Mo'ai Statues on Easter Island

Mo'ai Statues on Easter Island

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Easter Island secret: Stone statue’s 'hidden bodies' discovered by archaeologists exposed

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Known as Moai by the Rapa Nui people who created the figures in the tropical South Pacific directly west of Chile, these huge statues were carved from stone found on the island between 1100AD and 1500AD. Nearly half are still at Rano Raraku , the main moʻai quarry, but hundreds were transported from there and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island's perimeter. The moʻai are the living faces of deified ancestors, but over time, archaeologists have discovered that parts of the statues have become buried into the sediment and rock.


A team of experts at UCLA developed the Easter Island Statue Project to better study and preserve the artefacts.

Through this work researchers excavated several of the heads to reveal the underlying torso and body.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, a researcher at the University of California, said in 2012: &ldquoThe reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano.

&ldquoThese are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues.

Archaeologists investigated the Easter Island statues (Image: GETTY/UCLA)

The heads were built between 1000AD and 1500AD (Image: GETTY)

&ldquoThis suggested to people who had not seen photos of [other unearthed statues on the island] that they are heads only.&rdquo

In total, the team documented and studied almost 1,000 statues on the small Pacific Island.

The project spanned nine years whereby the team determined to the best of their ability the meaning, function and history of each individual statue.

After approvals, the archaeologists excavated two of the Easter Island heads to reveal their torso and truncated waist.

The heads had been covered by successive mass transport deposits on the island that buried the statues lower half.

Some people have not seen the full statues (Image: GETTY)

These events enveloped the statues and gradually buried them to their heads as the islands naturally weathered and eroded through the centuries.

Easter Island is situated within the Nazca Plate and is a volcanic hot spot which produced the Sala y Gomez ridge which spans east as the Pacific Ocean opened through the East Pacific Rise.

The island itself was formed by successive Pliocene and Holocene volcanic flows consisting of basalt and andesite.

In addition, volcanic tuffs were deposited in the volcanic crater , which is the primary stone used for carving the monolithic Moai statues.

Most of the statues are located along the Rano Raraku volcanic cone, which acted as the quarry that supplied the Rapa Nui the monolithic stones which were used for carving.

While excavating the statues the team found etched petroglyphs on the backs of the figures, commonly crescent shaped to represent Polynesian canoes.

The island is full of different statues (Image: GETTY)

Archaeologists were able to dig some up (Image: UCLA)

The canoe motif is likely the symbol of the carver's family, providing clues as to different familial or group structures on the island.

In order to carve and place the statues upright the Rapa Uni used large tree trunks that were placed into deep holes adjacent to the statues.

They then used rope and the large tree trunk to lift the statue upright in place.

The Rapa Nui carved the heads and front side of the statues while they were lying on the ground, then completed the backs after uprighting the stone statues. The tallest of thee statues comes in at 33 feet high and is known as Paro.

Abundant red pigment was found at the human burial sites of several individuals, suggesting that the statues were painted red likely during ceremonies.

These burials often surround the statues, suggesting that the Rapa Nui buried their dead with the family's statue.

This is a question of much debate among scholars in the field, although there is a consensus they were built sometime between 400 and 1500 AD. That means all the statues are least 500 years old, if not much more.

The size of each Moai varies significantly, but on average they are 13 feet (4 meters) tall and weigh 13 tonnes. Some are much bigger, however, with the tallest measuring a whopping 33 feet (12 meters) and weighing in at 82 tonnes. The largest unfinished Moai would have been 69 feet (21 meters) and weighed as much as 270 tonnes. It’s not known why this behemoth was never completed.

Statues getting toppled

When the first European ship arrived to Easter Island in 1722, all statues that were reported on were still standing. Later visitors report on more statues that have fallen as the years pass, and in the end of the 19th century, not a single statue is standing. The most common theory to this is that the statues were overthrown in tribal warfare to humiliate the enemy. An argument for this is the fact that most statues have fallen forward with the face into the earth.

There is also a legend about a woman called Nuahine Pīkea 'Uri who possessed strong mana powers and made the statues fall in anger when her four children at one occasion had left her nothing to eat. Some Easter Island elders still believe this to be the true story.

Easter Island Facts

When did the first inhabitants of Easter Island arrive?

The date of the original settlement of Easter Island by Polynesian navigators is difficult to determine. It would be between the years 400 and 1200, the most recent period being more credible in the eyes of contemporary archaeologists.

Why Moai statues were built?

Originally carved on a human scale in the 12th century, the Moai become larger and larger with time, reaching an average height of 4 to 9 meters (with their red volcanic tuff cap, the "pukao") and a weight of 15 to 80 tons when their production stopped in the 16th century. Nobody really knows what their real function was, even though their position on the outskirts of the island clearly suggests that they played a role of spiritual protection and perhaps also a powerful deterrent against possible marine invaders, frightened by the seen from these giants of stone. Similarly, the orientation of the statues, the body turned towards the interior of the island, probably had a protective role for the villages, such as ancestors avoiding their children from falling into disputes or deadly wars. For it is extremely likely that the Moai statues were the object of an ancestor worship and that a prestigious competition between the different clans of the island could push the big families to compete in a race to gigantism of the monoliths.

The visit of prestigious explorers

Several famous navigators and explorers had the opportunity to visit Easter Island following Jakob Roggeveen. Among them, the Spanish Felipe Felipe González de Ahedo (1714 - 1802) in 1770, who mistook the identity of the island, the English Jame Cook (1728 - 1779) in 1774 and the French Jean-François de la Pérouse (1741 - 1788) in 1786.

Easter Island Map, published in 1797 © Jean-François de La Pérouse (1741 - 1788) (source) License

The mystery of the transport of Moai statues

The volcanic tuff extracted for use in the construction of Moai sculptures comes mainly from Rano Raraku's quarry. In view of the many unfinished sculptures present on this ancient quarry, it is possible to conclude that the blocks of stones were carved before being transported to their place of construction, where, anchored deeply in the ground, the lower body sometimes buried to the chest, they were then given their red stone headdress and their eyes. The ceremonial platforms scattered around the edges of the island were able to accommodate several Moai placed, aligned next to each other, the eyes turned inland. However, just as for the transport of stone blocks and the construction of the great pyramids of Egypt, the mystery remains on the techniques used by the natives to transport and erect these monoliths of several tons. Many experiments in experimental archeology have been attempted so far, none of which has been unanimously approved by the scientific community. Of course, the hypothesis of using hundreds of wooden logs to roll the monoliths to their destination, possibly in combination with specific rafts, is at the origin of the theory of deforestation of the island. which would have brought famine, civil war, fall of the old order and abandonment of the cult of the ancestors illustrated by the monumental Moai sculptures.

The Moai statues remain sacred

Visitors are forbidden to touch the Moai statues of Easter Island. Very fragile because of their uninterrupted exposure to the vagaries of the climate, it is at the same time the respect of the Polynesian culture and traditions that the inhabitants try to preserve as much as their invaluable value, being one of the biggest vestiges of human genius.

Consequences of climate change for Easter Island

With climate change and the rise of the waters due to the gradual melting of polar ice, an existential threat exists for the archaeological sites of Easter Island, since the Moai statues are mostly positioned on its shores.


The name "Easter Island" was given by the island's first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday (5 April) in 1722, while searching for "Davis Land". Roggeveen named it Paasch-Eyland (18th-century Dutch for "Easter Island"). [10] [11] The island's official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means "Easter Island".

The current Polynesian name of the island, Rapa Nui ("Big Rapa"), was coined after the slave raids of the early 1860s, and refers to the island's topographic resemblance to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group. [12] However, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl argued that Rapa was the original name of Easter Island and that Rapa Iti was named by refugees from there. [13]

The phrase Te pito o te henua has been said to be the original name of the island since French ethnologist Alphonse Pinart gave it the romantic translation "the Navel of the World" in his Voyage à l'Île de Pâques, published in 1877. [14] William Churchill (1912) inquired about the phrase and was told that there were three te pito o te henua, these being the three capes (land's ends) of the island. The phrase appears to have been used in the same sense as the designation of "Land's End" at the tip of Cornwall. He was unable to elicit a Polynesian name for the island and concluded that there may not have been one. [15]

According to Barthel (1974), oral tradition has it that the island was first named Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka, "The little piece of land of Hau Maka". [16] However, there are two words pronounced pito in Rapa Nui, one meaning 'end' and one 'navel', and the phrase can thus also mean "The Navel of the World". Another name, Mata ki te rangi, means "Eyes looking to the sky". [17]

Islanders are referred to in Spanish as pascuense however it is common to refer to members of the indigenous community as Rapa Nui.

Felipe González de Ahedo named it Isla de San Carlos ("Saint Charles' Island", the patron saint of Charles III of Spain) or Isla de David (probably the phantom island of Davis Land sometimes translated as "Davis's Island" [18] ) in 1770. [19]


Oral tradition states the island was first settled by a two-canoe expedition, originating from Marae Renga (or Marae Toe Hau), and led by the chief Hotu Matu'a and his captain Tu'u ko Iho. The island was first scouted after Haumaka dreamed of such a far-off country Hotu deemed it a worthwhile place to flee from a neighboring chief, one to whom he had already lost three battles. At their time of arrival, the island had one lone settler, Nga Tavake 'a Te Rona. After a brief stay at Anakena, the colonists settled in different parts of the island. Hotu's heir, Tu'u ma Heke, was born on the island. Tu'u ko Iho is viewed as the leader who brought the statues and caused them to walk. [20]

The Easter Islanders are considered to be South-East Polynesians. Similar sacred zones with statuary (marae and ahu) in East Polynesia demonstrates homology with most of Eastern Polynesia. At contact, populations were about 3,000–4,000. [20] : 17–18, 20–21, 31, 41–45

By the 15th century, two confederations, hanau, of social groupings, mata, existed, based on lineage. The western and northern portion of the island belonged to the Tu'u, which included the royal Miru, with the royal center at Anakena, though Tahai and Te Peu served as earlier capitals. The eastern portion of the island belonged to the 'Otu 'Itu. Shortly after the Dutch visit, from 1724 until 1750, the 'Otu 'Itu fought the Tu'u for control of the island. This fighting continued until the 1860s. Famine followed the burning of huts and the destruction of fields. Social control vanished as the ordered way of life gave way to lawlessness and predatory bands as the warrior class took over. Homelessness prevailed, with many living underground. After the Spanish visit, from 1770 onwards, a period of statue toppling, huri mo'ai, commenced. This was an attempt by competing groups to destroy the socio-spiritual power, or mana, represented by statues, making sure to break them in the fall to ensure they were dead and without power. None were left standing by the time of the arrival of the French missionaries in the 1860s. [20] : 21–24, 27, 54–56, 64–65

Between 1862 and 1888, about 94% of the population perished or emigrated. The island was victimized by blackbirding from 1862 to 1863, resulting in the abduction or killing of about 1,500, with 1,408 working as indentured servants in Peru. Only about a dozen eventually returned to Easter Island, but they brought smallpox, which decimated the remaining population of 1,500. Those who perished included the island's tumu ivi 'atua, bearers of the island's culture, history, and genealogy besides the rongorongo experts. [20] : 86–91

Rapa Nui settlement

Estimated dates of initial settlement of Easter Island have ranged from 300 to 1200 CE, though the current best estimate for colonization is in the 12th century CE. Easter Island colonization likely coincided with the arrival of the first settlers in Hawaii. Rectifications in radiocarbon dating have changed almost all of the previously posited early settlement dates in Polynesia. Ongoing archaeological studies provide this late date: "Radiocarbon dates for the earliest stratigraphic layers at Anakena, Easter Island, and analysis of previous radiocarbon dates imply that the island was colonized late, about 1200 CE . Significant ecological impacts and major cultural investments in monumental architecture and statuary thus began soon after initial settlement." [21] [22]

According to oral tradition, the first settlement was at Anakena. Researchers have noted that the Caleta Anakena landing point provides the island's best shelter from prevailing swells as well as a sandy beach for canoe landings and launchings, so it is a likely early place of settlement. However radiocarbon dating concludes that other sites preceded Anakena by many years, especially the Tahai by several centuries.

The island was populated by Polynesians who most likely navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 2,600 km (1,600 mi) away) or the Marquesas Islands, 3,200 km (2,000 mi) away. According to some theories, such as the Polynesian Diaspora Theory, there is a possibility that early Polynesian settlers arrived from South America due to their remarkable sea-navigation abilities. Theorists have supported this through the agricultural evidence of the sweet potato. The sweet potato was a favoured crop in Polynesian society for generations but it originated in South America, suggesting interaction between these two geographic areas. [23] However, recent research suggests that sweet potatoes may have spread to Polynesia by long-distance dispersal long before the Polynesians arrived. [24] When James Cook visited the island, one of his crew members, a Polynesian from Bora Bora, Hitihiti, was able to communicate with the Rapa Nui. [25] : 296–97 The language most similar to Rapa Nui is Mangarevan, with an estimated 80% similar vocabulary. In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was able to reach Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days. [26]

According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system: an ariki, or high chief, wielded great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendant through first-born lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. The most visible element in the culture was the production of massive moai statues that some believe represented deified ancestors. According to National Geographic, "Most scholars suspect that the moai were created to honor ancestors, chiefs, or other important personages, However, no written and little oral history exists on the island, so it’s impossible to be certain." [28]

It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead in which the dead provided everything that the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune etc.) and the living, through offerings, provided the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Most settlements were located on the coast, and most moai were erected along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea.

Jared Diamond suggested that cannibalism took place on Easter Island after the construction of the moai contributed to environmental degradation when extreme deforestation destabilized an already precarious ecosystem. [29] Archeological record shows that at the time of the initial settlement the island was home to many species of trees, including at least three species which grew up to 15 metres (49 ft) or more: Paschalococos (possibly the largest palm trees in the world at the time), Alphitonia zizyphoides, and Elaeocarpus rarotongensis. At least six species of land birds were known to live on the island. A major factor that contributed to the extinction of multiple plant species was the introduction of the Polynesian rat. Studies by paleobotanists have shown rats can dramatically affect the reproduction of vegetation in an ecosystem. In the case of Rapa Nui, recovered plant seed shells showed markings of being gnawed on by rats. [3] Barbara A. West wrote, "Sometime before the arrival of Europeans on Easter Island, the Rapanui experienced a tremendous upheaval in their social system brought about by a change in their island's ecology. By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier." [30]

By that time, 21 species of trees and all species of land birds became extinct through some combination of over-harvesting, over-hunting, rat predation, and climate change. The island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees taller than 3 m (9.8 ft). Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to build seaworthy vessels, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. One theory is that the trees were used as rollers to move the statues to their place of erection from the quarry at Rano Raraku. [31] Deforestation also caused erosion which caused a sharp decline in agricultural production. [3] This was exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations as a source of food. By the 18th century, islanders were largely sustained by farming, with domestic chickens as the primary source of protein. [32]

As the island became overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult. Beverly Haun wrote, "The concept of mana (power) invested in hereditary leaders was recast into the person of the birdman, apparently beginning circa 1540, and coinciding with the final vestiges of the moai period." [33] This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues but human beings chosen through a competition. The god responsible for creating humans, Makemake, played an important role in this process. Katherine Routledge, who systematically collected the island's traditions in her 1919 expedition, [34] showed that the competitions for Bird Man (Rapa Nui: tangata manu) started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878, with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who formally arrived in 1864. Petroglyphs representing Bird Men on Easter Island are the same as some in Hawaii, indicating that this concept was probably brought by the original settlers only the competition itself was unique to Easter Island.

According to Diamond and Heyerdahl's version of the island's history, the huri mo'ai – "statue-toppling" – continued into the 1830s as a part of fierce internal wars. By 1838, the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku, in Hoa Hakananai'a in Orongo, and Ariki Paro in Ahu Te Pito Kura. A study headed by Douglas Owsley published in 1994 asserted that there is little archaeological evidence of pre-European societal collapse. [ citation needed ] Bone pathology and osteometric data from islanders of that period clearly suggest few fatalities can be attributed directly to violence. [35]

European contact

The first recorded European contact with the island was on 5 April 1722, Easter Sunday, by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. [25] His visit resulted in the death of about a dozen islanders, including the tumu ivi 'atua, and the wounding of many others. [20] : 46–53

The next foreign visitors (on 15 November 1770) were two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, under the command of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez de Ahedo. [25] : 238,504 The Spanish were amazed by the "standing idols", all of which were erect at the time. [20] : 60–64

Four years later, in 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island he reported that some statues had been toppled. Through the interpretation of Hitihiti, Cook learned the statues commemorated their former high chiefs, including their names and ranks. [25] : 296–97

On 10 April 1776 French Admiral Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse anchored at Hanga Roa at the start of a circumnavigation of the Pacific. He made a detailed map of the bay, including his anchorage points, as well as a more generalised map of the island, plus some illustrations. [36]

19th century

A series of devastating events killed or removed most of the population in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing around 1,500 men and women, half of the island's population. [37] Among those captured were the island's paramount chief, his heir, and those who knew how to read and write the rongorongo script, the only Polynesian script to have been found to date, although debate exists about whether this is proto-writing or true writing.

When the slave raiders were forced to repatriate the people they had kidnapped, carriers of smallpox disembarked together with a few survivors on each of the islands. [38] This created devastating epidemics from Easter Island to the Marquesas islands. Easter Island's population was reduced to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. [20] : 91

Tuberculosis, introduced by whalers in the mid-19th century, had already killed several islanders when the first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, died from this disease in 1867. It ultimately killed approximately a quarter of the island's population. In the following years, the managers of the sheep ranch and the missionaries started buying the newly available lands of the deceased, and this led to great confrontations between natives and settlers.

Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries' area around Hanga Roa and moved a few hundred Rapa Nui to Tahiti to work for his backers. In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated all but 171 Rapa Nui to the Gambier islands. [39] Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, only 111 people lived on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring. [40] From that point on, the island's population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or gone in less than a decade, much of the island's cultural knowledge had been lost.

Alexander Salmon, Jr., a son of an English Jewish merchant and a Pōmare Dynasty prince, eventually worked to repatriate workers from his inherited copra plantation. He eventually bought up all lands on the island with the exception of the mission, and was its sole employer. He worked to develop tourism on the island and was the principal informant for the British and German archaeological expeditions for the island. He sent several pieces of genuine Rongorongo to his niece's husband, the German consul in Valparaíso, Chile. Salmon sold the Brander Easter Island holdings to the Chilean government on 2 January 1888, and signed as a witness to the cession of the island. He returned to Tahiti in December 1888. He effectively ruled the island from 1878 until his cession to Chile in 1888.

Easter Island was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888 by Policarpo Toro by means of the "Treaty of Annexation of the Island" (Tratado de Anexión de la isla). Toro, representing the government of Chile, signed with Atamu Tekena, designated "King" by the Roman Catholic missionaries after the paramount chief and his heir had died. The validity of this treaty is still contested by some Rapa Nui. Officially, Chile purchased the nearly all encompassing Mason-Brander sheep ranch, comprised from lands purchased from the descendants of Rapa Nui who died during the epidemics, and then claimed sovereignty over the island.

20th century

Until the 1960s, the surviving Rapa Nui were confined to Hanga Roa. The rest of the island was rented to the Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm until 1953. This exemplified the introduction of private property into Rapa Nui. [41] The island was then managed by the Chilean Navy until 1966, at which point the island was reopened in its entirety. In 1966, the Rapa Nui were colonized and given Chilean citizenship. [42]

Following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Easter Island was placed under martial law. Tourism slowed, land was broken up, and private property was distributed to investors. During his time in power, Pinochet visited Easter Island on three occasions. The military built military facilities and a city hall. [43]

After an agreement in 1985 between Chile and United States, the runway at Mataveri International Airport was enlarged and was inaugurated in 1987. The runway was expanded 423 m (1,388 ft), reaching 3,353 m (11,001 ft). Pinochet is reported to have refused to attend the inauguration in protest at pressures from the United States over human rights. [44]

21st century

Fishers of Rapa Nui have shown their concern of illegal fishing on the island. "Since the year 2000 we started to lose tuna, which is the basis of the fishing on the island, so then we began to take the fish from the shore to feed our families, but in less than two years we depleted all of it", Pakarati said. [45] On 30 July 2007, a constitutional reform gave Easter Island and the Juan Fernández Islands (also known as Robinson Crusoe Island) the status of "special territories" of Chile. Pending the enactment of a special charter, the island continues to be governed as a province of the V Region of Valparaíso. [46]

Species of fish were collected in Easter Island for one month in different habitats including shallow lava pools and deep waters. Within these habitats, two holotypes and paratypes, Antennarius randalli and Antennarius moai, were discovered. These are considered frog-fish because of their characteristics: "12 dorsal rays, last two or three branched bony part of first dorsal spine slightly shorter than second dorsal spine body without bold zebra-like markings caudal peduncle short, but distinct last pelvic ray divided pectoral rays 11 or 12". [47]

In 2018, the government decided to limit the stay period for tourists from 90 to 30 days because of social and environmental issues faced by the Island to preserve its historical importance. [48]

Indigenous rights movement

Starting in August 2010, members of the indigenous Hitorangi clan occupied the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa. [49] [50] The occupiers allege that the hotel was bought from the Pinochet government, in violation of a Chilean agreement with the indigenous Rapa Nui, in the 1990s. [51] The occupiers say their ancestors had been cheated into giving up the land. [52] According to a BBC report, on 3 December 2010, at least 25 people were injured when Chilean police using pellet guns attempted to evict from these buildings a group of Rapa Nui who had claimed that the land the buildings stood on had been illegally taken from their ancestors. [53]

In January 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People, James Anaya, expressed concern about the treatment of the indigenous Rapa Nui by the Chilean government, urging Chile to "make every effort to conduct a dialogue in good faith with representatives of the Rapa Nui people to solve, as soon as possible the real underlying problems that explain the current situation". [49] The incident ended in February 2011, when up to 50 armed police broke into the hotel to remove the final five occupiers. They were arrested by the government, and no injuries were reported. [49]

Easter Island is one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. Its closest inhabited neighbours are the Chilean Juan Fernandez Islands, 1,850 km (1,150 mi) to the east, with approximately 850 inhabitants. [ citation needed ] The nearest continental point lies in central Chile near Concepción, at 3,512 kilometres (2,182 mi). Easter Island's latitude is similar to that of Caldera, Chile, and it lies 3,510 km (2,180 mi) west of continental Chile at its nearest point (between Lota and Lebu in the Biobío Region). Isla Salas y Gómez, 415 km (258 mi) to the east, is closer but is uninhabited. The Tristan da Cunha archipelago in the southern Atlantic competes for the title of the most remote island, lying 2,430 km (1,510 mi) from Saint Helena island and 2,816 km (1,750 mi) from the South African coast.

The island is about 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point its overall shape is triangular. It has an area of 163.6 km 2 (63.2 sq mi), and a maximum elevation of 507 m (1,663 ft) above mean sea level. There are three Rano (freshwater crater lakes), at Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi, near the summit of Terevaka, but no permanent streams or rivers.


Easter Island is a volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes: Terevaka (altitude 507 metres) forms the bulk of the island, while two other volcanoes, Poike and Rano Kau, form the eastern and southern headlands and give the island its roughly triangular shape. Lesser cones and other volcanic features include the crater Rano Raraku, the cinder cone Puna Pau and many volcanic caves including lava tubes. [54] Poike used to be a separate island until volcanic material from Terevaka united it to the larger whole. The island is dominated by hawaiite and basalt flows which are rich in iron and show affinity with igneous rocks found in the Galápagos Islands. [55]

Easter Island and surrounding islets, such as Motu Nui and Motu Iti, form the summit of a large volcanic mountain rising over 2,000 m (6,600 ft) from the sea bed. The mountain is part of the Salas y Gómez Ridge, a (mostly submarine) mountain range with dozens of seamounts, formed by the Easter hotspot. The range begins with Pukao and next Moai, two seamounts to the west of Easter Island, and extends 2,700 km (1,700 mi) east to the Nazca Ridge. The ridge was formed by the Nazca Plate moving over the Easter hotspot. [56]

Located about 350 km (220 mi) east of the East Pacific Rise, Easter Island lies within the Nazca Plate, bordering the Easter Microplate. The Nazca-Pacific relative plate movement due to the seafloor spreading, amounts to about 150 mm (5.9 in) per year. This movement over the Easter hotspot has resulted in the Easter Seamount Chain, which merges into the Nazca Ridge further to the east. Easter Island and Isla Salas y Gómez are surface representations of that chain. The chain has progressively younger ages to the west. The current hotspot location is speculated to be west of Easter Island, amidst the Ahu, Umu and Tupa submarine volcanic fields and the Pukao and Moai seamounts. [57]

Easter Island lies atop the Rano Kau Ridge, and consists of three shield volcanoes with parallel geologic histories. Poike and Rano Kau exist on the east and south slopes of Terevaka, respectively. Rano Kau developed between 0.78 and 0.46 Ma from tholeiitic to alkalic basalts. This volcano possesses a clearly defined summit caldera. Benmoreitic lavas extruded about the rim from 0.35 to 0.34 Ma. Finally, between 0.24 and 0.11 Ma, a 6.5 km (4.0 mi) fissure developed along a NE–SW trend, forming monogenetic vents and rhyolitic intrusions. These include the cryptodome islets of Motu Nui and Motu Iti, the islet of Motu Kao Kao, the sheet intrusion of Te Kari Kari, the perlitic obsidian Te Manavai dome and the Maunga Orito dome. [57]

Poike formed from tholeiitic to alkali basalts from 0.78 to 0.41 Ma. Its summit collapsed into a caldera which was subsequently filled by the Puakatiki lava cone pahoehoe flows at 0.36 Ma. Finally, the trachytic lava domes of Maunga Vai a Heva, Maunga Tea Tea, and Maunga Parehe formed along a NE-SW trending fissure. [57]

Terevaka formed around 0.77 Ma of tholeiitic to alkali basalts, followed by the collapse of its summit into a caldera. Then at about 0.3Ma, cinder cones formed along a NNE-SSW trend on the western rim, while porphyritic benmoreitic lava filled the caldera, and pahoehoe flowed towards the northern coast, forming lava tubes, and to the southeast. Lava domes and a vent complex formed in the Maunga Puka area, while breccias formed along the vents on the western portion of Rano Aroi crater. This volcano's southern and southeastern flanks are composed of younger flows consisting of basalt, alkali basalt, hawaiite, mugearite, and benmoreite from eruptive fissures starting at 0.24 Ma. The youngest lava flow, Roiho, is dated at 0.11 Ma. The Hanga O Teo embayment is interpreted to be a 200 m high landslide scarp. [57]

Rano Raraku and Maunga Toa Toa are isolated tuff cones of about 0.21 Ma. The crater of Rano Raraku contains a freshwater lake. The stratified tuff is composed of sideromelane, slightly altered to palagonite, and somewhat lithified. The tuff contains lithic fragments of older lava flows. The northwest sector of Rano Raraku contains reddish volcanic ash. [57] According to Bandy, ". all of the great images of Easter Island are carved from" the light and porous tuff from Rano Raraku. A carving was abandoned when a large, dense and hard lithic fragment was encountered. However, these lithics became the basis for stone hammers and chisels. The Puna Pau crater contains an extremely porous pumice, from which was carved the Pukao "hats". The Maunga Orito obsidian was used to make the "mataa" spearheads. [58]

In the first half of the 20th century, steam reportedly came out of the Rano Kau crater wall. This was photographed by the island's manager, Mr. Edmunds. [59]


Under the Köppen climate classification, the climate of Easter Island is classified as a tropical rainforest climate (Af) that borders on a humid subtropical climate (Cfa). The lowest temperatures are recorded in July and August (minimum 15 °C or 59 °F) and the highest in February (maximum temperature 28 °C or 82.4 °F [60] ), the summer season in the southern hemisphere. Winters are relatively mild. The rainiest month is May, though the island experiences year-round rainfall. [61] Easter Island's isolated location exposes it to winds which help to keep the temperature fairly cool. Precipitation averages 1,118 millimetres or 44 inches per year. Occasionally, heavy rainfall and rainstorms strike the island. These occur mostly in the winter months (June–August). Since it is close to the South Pacific High and outside the range of the intertropical convergence zone, cyclones and hurricanes do not occur around Easter Island. [62] There is significant temperature moderation due to its isolated position in the middle of the ocean.

Climate data for Easter Island (Mataveri International Airport) 1981–2010, extremes 1912–1990
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 32.0
Average high °C (°F) 26.9
Daily mean °C (°F) 23.3
Average low °C (°F) 20.0
Record low °C (°F) 12.0
Average rainfall mm (inches) 70.4
Average relative humidity (%) 77 79 79 81 81 81 80 80 79 77 77 78 79
Mean monthly sunshine hours 274 239 229 193 173 145 156 172 179 213 222 242 2,437
Source 1: Dirección Meteorológica de Chile [63]
Source 2: Ogimet (sun 1981–2010) [64] Deutscher Wetterdienst (extremes and humidity) [65]

Easter Island, together with its closest neighbour, the tiny island of Isla Salas y Gómez 415 km (258 mi) farther east, is recognized by ecologists as a distinct ecoregion, the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests. The original subtropical moist broadleaf forests are now gone, but paleobotanical studies of fossil pollen, tree moulds left by lava flows, and root casts found in local soils indicate that the island was formerly forested, with a range of trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. A large extinct palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees as attested by fossil evidence. Like its Chilean counterpart it probably took close to 100 years to reach adult height. The Polynesian rat, which the original settlers brought with them, played a very important role in the disappearance of the Rapa Nui palm. Although some may believe that rats played a major role in the degradation of the forest, less than 10% of palm nuts show teeth marks from rats. The remains of palm stumps in different places indicate that humans caused the trees to fall because in large areas, the stumps were cut efficiently. [66] In 2018, a New York Times article announced that Easter Island is eroding. [67]

The clearance of the palms to make the settlements led to their extinction almost 350 years ago. [68] The toromiro tree (Sophora toromiro) was prehistorically present on Easter Island, but is now extinct in the wild. However, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Göteborg Botanical Garden are jointly leading a scientific program to reintroduce the toromiro to Easter Island. With the palm and the toromiro virtually gone, there was considerably less rainfall as a result of less condensation. After the island was used to feed thousands of sheep for almost a century, by the mid-1900s the island was mostly covered in grassland with nga'atu or bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus tatora) in the crater lakes of Rano Raraku and Rano Kau. The presence of these reeds, which are called totora in the Andes, was used to support the argument of a South American origin of the statue builders, but pollen analysis of lake sediments shows these reeds have grown on the island for over 30,000 years. [ citation needed ] Before the arrival of humans, Easter Island had vast seabird colonies containing probably over 30 resident species, perhaps the world's richest. [69] Such colonies are no longer found on the main island. Fossil evidence indicates six species of land birds (two rails, two parrots, one owl, and one heron), all of which have become extinct. [70] Five introduced species of land bird are known to have breeding populations (see List of birds of Easter Island).

Lack of studies results in poor understanding of the oceanic fauna of Easter Island and waters in its vicinity however, possibilities of undiscovered breeding grounds for humpback, southern blue and pygmy blue whales including Easter Island and Isla Salas y Gómez have been considered. [71] Potential breeding areas for fin whales have been detected off northeast of the island as well. [72]

Satellite view of Easter Island 2019. The Poike peninsula is on the right.

Digital recreation of its ancient landscape, with tropical forest and palm trees

View toward the interior of the island

View of Rano Kau and Pacific Ocean

The immunosuppressant drug sirolimus was first discovered in the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus in a soil sample from Easter Island. The drug is also known as rapamycin, after Rapa Nui. [73] It is now being studied for extending longevity in mice. [74]

Trees are sparse, rarely forming natural groves, and it has been argued whether native Easter Islanders deforested the island in the process of erecting their statues, [75] and in providing sustenance for an overconsumption of natural resources from a overcrowded island. [ citation needed ] Experimental archaeology demonstrated that some statues certainly could have been placed on "Y" shaped wooden frames called miro manga erua and then pulled to their final destinations on ceremonial sites. [75] Other theories involve the use of "ladders" (parallel wooden rails) over which the statues could have been dragged. [76] Rapa Nui traditions metaphorically refer to spiritual power (mana) as the means by which the moai were "walked" from the quarry. Recent experimental recreations have proven that it is fully possible that the moai were literally walked from their quarries to their final positions by use of ropes, casting doubt on the role that their existence plays in the environmental collapse of the island. [77]

Given the island's southern latitude, the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (about 1650 to 1850) may have exacerbated deforestation, although this remains speculative. [75] Many researchers [78] point to the climatic downtrend caused by the Little Ice Age as a contributing factor to resource stress and to the palm tree's disappearance. Experts, however, do not agree on when the island's palms became extinct.

Jared Diamond dismisses past climate change as a dominant cause of the island's deforestation in his book Collapse which assesses the collapse of the ancient Easter Islanders. [79] Influenced by Heyerdahl's romantic interpretation of Easter's history, Diamond insists that the disappearance of the island's trees seems to coincide with a decline of its civilization around the 17th and 18th centuries. He notes that they stopped making statues at that time and started destroying the ahu. But the link is weakened because the Bird Man cult continued to thrive and survived the great impact caused by the arrival of explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, and slave raiders.

Midden contents show that the main source of protein was tuna and dolphin. With the loss of the trees, there was a sudden drop in the quantities of fish bones found in middens as the islanders lost the means to construct fishing vessels, coinciding with a large increase in bird bones. This was followed by a decrease in the number of bird bones as birds lost their nesting sites or became extinct. A new style of art from this period shows people with exposed ribs and distended bellies, indicative of malnutrition, and it is around this time that many islanders moved to live in fortified caves, and the first signs of warfare and cannibalism appear.

Soil erosion because of lack of trees is apparent in some places. Sediment samples document that up to half of the native plants had become extinct and that the vegetation of the island drastically altered. Polynesians were primarily farmers, not fishermen, and their diet consisted mainly of cultivated staples such as taro root, sweet potato, yams, cassava, and bananas. With no trees to protect them, sea spray led to crop failures exacerbated by a sudden reduction in freshwater flows. There is evidence that the islanders took to planting crops in caves beneath collapsed ceilings and covered the soil with rocks to reduce evaporation. Cannibalism occurred on many Polynesian islands, sometimes in times of plenty as well as famine. Its presence on Easter Island (based on human remains associated with cooking sites, especially in caves) is supported by oral histories. [ citation needed ]

Benny Peiser [5] noted evidence of self-sufficiency when Europeans first arrived. The island still had smaller trees, mainly toromiro, which became extinct in the wild in the 20th century probably because of slow growth and changes in the island's ecosystem. Cornelis Bouman, Jakob Roggeveen's captain, stated in his logbook, ". of yams, bananas and small coconut palms we saw little and no other trees or crops." According to Carl Friedrich Behrens, Roggeveen's officer, "The natives presented palm branches as peace offerings." According to ethnographer Alfred Mètraux, the most common type of house was called "hare paenga" (and is known today as "boathouse") because the roof resembled an overturned boat. The foundations of the houses were made of buried basalt slabs with holes for wooden beams to connect with each other throughout the width of the house. These were then covered with a layer of totora reed, followed by a layer of woven sugarcane leaves, and lastly a layer of woven grass.

Peiser claims that these reports indicate that large trees existed at that time, which is perhaps contradicted by the Bouman quote above. Plantations were often located farther inland, next to foothills, inside open-ceiling lava tubes, and in other places protected from the strong salt winds and salt spray affecting areas closer to the coast. It is possible many of the Europeans did not venture inland. The statue quarry, only one kilometre ( 5 ⁄ 8 mile) from the coast with an impressive cliff 100 m (330 ft) high, was not explored by Europeans until well into the 19th century.

Easter Island has suffered from heavy soil erosion in recent centuries, perhaps aggravated by agriculture and massive deforestation. This process seems to have been gradual and may have been aggravated by sheep farming throughout most of the 20th century. Jakob Roggeveen reported that Easter Island was exceptionally fertile. "Fowls are the only animals they keep. They cultivate bananas, sugar cane, and above all sweet potatoes." In 1786 Jean-François de La Pérouse visited Easter Island and his gardener declared that "three days' work a year" would be enough to support the population. Rollin, a major in the Pérouse expedition, wrote, "Instead of meeting with men exhausted by famine. I found, on the contrary, a considerable population, with more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island and a soil, which, with very little labor, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants." [81]

According to Diamond, the oral traditions (the veracity of which has been questioned by Routledge, Lavachery, Mètraux, Peiser, and others) of the current islanders seem obsessed with cannibalism, which he offers as evidence supporting a rapid collapse. For example, he states, to severely insult an enemy one would say, "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." This, Diamond asserts, means the food supply of the people ultimately ran out. [82] Cannibalism, however, was widespread across Polynesian cultures. [83] Human bones have not been found in earth ovens other than those behind the religious platforms, indicating that cannibalism in Easter Island was a ritualistic practice. Contemporary ethnographic research has proven there is scarcely any tangible evidence for widespread cannibalism anywhere and at any time on the island. [84] The first scientific exploration of Easter Island (1914) recorded that the indigenous population strongly rejected allegations that they or their ancestors had been cannibals. [34]

Easter Island Moai

View of the northeast of the exterior slopes of the quarry, with several moai (human figure carving) on the slopes a young South American man with a horse is standing in the foreground for scale, Easter Island, photograph, 8.2 x 8.2 cm © Trustees of the British Museum

The moai of Rapa Nui

Three views of Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), found in the ceremonial center Orongo © Trustees of the British Museum. This monumental carving of the head and torso of a man is almost twice life-size. The proportions are typical of these statues, with the head one-third of the total height.

Easter Island is famous for its stone statues of human figures, known as moai (meaning “statue”). The island is known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui. The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around 1000 C.E. until the second half of the seventeenth century. Over a few hundred years the inhabitants of this remote island quarried, carved and erected around 887 moai. The size and complexity of the moai increased over time, and it is believed that Hoa Hakananai’a (below) dates to around 1200 C.E. It is one of only fourteen moai made from basalt, the rest are carved from the island’s softer volcanic tuff. With the adoption of Christianity in the 1860s, the remaining standing moai were toppled.

Their backs to the sea

Moai Hava (“Dirty statue” or “to be lost”), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 11-1600 C.E., 156 cm high, basalt, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) © Trustees of the British Museum

This example was probably first displayed outside on a stone platform (ahu) on the sacred site of Orongo, before being moved into a stone house at the ritual center of Orongo. It would have stood with giant stone companions, their backs to the sea, keeping watch over the island. Its eyes sockets were originally inlaid with red stone and coral and the sculpture was painted with red and white designs, which were washed off when it was rafted to the ship, to be taken to Europe in 1869. It was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze, under the command of Richard Ashmore Powell, on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work. Islanders helped the crew to move the statue, which has been estimated to weigh around four tons. It was moved to the beach and then taken to the Topaze by raft.

The crew recorded the islanders’ name for the statue, which is thought to mean “stolen or hidden friend.” They also acquired another, smaller basalt statue, known asMoai Hava (left), which is also in the collections of the British Museum.

Hoa Hakananai’a is similar in appearance to a number of Easter Island moai. It has a heavy eyebrow ridge, elongated ears and oval nostrils. The clavicle is emphasized, and the nipples protrude. The arms are thin and lie tightly against the body the hands are hardly indicated.

Bust (detail), Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), found in the ceremonial center Orongo © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), found in the ceremonial center Orongo © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the British Museum, the figure is set on a stone platform just over a meter high so that it towers above the visitor. It is carved out of dark grey basalt—a hard, dense, fine-grained volcanic rock. The surface of the rock is rough and pitted, and pinpricks of light sparkle as tiny crystals in the rock glint. Basalt is difficult to carve and unforgiving of errors. The sculpture was probably commissioned by a high status individual.

Hoa Hakananai’a’s head is slightly tilted back, as if scanning a distant horizon. He has a prominent eyebrow ridge shadowing the empty sockets of his eyes. The nose is long and straight, ending in large oval nostrils. The thin lips are set into a downward curve, giving the face a stern, uncompromising expression. A faint vertical line in low relief runs from the centre of the mouth to the chin. The jawline is well defined and massive, and the ears are long, beginning at the top of the head and ending with pendulous lobes.

The figure’s collarbone is emphasized by a curved indentation, and his chest is defined by carved lines that run downwards from the top of his arms and curve upwards onto the breast to end in the small protruding bumps of his nipples. The arms are held close against the side of the body, the hands rudimentary, carved in low relief.

Later carving on the back

The figure’s back is covered with ceremonial designs believed to have been added at a later date, some carved in low relief, others incised. These show images relating to the island’s birdman cult, which developed after about 1400 C.E. The key birdman cult ritual was an annual trial of strength and endurance, in which the chiefs and their followers competed. The victorious chief then represented the creator god, Makemake, for the following year.

Back (detail), Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), found in the ceremonial center Orongo © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved on the upper back and shoulders are two birdmen, facing each other. These have human hands and feet, and the head of a frigate bird. In the centre of the head is the carving of a small fledgling bird with an open beak. This is flanked by carvings of ceremonial dance paddles known as ‘ao, with faces carved into them. On the left ear is another ‘ao, and running from top to bottom of the right ear are four shapes like inverted ‘V’s representing the female vulva. These carvings are believed to have been added at a later date.


Around 1500 C.E. the practice of constructing moai peaked, and from around 1600 C.E. statues began to be toppled, sporadically. The island’s fragile ecosystem had been pushed beyond what was sustainable. Over time only sea birds remained, nesting on safer offshore rocks and islands. As these changes occurred, so too did the Rapanui religion alter—to the birdman religion.

This sculpture bears witness to the loss of confidence in the efficacy of the ancestors after the deforestation and ecological collapse, and most recently a theory concerning the introduction of rats, which may have ultimately led to famine and conflict. After 1838 at a time of social collapse following European intervention, the remaining standing moai were toppled.

Suggested readings:

S.R. Fischer, “Rapani’s Tu’u ko Iho versus Mangareva’a ‘Atu Motua: Evidence for Multiple Reanalysis and Replacement in Rapanui Settlement Traditions, Easter Island,” Journal of Pacific History, 29 (1994), pp. 3–48.

S. Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 (London, 2006).

A.L. Kaeppler, “Sculptures of Barkcloth and Wood from Rapa Nui: Continuities and Polynesian Affinities,” Anthropology and Aesthetics, 44 (2003), pp. 10–69.

R. Langdon, “New light on Easter Island Prehistory in a ‘Censored’ Spanish Report of 1770,” Journal of Pacific History, 30 (1995), pp. 112–120.

J.L. Palmer, “Observations on the Inhabitants and the Antiquaries of Easter Island,” Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1 (1869), pp. 371–377.

P. Rainbird, “A Message for our Future? The Papa Nui (Easter Island) Eco-disaster and Pacific Island Environments,” World Archaeology, 33 (2002), pp. 436–451.

What Are the Moai Statues of Easter Island?

The Easter Island, known initially as Rapa Nui, is situated in the Southeast Pacific and is famous for its carvings. The statues take the form of human nature, and are known by the natives as “moai.” History has it that the sculptures were made from 1000 C.E. By the time the century was halfway the inhabitants had curved and erected 887 moai. The residents believed that the moai watched over the Island, which explains why their backs faced the sea. The complexity and size of the statues increased over time.

What Are the Moai Statues of Easter Island?

Who lived on Easter Island?

Legend has it that a chief known as Hotu Matu’a learned about the Rapa Nui from a group of explorers. He decided to lead a group of colonialists to the Island. Where they came from is still a mystery, but it could have been the Marquesas Island, which is 2,300 miles from Easter Island. They may have also come from Rarotonga, which is 3,200 miles from the Island.

What Are the Moai Statues of Easter Island?

Deforestation on the Island

When the residents came to the Island, the chances are that they found a place covered with rich vegetation. By the 19th century, the land was bare. A popular myth claims that the inhabitants cleared the forest cover to make devices that could move the statues. However, other theories hold more ground. One of these is that the people came with Polynesian rats that reproduce fast. Without competition on the Island, the rat may have had a considerable role in the rapid deforestation.

The Moai mystery

Until today, nobody knows why the Island’s residents made the carvings. What most people have are theories. A YouTube video by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo demonstrates the movement of the statues from the quarry sites to the seashore. Terry is a professor at Hawaii University, while Lipo is a professor at California State University Long Beach. Lipo and Carl explain that the road remnants on the islands aren’t part of a planned framework, but rather the routes the residents followed when moving the statues. While this could be true, it doesn’t explain why the residents carved the moai.

What Are the Moai Statues of Easter Island?

The collapse

The practice ceased around 1722. One theory claims that this was because the natives adopted Christianity, which is against making idols. Another approach says that the Island’s contact with explorers prompted the change of heart, as they wanted the European goods. Others say that when famine struck, the inhabitants no longer believed in the power of their ancestors, who may have been represented by the carvings.

The popularity of the moai

Although we are yet to know why the moai were constructed, we can’t deny that their popularity is on the rise. Many of the statues have been re-erected, and the Island now hosts over 5,000 people. The Rapa Nui is a tourism hub, with several hotels and facilities sustaining the industry.

What Are the Moai Statues of Easter Island?

New Discovery Just Changed Our Understanding of The Source of Easter Island's Moai

For hundreds of years, they stood watch in silence: the 'moai', a mysterious league of almost 1,000 carved monolithic statues, erected across the isolated landscape of Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

Just how these towering idols came to be has long fascinated researchers – as have the customs and collapse of the Polynesian society that engineered them – but the symbolic relevance of the figures themselves has never been fully understood.

Now, an international study offers fresh insights into what the moai could have represented to the islanders who toiled to quarry and carve the giant effigies.

Excavation and analysis at the site of two moai in Rano Raraku as part of the study. (Easter Island Statue Project)

Over 90 percent of the moai statues were produced in a quarry called Rano Raraku: a volcanic crater that at its base makes up less than 1 percent of the island's overall area, but nonetheless served as the single source of stone used to make the island's megalithic sculptural objects.

Yet there's more to Rano Raraku than just rock, the researchers say, based on an analysis of soil samples taken in the region.

"When we got the chemistry results back, I did a double take," explains geoarchaeologist Sarah Sherwood from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

"There were really high levels of things that I never would have thought would be there, such as calcium and phosphorous. The soil chemistry showed high levels of elements that are key to plant growth and essential for high yields."

According to the research team, the established view of the quarry region is that it was an industrial site used to produce and temporarily store the moai prior to removal and transportation to other locations across the island.

Yet almost 400 of the monoliths remain in the quarry, and some are buried in the soil with support from fortified rock structures that suggest the placement is not temporary. The reason why, the researchers say, could be this uniquely rich soil.

"Everywhere else on the island the soil was being quickly worn out, eroding, being leeched of elements that feed plants," Sherwood says.

"But in the quarry, with its constant new influx of small fragments of the bedrock generated by the quarrying process, there is a perfect feedback system of water, natural fertiliser and nutrients."

In addition to evidence of the soil fertility, the researchers also found traces of ancient crops in the samples, including banana, taro, sweet potato, and paper mulberry.

These are all signs, the researchers think, that in addition to using the quarry for moai production, the Rapa Nui society also utilised the space as a place to grow foods they needed, leveraging the Rano Raraku's rich, tilled soils, which would have produced higher yields with lower labour costs.

"We venture the novel suggestion that based on these data, and on the ritualisation of Rano Raraku and its stone as megalithic resources, Rano Raraku soil/sediment itself was a valuable and protected commodity," the authors explain in their paper.

"Soil could have been transported from Rano Raraku to enrich those areas needing increased productivity."

It's a compelling case, but why were the moai also erected within the crater, amidst the land from which they were themselves produced?

It's long been theorised that the ceremonial purpose of the monoliths was associated with fertility rituals, and the researchers say their fieldwork provides chemistry-based evidence of this link – not to mention the discovery of the carved pits, suggesting the moai were likely erected to stand watch over these verdant gardens indefinitely.

"This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry," says archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg from UCLA.

"These and probably other upright moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapa Nui belief their presence here stimulated agricultural food production."

History of the Moai Easter Island statues

Easter Island is a Polynesian island located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. A tourist visiting Easter Island can view the Moai. The Moai are monolithic human figures which were carved between 1250 A.D. and 1500 A.D. About half of the Moai are at the main quarry at Rano Raraku.

The Rapa Nui people, a stone age culture, made these statues to represent deceased ancestors. The statues face inland, supposedly gazing across their clan. Later during conflicts they would be cast downward to symbolize the defeat of the Rapa Nui tribe that ended up on the losing side of the conflict.

There were 887 statues carved and moved. This is considered to have been quite a feat. The tallest statue is called Paro and is about 33 feet tall and weighs 75 &ldquotonnes&rdquo which is the same as 75 US tons. The statue of Ahu Tongariki is shorter and squat but weighs in at 86 tons. There is incomplete statue that if finished would have been 69 feet tall and 270 tons.

The characteristic of the statues vary. William Mulloy, an American archaeologist started and investigation into the production, transportation and erection the Moai. He also started a physical restoration in 1960 of some of the statues and in 1974 the ceremonial village at Orongo.

In 1979 a team of archaeologist discovered that the deep elliptical eye sockets were designed to hold coral eyes. Some of the statues have “pukao” on their heads which was topknots and headdresses. These were carved out of a very light rock called red scoria. In the beginning the Moai were polished to be smoothed with pumice but since has eroded.

In 1994 the Moai were includes in a list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is a crime to destroy or mutilate any of the statues but in 2008 a Finnish tourist chipped a piece of ear off one of the Moai. The tourist was fined $17,000 in damages and is banned from the island for three years.

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Last updated by Barb Jungbluth on 28 February, 2011 in Destinations.

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