a German missionary, ethnologist, and linguist popularized the theory that hanau eepe should translated instead to “stout race,” and that the two classes were characterized by being either stocky or slender. This seems to conform to the theory about class division based on a disparity in diet between class.

An agricultural society

Archaeological discoveries have uncovered evidence of advanced farming systems throughout the island. Compost pits and irrigation networks dating back centuries have been discovered throughout Easter Island. The positioning of large boulders around the island suggests that settlers moved the large rocks to form barriers against the wind.

Chile, Easter Island, Ceremonial Village Of Orongo, Stone Houses.
Image by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Farmers used what is known as the lithic mulch method to grow crops in certain patterns. In this method, rocks and similar materials are spread along the ground. While usually rocky ground has an adverse effect on the agricultural potential of an area, in certain areas it can help by reducing soil erosion, water evaporation, and by adding vital minerals to the soil.

Construction of the statues

The moai statues were each carved from volcanic rock or ash — they would have been outlined with the shape of the face, then builders would chip away at the stone until only the image remained. The empty sockets of the eyes were designed to hold coral eyes with pupils made from either obsidian or red scoria.

Moai stand partly carved in rock at Rano Raraku on Easter Island.
Image by Fotodesign Stadler Hubert/Corbis via Getty Images

Stone for the statues came straight from rock formations on the island. The Rapanui used sharpened stone tools to carve the statues, carving a path in the rock to make room to shape the figure. Researchers estimate the process to make one statue took about three years.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island

Easter Island itself was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago. There are three volcanoes on Rapa Nui — all are considered extinct, the most recent eruption taking place around 100,000 years ago.

CALDERA, ORONGO, VOLCAN RANO KAU, ILE DE PAQUES
Image by Wojtek BUSS /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Most of the moai on Easter Island were built from volcanic material obtained from Rano Raraku, a large volcanic crater. Many incomplete moai can be seen along the slopes of the crater, where they were abandoned by their builders for unknown reasons. The crater holds a large freshwater lake full of nga’atu or totora reeds that the natives once used to construct shelter.

Idols to worship

The figures are believed to be both political and religious symbols of authority and protection, though the ancient society likely saw the statues as resepticles of sacred spirit. Almost all the statues have their backs to the ocean, facing the inside of the island, as if to watch over and protect the settlers.

Moai (anthropomorphic monolith sculpture), Ahu Tongariki, Rapa-Nui National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1995), Easter Island, Chile.
Image by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Archaeologists believe the monolithic statues are representations of the ancient Polynesian’s ancestors. All the statues face inward, except for the seven Ahu Akiv, who watch for travelers to guide them to the island. According to legend, seven men waited on Rapa Nui for their king to arrive.

Why the strange shape?

One of the easiest things to notice when looking at the moai figures is their exaggerated features. The statues have bodies, but in most cases the heads take up to 3/5ths of the statue, leading many people to refer to the statues as the “Easter Island heads.”

Chile, Easter Island, Moai.
Image by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s long been theorized that the statues are representations of the Rapanui ancestors, watching over the people and protecting them from various threats. Some researchers have postulated that the statues could have been used to guard the islanders against leprosy — the exaggerated features could be meant to compensate for the effects of the deadly disease.

A large part of the heads are underground

One discovery that shocked the world was that the large moai heads actually have large bodies buried beneath the earth. The body and torsos were buried under meters of sediment deposited by massive landslides as the island’s landscape eroded throughout the centuries. When archaeologists uncovered the lower halves of the moai, they noticed the figures had inscriptions carved on their backs. 

A moai on the extinct volcano Rano Raraku, partially uncovered for research in 2011. Previously, only the head of this statue sticking out of the ground. In the pit is a work manager.
Image by Weller / ullstein picture via Getty Images

Often the glyphs would be crescent canoe shapes, which archaeologists and anthropologists theorize represents the carver’s familial lineage. An abundance of red pigment is commonly found in burial sites (often located near the statues). Researchers believe that the statues were painted red during ceremonies, and that the deceased were buried near their family’s statue.

How did they move the statues?

Transportation of the moai statues would have been no easy feat. Some of the statues stand 33-feet-high and weigh over 80 tons. There are many theories as to how the moai were moved — some experts believe they were strapped to large logs and dragged, while others argue they were dragged on sleds over toppled trees.

walking moai, moving statue, walking
Image by National Geographic/Youtube

However, the most popular theory is actually more congruent with Rapanui folklore — the statues walked. Researchers believe the statues were gradually moved by two groups of people pulling the upright statue in opposite directions while one group steadied the statue from behind. Archaeologists recently proved the method was possible by reenacting the process. While rocking side to side as it moves forward, the moai certainly does appear to be walking!

Mystery solved

One question that has plagued historians for centuries has to do with the positioning of the figures. There didn’t seem to be any discernible pattern in regards to where the statues were placed. Researchers came up with many theories as to why statues were found in certain areas.

Chile, Easter Island, Rapa-Nui National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1995). Rano Raraku crater, Moais (megalithic anthropomorphic statues)
Image by De Agostini via Getty Images

At first, researchers believed the moai figures may have been situated to guard the Rapa Nui gardens, but archaeologists didn’t uncover evidence of gardens near all the statues so the theory was abandoned. Then, archaeologists began looking for signs of freshwater — Easter Island has no freshwater streams, rivers, or springs. This fact would have made freshwater hard to come by for the natives that built the statues.

Mystery solved, part 2

During their research, scientists discovered that freshwater emerged from underground along the coast. They first discovered the phenomenon after they noticed horses that appeared to be drinking from the ocean in certain areas. Conspicuously, there is a large number of moai lined along the coast.

Picture of some of the 390 abandoned huge statues (moais in Rapa Nui language), in the hillside of the Rano Raraku volcano in Easter Island, 3700 km off the coast of Chile, 12 February 2005. The Chilean island, located in the Polynesian archipielago, has many archeological sites and its Rapa Nui National Park is included on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list since 1995.
Image by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers then observed that the inland statues were near other sources of freshwater — predominantly caves and ancient wells. These findings confirm that the statues had a utilitarian purpose as well as a religious for the Rapanui. However, researchers are still puzzled by many things regarding the statues. Next, they hope to learn why the markers to signify the location of freshwater had to be made with such detail.

The Paro Moai

Sadly, the largest moai on the island toppled over a century ago. It was the largest statue erected on the island. The ruins are a popular tourist destination. When the Paro Moai stood, the moai towered 10 meters high, and weighed around 80 tons. According to legend, the moai has a romantic, yet tragic backstory.

Paro Moai, ruins, moai statue, broken
Image by Jorge Morales Piderit/Wikimedia

Rapanui believe the statue was commissioned by a widow to commemorate her late husband. The moai’s pukao, or headdress is incredibly large, weighing 10 tons and standing 2 meters tall. Most archaeologists and historians believe the giant moai toppled shortly after 1838, since that is the last written report of the standing statue.

‘The Navel of the World’

Today, the island is commonly known by two names — “Rapa Nui,” the native name, and “Easter Island.” However, centuries ago it was often referred to be natives as “Te pito o te henua.” French explorer Alphonse Pinart translated the phrase to mean “The Navel of the World.” 

View on the "traveller" moai in front of Rano Raraku. Moai are statues carved of compressed volcanic ash on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The statues are all monolithic, that is, carved in one piece. However, less than about one-fifth of the statues that were moved to ceremonial sites and then erected once had red stone cylinder pukau placed on their heads. These "topknots", as they are often called, were carved in a single quarry known as Puna Pau. About 95% of the 887 moai known to date were carved out of compressed volcanic ash at Rano Raraku, where 394 moai still remain visible today. Although usually identified as "heads" only, the moai are actually one-piece figures with heads and truncated torsos. Moai sit on platforms or ceremonial shrines called ahu.
Image by Micheline Pelletier/Corbis via Getty Images

However, this is likely a mistranslation, as there are two words pronounced “pito” in the Rapanui tongue. A more accurate translation of the island’s name is believed to be “Land’s End.” For better or worse, the old nickname seems to have stuck. The “navel” term is commonly associated with one particularly unique sculpture on the island…

Tita’a hanga ‘o te henua

There is a large spherical stone near the Paro Moai sculpture surrounded by four smaller stones and a circular wall of rocks. The 80-centimeter-stone is highly concentrated with iron, which causes the rock to absorb heat. This phenomenon has led many to believe the stone possesses some sort of supernatural power.

Chile, Easter Island, Rapa-Nui National Park (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1995), vicinity of Ahu Te Pito Kura, Te Pito O Te Henua stone (The navel of world)
Image by De Agostini via Getty Images

According to legend, this unique stone was brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a, the first supreme chief of Rapa Nui, from the mythical ancestral land of Hiva. Many speculate that touching the rock can improve fertility, heal sickness, and capture its spiritual energy. The high iron content causes compasses to behave strangely when they are brought near the stone. Tita’a hanga ‘o te henua translates to “the navel of light.”

Mythology and deities

Petroglyphs (rock carvings) scattered throughout Easter Island give researchers and historians insight into the religious beliefs of the early Polynesian settlers. Petroglyphs are found all over Easter Island — anywhere with a suitable smooth surface to carve. Many of these petroglyphs involve a similar birdman figure.

Tangatu Manu is a rubbing with paint on canvas from Easter Island, 20th century is on display as part of the exhibit Pacifika: Young Perspectives on Pacific Island Art exhibit on display at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena on May 5, 2008. The exhibit offers a perspective of Pacific Islander culture thru several objects from the museums collection and observations of UCLA Pacific Islander students.
Image by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is believed to be the deity worshipped by the matatoa — a warrior class of people that seized power in the later period of native civilization. As the ariki mau or supreme chief’s religious and political influence faded (likely due to environmental degradation), the new power became dominant. The time period where the birdman petroglyph begins appearing coincides with a sharp decline in statue making.

Tangata manu

Tangata manu translates to birdman, an honorable title given to the winner of a traditional competition on Rapa Nui. Contestants were chosen by prophets who relayed the names that were passed to them in dreams. These contestants would each choose a champion or two to participate in a race. 

Easter Island's Tapati Festival is a mix of carnival type activities, sports, and theatrical presentations and a homage to the island, also known as Rapa Nui.
Image by Micheline Pelletier/Corbis via Getty Images

The competition was beyond dangerous. The hopu were required to swim to the neighboring island of Motu Nui and return a sooty tern egg to Rapa Nui. It was not uncommon for hopu to die making the journey across the shark-infested waters or traversing the steep cliffs. Once a hopu successfully returned with the egg, he would give it to his sponsor — who wouldn’t be asked to do anything besides eat and sleep for the next five months. His or her clan would also enjoy the many benefits of having the Tangata manu as a member.

European exploration

Because of the isolated geography of Easter Island, little contact with outside societies were reported until the 18th century. Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen is the first known European to arrive on the island in 1722. He named the land Paaseiland (Easter Island) since they reached the island on the religious holiday.

Arent_Roggeveen, explorer, European explorer
Image by Fitmoos/Wikimedia

Roggeveen and his crew did not make a positive first impression. Shortly after they landed on the island, an altercation between the explorers and natives resulted in dozens of Rapa Nui casualties. During his brief stay, Roggeveen reported seeing “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height.” There is no mention of any of the statues being toppled or destroyed at this time.

A sudden drop in population and defacement of statues

The Spanish viceroy of Peru sent an expedition to Easter Island in 1770. Over the course of their four-day visit, explorers reported a native population of about 3,000 people. Four years later, Sir James Cook, the british captain arrived to find the native population nearly obliterated — there were fewer than 700 men and 30 women left on the island. 

Captain James Cook Examining The Statues On Easter Island. From The Life And Voyages Of Captain James Cook By C.G. Cash, Published Circa 1910.
Image by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is commonly explained by civil war, though this event postdates the supposed conflict between hanau eepe and hanau momoko by close to a century. In Sir James Cook’s journal, he describes seeing “some of those colossean statues or idols mentioned in the account of Roggewein’s voyage.” He also describes seeing the ruins of several statues that were toppled over and broken in the fall.

Slave-raiding expeditions

The remote location of Rapa Nui made the island less desirable for colonizing powers. Unfortunately, Rapa Nui became attractive for another reason — the slave trade. Approximately 1,500 people were kidnapped from the island in the early 1860s. Most of the kidnapped Rapanui were forced to work in Peruvian plantations and guano deposits in the Chincha Islands.

Native workers 'cane hoeling' on a sugar plantation in the West Indies, 1849, their progress is watched by a white supervisor with a whip. The process involves making deep holes in the ground in preparation for planting the sugar cane.
Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Image

A  few were released and returned to Easter Island. They brought smallpox with them. By 1877, only 110 inhabitants remained on Rapa Nui. With the ecology decimated by deforestation, and the native population devastated by civil war, disease, and exploitation, society on Easter Island collapsed.

Tourism problems

Easter Island has seen a spike in tourism in the previous decades, largely due to increased archaeological and restoration efforts to study and preserve the moai. While the increase in visitors is great for the local economy, tourism is always a double-edged sword — especially when it involves an isolated island with a delicate ecosystem. Lately, Rapa Nui has been feeling the growing pains.

Chile Easter Island (Isla de Pascua Rapa Nui) Easter Island (Isla de Pascua Rapa Nui) - tourists visiting the Maois (stone figurines)
Image by Weller/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project told Phys.org. Now the number of visitors stands close to 150,000. Most tourists are respectful, but not all, which contributes to the destruction of the island’s lovely scenery and historic stone statues.

History repeating?

While Easter Island welcomes visitors to come and stand in awe of the moai, some ignore the rules and guidelines set forth to preserve the statues — trampling on gravesites and other forbidden areas and climbing the moai. The amount of residents on the island is minuscule compared to the amount of tourists (there are approximately 5,700 people who call the island home).

Easter Island, Ahu Akivi Platform For Tapati Festival Rapa Nui, Tourists And Guide.
Image by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

To combat the destructive effects of brazen tourists, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, and most of the island is now protected as a national park. It’s important that everyone takes a lesson from the Rapanui settlers centuries ago — rampant growth and abuse of resources leads to rapid destruction.