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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.