For centuries historians and archaeologists were baffled by the stone moai statues of Easter Island - when they were built, how, and why. But today, many of those mysteries have finally been solved.
The Statues of Rapa Nui
Within the territory of Chile in the South Pacific Ocean, sits the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This small dot in the ocean has long fascinated and puzzled historians and archaeologists.
We’re talking about the famous ‘Easter Island Heads,’ also known as ‘moai.’ For centuries, these enormous stone carvings with their elongated heads and short bodies have captured the imagination of people across the world. But who carved these stone statues? What do they represent, and why were they left scattered across Rapa Nui?
The First Navigators Arrive
Before we can attempt to answer all of these questions, let’s start at the beginning. Polynesian sailors first arrived on Rapa Nui over 1000 years ago, though we’re still not sure of the exact time period. Archaeologists have dated the first arrival to 300 A.D, whereas historians put the date somewhere closer to 800 A.D.
But everyone agreed on what happened next - the Polynesian settlement flourished over time, and after centuries the population had stripped the island of its resources until they could no longer sustain themselves. A form of “ecocide,” according to anthropologist Jared Diamond. But over time, this theory became hotly contested.
Students of archaeology at California State University studied the island back in 2000. They collected materials from Anakena, the landing point for the island's first settlers. To their shock, carbon dating on these materials suggested that settlers may not have arrived until 1200 A.D, much later than initially thought.
If true, it meant those Polynesian settlers had met their demise far quicker than originally thought. New theories were proposed - some believed that rats had reached the island via settler canoes, causing deforestation that contributed to the aforementioned “ecocide.” It begged the question - what really happened to these people?
Oral Traditions Say
Legends had been passed down by Polynesian tribes about the settlers of Rapa Nui. Oral histories dictated that the first people to arrive on Easter Island was a chief named Hotu Matu’a, and his fellow captain Tu’u ko lho. After leaving their homeland, Hiva, the chief claimed the island along with his sons and other settlers.
But not long after this settlement, legend has it that the hanau eepe, another ethnic group, invaded the island with the aim of enslaving the first group of settlers. Hanau eepe means ‘long ears,’ as the groupwas named after their unusually long ears.
To this day no one can agree on exactly why the hanau eepe and hanau momoko (short ears) had such a mutual animosity. But what can be agreed on is that the two groups quickly went to battle, with the latter coming up victorious and the former being herded to one small corner of the island.
Though these legends tell of two different ethnic groups, archaeologists have only ever found ubiquitously Polynesian DNA samples on Easter Island. This suggests that the two groups were actually defined by class, with the hanau eepe likely being an elite group and the hanau momoko representing a working-class group.
The Significance of Ears
But what do ears have to do with it? Well, this is another element of the story of Rapa Nui that some disagree on. It was initially believed that the difference in ‘long’ and ‘short’ ears had to do with the cultural practice of earlobe stretching. But according to linguists, the translation of ‘E’epe was not quite right.
It was German ethnologist (and linguist) Father Sebastian Englert who proposed that hanau eepe actually meant ‘stout race.’ The idea was that stature, and consequently, diet, were key to the class divisions between the two groups. The elite group was well-fed and stocky, whereas the hanau momoko were slender and undernourished.
Today, archaeological groups have combed virtually every section of the island. And one of the major discoveries was advanced agricultural systems that were developed on the island, including irrigation and composting, as well as rocks that had been repositioned to protect against strong winds.
They also uncovered the usage of the lithic mulch method. This was used to grow crops in specific patterns, by dispersing rocks and other materials across the land. This method also added vital minerals to the soil if done correctly, as well as reduced soil erosion.
How Were They Built?
Now we come to one of the most pressing questions about the moai statues of Easter Island - how were they built? Well, all of these statues were formulated using volcanic rock and ash, which could be conveniently found everywhere. After all, the entire island was made out of volcanic rock.
Millions of years before Polynesian settlers arrived in Rapa Nui, the island was formed as a result of many volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean. These eruptions came from the three volcanoes that still exist on Rapa Nui, though they are considered defunct today, and the last eruption was more than 100,000 years ago.
Settlers on Rapa Nui built these moai statues by gathering volcanic material from Rano Raraku, one of the enormous volcanic craters found on the island. The outline of a face would be carved into the volcanic rock, and builders would chip the stone away until they had a fully formed visage set into the rock.
The indented eye spaces were originally meant to be a separate color - builders would have carved pieces of obsidian or red scoria and embedded them into the stone sockets, though these pieces have fallen out and were lost over time if they were even completed in the first place.
A Long Process
The Rapanui (the name eventually given to Polynesian settlers on the island) would fashion carving tools that could effectively carve out enough of the volcanic rock to make the shape of the heads. But it was not a quick or easy process - research suggests that it may have taken as long as three years to complete a statue.
If that wasn’t enough, artists and builders seemed content to throw out imperfect figures. On the slopes of Rano Raraku researchers have discovered multiple abandoned moai statues, though it isn’t known exactly why they were left behind. In the same crater, nga’atu (totora reeds) used to build shelters were also found.
The moai statues of Rapa Nui weren’t just built as decoration. Historians and anthropologists believe that these looming figures acted as symbols of authority and protection, meant to reflect various aspects of politics and religion on the island at the time.
They were also believed to represent the ancient ancestors of the Rapanui, hence why most of them have their backs to the ocean, looking out over the settlers on the island. Seven statues do face the sea, reminiscent of the legend of the seven warriors who waited for the king of Rapa Nui to arrive.
Why Do They Look Like That?
Let’s face it - the moai aren’t very anatomically accurate. In fact, with their comically exaggerated noses and brows, extraordinarily long heads, and short, squat bodies, it’s safe to say they don’t look much like human bodies at all. There’s a reason they’re called the “heads” of Easter Island!
Well, there are some solid theories for this too. One posits that they represent Polynesian ancestors that are more god-like than human. Another theory suggests that the features represent the effects of leprosy, showing that the figures were meant to protect the islanders from leprosy and similar illnesses.
It Isn’t What It Seems
But there have been further discoveries that changed how people view these statues. As it turns out, only half of the statues are currently visible - they were originally carved with larger bodies that were buried under landslides centuries after they were completed.
Archaeologists spent some time excavating the full length of some of the statues, which were buried beneath meters of raised earth. The aim was to analyze them in their original form, and what they found unearthed even more information that had been previously unknown about the moai figures.
Symbols Beneath The Earth
After uncovering the extra meters of these stone bodies, the archaeologists found unusual glyphs inscribed on the backs of the statues. They included large crescent shapes that were believed to symbolize canoe shapes, with each canoe shape representing part of the carver's lineage.
This was very appropriate for Polynesian cultures which put great meaning into symbols and images. But it also indicated something else - there were many burial sites around the statues, and it is believed that islanders were buried near their familial statues, which were also painted red during funeral rites.
How Did They Move?
Another question that has fascinated researchers and travelers alike is the transportation of the statues. With some statues as high as 33-feet tall and 80 tonnes in weight, it would have been a daunting exercise to move these enormous statues across the island. So what were the main explanations?
Over the years some experts posited that the stone figures were tied to giant tree logs and dragged from one place to another, while a more complicated theory suggested that the trees were toppled and laid down in rows so that the statues could be rolled over them on flat sleds.
Moved or Walked?
And of course, the oldest theory was the one passed down through Rapanui oral traditions - that the moai actually walked to their respective points on the island. And as it turns out, this theory was a little closer to the truth than the others, figuratively if not literally.
One of the more recent transportation theories shows that the statues could have been “walked” from one place to another. Essentially, two groups would move both sides in opposite directions, while a third group kept the statues from falling backward. Though this theory is certainly possible, it hasn’t been confirmed.
So, experts had now figured out how the moai statues were made, and they even had several logical options for how they were transported. But there was another mystery that had baffled historians since they began studying Easter Island. Why were the figures placed in those specific positions?
Based on the meaning and significance of the statues for the people of Rapa Nui, it made sense that the moai would be placed in a particular pattern around the island. Unfortunately, they couldn’t quite figure out an exact pattern - and that’s when the next set of theories came flying in.
Theories And Patterns Abound
The first theory was that the protective figures were positioned to encompass and look over the gardens of the island. Unfortunately, gardens could only be found near certain statues and not others, nullifying the theory. The second theory had to do with the absence of fresh water.
Fresh drinking water would have been absolutely essential for the original inhabitants of the island, but there was no sign of streams or rivers. Until one day a group of scientists observed several horses lapping up water from near the coastline, not far from a row of several moai.
Water Shows The Way
So what did this mean for their research? Well, a bit of study around the coastlines showed that freshwater was actually being pumped up from underground and emptied out along the coast. So scientists took their new theory of freshwater markers and ran with it.
And it seems this theory truly did hold water. Statues further inland helped researchers to identify more subterranean water sources, including caves and wells. This meant that the statues were more than just religious and cultural symbols - they were also very practical tools for the Rapanui.
The Tallest Man On The Island
Of all of the statues on Easter Island, the tallest was a figure called Paro Moai. The Paro Moai weighed more than 80 tons and soared over visitors to the island at 10 meters tall. It was so remarkable that it even had its own singular story that was passed down through generations of Rapanui.
Legend had it that Paro Maoi was commissioned to commemorate the death of an islander, by his grieving widow. He must have been an important figure as even his pukao (headdress) was enormous, weighing 10 tons on its own. Tragically, it was toppled sometime after 1838, the last year it was recorded by a visitor to the island.
The ‘Navel’ Or The ‘End’
Readers will have noticed that we alternate between two names for the island - the Polynesian name, “Rapa Nui,” and the English name, Easter Island. But this wasn’t the first name it was given. That title goes to “Te pito o te henua,” which was first translated as “The Navel of the World.”
This translation was made by an explored named Alphonse Pinart and is believed to be incorrect. It is much more likely that the name translates to “Land’s End” in the Rapanui native language. Despite this, many still use “The Navel of the World” as the official translation.
The Navel Of Light
And it’s not the only reference to navels that can be found amongst the Rapa Nui statues. The other can be found near the Paro Maoi, where a large stone sphere sits. Around the sphere is a circular stone wall accompanied by four smaller stones. This spherical central stone is significant due to its assumed power.
Called the Tita’a hanga ‘o te henua, or “the navel of light,” it has unusually high concentrations of iron that allow the stone to absorb heat. In Rapanui culture, the stone was said to have been brought to the island via the ancestral land of Hiva, and it was believed to have the power to heal sickness and improve fertility.
Another form of carving found on Rapa Nui is the many petroglyphs left around the island. Petroglyphs are flat images carved into stone, and many of these images were valuable sources of information about these early settlers, providing insights into their cultural beliefs and customs.
One image that is constantly recurring in these petroglyphs is that of a bird-human figure. Today we know this to be a deity that was worshipped by a revolutionary warrior class named the matatoa, who overthrew the power of the ariki mau, the supreme chief of the island.
Interestingly, the appearance of the birdman figure came along at the same time that statue carving began to decline on Rapa Nui. But what was the meaning behind the birdman, why did he appear in so many places around the island, and why was he worshipped by this new class of leaders?
The birdman, otherwise known as Tangata Manu, was actually a title bestowed upon the winner of Rapa Nui’s most important competition. This was a dangerous tradition passed on through generations, with contestants being chosen via prophets who would hear the names of each contestant in their dreams.
The Most Dangerous Game
These contestants would be granted the title of hopu, and prepared for a perilous journey that would dictate who won the competition. Hopu had to swim from Rapa Nui to nearby Motu Nui, where they had to locate one egg of the sooty tern bird. Once they claimed the egg, they had to return to Rapa Nui.
The danger lay in the waters between Rapa Nui and Motu Nui, where countless sharks circulated, but also in the dangerous cliff edges that they had to navigate. The first hopu to return the egg to their sponsor was the winner, and their clan would reap many rewards as a result.
It took a long time before the Rapanui came into contact with the explorers of the western world. The first major reports of encounters with the isolated island began in the 18th century, starting with the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. He was the first recorded European on the island, though the experience was not a positive one.
The Dutch crew and Rapanui natives quickly came into conflict, resulting in dozens of deaths for the islanders. Despite this, Roggeveen had enough time to make note of “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height,” and also dubbed the island Paaseiland (Easter Island,) as he landed during the Easter holiday.
Things took a dramatic turn by the end of the century. In 1770 the Spanish viceroy sent an expedition to the island from Peru, and took a headcount of the population, at that time around 3,000 people. Just four years later an expedition by Captain James Cook could count less than 700 men and only 30 women.
This strange drop in population occurred almost 100 years after the hanau eepe and hanau momoko, but the only logical explanation was a second kind of civil war on the island. Still, Cook described seeing “some of those colossean statues or idols mentioned in the account of Roggewein’s voyage.”
Slave-Taking And Smallpox
As if the potentiality of a to-scale civil war wasn’t bad enough, the 19th century only brought more tragedy and calamity to the inhabitants of Rapa Nui. In the early 1860s, 1,500 people were forcibly taken from the island and sent to slave plantations and guano deposits in Peru and the Chincha Islands.
Though some enslaved peoples managed to return to Rapa Nui, it only made things worse for the remaining islanders. The former slaves brought smallpox from the mainland, further reducing the population to just 110 people by 1877. Over the course of two centuries, the society of Easter Islands had completely disintegrated.
Fast-forward another 150 years, and Rapa Nui has been an incredibly popular tourist destination for decades. Revenue that has accumulated from these growing tourist numbers has helped contribute to the preservation and restoration efforts being carried out by archaeologists, but it has also taken a toll on the island.
The director of the Easter Island Statue Project told Phys.org, “When I went to Easter Island [...] in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” compared to modern visitor numbers of 150,000! Poor tourism management has resulted in further degradation of the island’s historic statues and fragile ecosystem.
Unfortunately, many of the visitors who flock to Easter Island to see these astounding statues are less than ideal guests. There have been many incidents of tourists climbing the moai, walking over cordoned off gravesites, and generally disrespecting the nearly 6000 people who currently live on the island.
This is just one more event in a long list of tragedies, but there is still hope. As of 1995, Rapa Nui has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, officially making it a national park and protected site. And despite all the mysteries of the past, it is now the future that is key to preserving these amazing monuments.