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The Easter Island Heads – There’s more to the Moai than meets the eye.

Moai at Rano Raraku (Easter Island)

There’s more to the Easter Island Heads than meets the eye.  In fact, if you dig under them, you’ll discover not only complete odd-shaped bodies, but strange, undecipherable symbols and petroglyphs etched into the statues’ 20-foot-tall torsos.

About Easter Islands Moai statues

Located 2,000 miles west of Chile on the remote Easter Island, most of the mysterious over-sized heads (called Moai) sit with their backs facing the ocean.  For decades, it was thought that the statues consisted solely of giant heads as most were buried in the hillside up to their shoulders.  But in 2011, the Easter Island Statue Project completed its Season V expedition and released remarkable photos showing that the bodies of the statues go far deeper underground than anyone had imagined.

Who created Easter Island’s Moai statues?

Outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, the quarry of the Moais with many uncompleted statues
Outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, the quarry of the Moais with many uncompleted statues.

The statues are believed to have been carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island between 1250 AD and 1500 AD.  Nearly half of the more than 900 known statues are still at Rano Raraku, the main Moai quarry, but hundreds were transported from the quarry and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island’s perimeter.  The production and transportation of the more than 900 statues is considered a remarkable creative and physical feat, one of the greatest achievements in Pacific prehistory.

Most of the statues were carved from tuff, a compressed volcanic ash rock found throughout the island, but 13 moai were carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from fragile red scoria.

The heaviest moai erected was a shorter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 86 tons (84.6 tons). One unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been approximately 21 m (69 ft) tall, with a weight of about 145–165 tons.

What do Easter Island’s statues look like?

Easter Island Moai statue

The carvers first outlined the figure in the rock wall, then chipped away using stone tools. The oversized heads (there is a three-to-five ratio between the head and the trunk) have heavy brows and long noses with a distinctive fish-hook-shaped curl of the nostrils. The lips protrude below the nose. Like the nose, the ears are elongated and oblong in form. The sharp jaw lines stand out against the truncated neck.

The torsos are thick, and, sometimes, the clavicles are subtly outlined in stone. The arms are carved in bas relief and rest against the body in various positions, hands and long slender fingers resting along the crests of the hips, meeting at the hami (loincloth), with the thumbs sometimes pointing towards the navel. Generally, the anatomical features of the backs are not detailed, but sometimes bear a ring and girdle motif on the buttocks and lower back. Except for one kneeling moai, the statues do not have clearly visible legs. Once carved, the surface of the moai was polished smooth by rubbing the surface with pumice.

Fragment of a moai. Basaltic tuff, Anakena Bay (Easter Island), 11th–15th century.
Fragment of a moai. Basaltic tuff, Anakena Bay (Easter Island), 11th–15th century.

In 1979, Sergio Rapu Haoa and a team of archaeologists discovered that the eye sockets were designed to hold coral eyes with either black obsidian or red scoria pupils. The discovery was made by collecting and reassembling broken fragments of white coral that were found at various sites. Subsequently, previously uncategorized finds in the Easter Island Museum were re-examined and recategorized as eye fragments.

At least some of the moai were painted. One moai in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was decorated with a reddish pigment. Hoa Hakananai’a was decorated with maroon and white paint until 1868, when it was removed from the island.

Since the island was largely treeless by the time the Europeans first visited, the movement of the statues was a mystery for a long time; pollen analysis has now established that the island was almost totally forested until 1200 CE. The tree pollen disappeared from the record by 1650. Construction of the Easter Island statues seems to have occurred during the time the island was deforested. Contruction of the Moai likely contributed to the destruction of the island’s trees.

Why were the Moai statues created?

The statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island, mostly between 1250 and 1500. Archaeologists believe that the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians’ ancestors. The moai statues face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island (there is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive).

Who tore down the Easter Island Moai statues?

It is believed that after civilization collapsed on Rapa Nui (likely prefaced by massive deforestation of the trees that were required to build and transport the statues), the islanders themselves tore down the standing Moai, probably in anger, after their civilization broke down.

In 2011, excavations of the statues revealed not only hidden bodies, but torsos covered in strange petroglyphs.  Project Director Jo Anne Van Tiburg, PH.D. wrote:

“While many statues have individual petroglyphs, these and only one other statue—of over 1,000 we have documented—have multiple petroglyphs carved as a composition on their backs. Underlying these carvings is a complex symbol found on less than 100 statues. It is referred to by previous researchers as the “ring and girdle” design, and sometimes said to represent the “sun and rainbow.”

To date, the Easter Island Moai petroglyphs have remained a mystery.

An unusual legend from the Rapa Nui community

For ages, Easter Island’s Rapa Nui community, quoting legend passed down through their forefathers, claimed that the original statue carvers were rewarded for their work with meals of tuna and lobster. This was confirmed when the Easter Island Statue Project team found tuna vertebrae near the bottom of a recent excavation.  If the Rapa Nui’s oral tradition is that accurate, we have to wonder about their other legends including stories of cannibalism and visitors from above.

Check out the pictorial of the Easter Island statues, including several rare shots of unfinished statues in the quarry, in the photo montage below.

  • Moai at Rano Raraku - Easter Island
  • Easter Island Moai statue
  • Moai (figure carving) having been excavated
  • Moai (figure carving) head facing face down on the ground
  • Moai (figure carving) within the rocks of the quarry, facing upwards
  • Moai (figure carving) head partially burried under rocks; Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island.
  • View of stone wall houses, with a Chilean boy standing on the right for scale; Orongo, Easter Island.
  • Back of two moai (figure carving) heads partially collapsed
  • Moia (figure carving) in the process of being excavated
  • Slope with many moai (figure carving) fallen on the ground
  • Large round stone, to be used as part of a moai statue on Easter Island
  • Moai (figure carving) lying on its back on the ground
  • Moai (figure carving) lying in the ground, partially excavated
  • Easter Island Moai by trail
  • Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island
  • Moais quarry at Rano Raraku volcano
  • Back of a moai (figure carving) with petroglyph carvings
  • Easter Island Moai head partially carved in quarry
  • Ahu Akivi are the only moai that face the ocean
  • A toppled statue (moai) on Easter Island
  • Fragment of a moai. Basaltic tuff, Anakena Bay (Easter Island), 11th–15th century.
  • The only kneeling Moai at Easter Island

Image Credits

Outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, the quarry of the Moais with many uncompleted statues via Wikimedia Commons by Rivi with usage type - GNU Free. March 29, 2006
Moai at Rano Raraku (Easter Island) via Wikimedia Commons by MC vc with usage type - Creative Commons License
Fallen Moai - Easter Island via Wikimedia Commons by Travelling Otter with usage type - Creative Commons License. December 30, 2010
Moai at Rano Raraku - Easter Island via Wikimedia Commons by Travelling Otter with usage type - Creative Commons License
Easter Island Moai statue via Wikimedia Commons by Jorge Manriquez P. with usage type - Creative Commons License
Moai (figure carving) having been excavated via Wikimedia Commons by British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moai (figure carving) head facing face down on the ground via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moai (figure carving) within the rocks of the quarry, facing upwards via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moai (figure carving) head partially burried under rocks; Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island. via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
View of stone wall houses, with a Chilean boy standing on the right for scale; Orongo, Easter Island. via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Back of two moai (figure carving) heads partially collapsed via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moia (figure carving) in the process of being excavated via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Slope with many moai (figure carving) fallen on the ground via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Large round stone, to be used as part of a moai statue on Easter Island via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moai (figure carving) lying on its back on the ground via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Moai (figure carving) lying in the ground, partially excavated via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Easter Island Moai by trail via Wikimedia Commons by Horacio Fernandez with usage type - Creative Commons License. December 12, 2007
Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island via Wikimedia Commons by Ian Sewell with usage type - GNU Free. July 2006
Moais quarry at Rano Raraku volcano via Wikimedia Commons by Dropus with usage type - Creative Commons License. April 12, 2014
Back of a moai (figure carving) with petroglyph carvings via British Museum with usage type - Public Domain. Circa 1914
Easter Island Moai head partially carved in quarry via Wikimedia Commons by Soizic Gaborel with usage type - Creative Commons License. December 24, 2009
Ahu Akivi are the only moai that face the ocean via Wikimedia Commons by Ian Sewell with usage type - GNU Free. July 2006
A toppled statue (moai) on Easter Island via Wikimedia Commons by Tore Saetre with usage type - Creative Commons License. June 25, 2008
Fragment of a moai. Basaltic tuff, Anakena Bay (Easter Island), 11th–15th century. via Wikimedia Commons by Jastrow with usage type - Public Domain. 2006
The only kneeling Moai at Easter Island via Wikimedia Commons by Brocken Inaglory with usage type - GNU Free. November 1998

Featured Image Credit

Moai at Rano Raraku (Easter Island) via Wikimedia Commons by MC vc with usage type - Creative Commons License
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