Easter Island Maoi Figures
Easter Island is the world's most isolated inhabited island. It is also one of the most mysterious.
It is located midway between Chile and Tahiti, sitting in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away - tiny Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.
The triangular shape of Easter Island is made mostly of volcanic rock with small coral formations along the shoreline. But the lack of an actual coral reef has allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island.
The inhabitants called their land: Te Pito o TeHenua, 'the navel of the world.' Archaeological evidence indicates discovery of the island by Polynesians at about 400 AD.
In 1722, a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, sighted and visited the island. This happened to be on Easter Sunday and so, the name Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) was born. What he discovered on Easter Island were three distinct groups of people, Dark skinned, Red skinned, and very Pale skinned People with red hair.
The Polynesian name of the island is Rapanui, which is a name given by a Tahitian visitor in the 19th century who says that the island looked like the Tahitian island of 'Rapa,' but bigger, 'Nui.' Inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, but for decades anthropologists have argued the true origins of these people, some claiming that ancient South-American mariners settled the island first.
What many early explorers who visited the island found, was a scattered population with almost no culture and without links to the outside world. The Easter islanders were easy prey for 19th century slave traders which depreciated even more of their precarious culture, knowledge of the past, and skills of the ancestors.
The Maoi Figures
The mystery of Eastern Island is in the huge stone carved figures, monoliths ( carved in one piece), that dot the coastline. They are called Moai - (pronounced moe-eye) -- statues carved of compressed volcanic ash. Less than one-fifth of the statues that were moved to ceremonial sites and then erected once had red stone cylinders pukau placed on their heads. These "topknots," as they are often called, were carved in a single quarry known as Puna Pau.
About 95% of the 887 Moai known to date were carved out of compressed volcanic ash at Rano Raraku, where 394 Moai still remain visible today. Recent GPS mapping in the interior will certainly add additional Moai to that count. The quarries in Rano Raraku appear to have been abandoned abruptly, with many incomplete statues remaining there.
The pattern of work is very complex and is still being studied. Practically all of the completed moai that were moved from Rano Raraku and erected upright on ceremonial platforms were subsequently toppled by native islanders in the period after construction ceased. Although usually identified as "heads" only, the Moai are actually one piece figures with heads and truncated torsos.
The most widely-accepted theory is that the statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island beginning by about A.D. 1000-1100. In addition to representing deceased ancestors, the moai, once they were erect on ceremonial sites, may also have been regarded as the embodiment of powerful living chiefs. They were also important lineage status symbols.
The Moai were carved by a distinguished class of professional carvers who were comparable in status to high-ranking members of other Polynesian craft guilds. The statues must have been extremely expensive to craft; not only would the actual carving of each statue require effort and resources, but the finished product was then hauled to its final location and erected.
It is not known exactly how the moai were moved but the process almost certainly required human energy, ropes, wooden sledges and/or rollers. Another theory is that the Moai may have been "walked" by rocking them forward.
By the mid-1800s, all the moai outside of Rano Raraku and many within the quarry itself had been knocked over. Today, about 50 Moai have been re-erected on their ceremonial sites.
Ancient island legends speak of a clan chief called Hotu Matu'a, who left his original home in search of a new one. The place he chose is now known to us as Easter Island. When he died, the island was divided between his six sons and then, later, sub-divided among their descendants.
The islanders may have believed that their statues would capture the chiefs' "mana" (supernatural powers). They may have believed that by concentrating mana on the island good things would result, rain would fall and crops would grow. The settlement legend is a fragment of what was surely a much more complicated and many-faceted, mythic sketch, and it has changed over time.
Ron Fisher in his work Easter Island Brooding Sentinels of Stone, mentions as one explanation for the statues that "two classes of people, the-so-called Long Ears and Short Ears, lived on the island. The Short Ears were enslaved by the Long Ears, who forced the Short Ears to carve the Moai. After many generations and during a rebellion, the Short Ears surprised the Long Ears killing them all, which explains the abrupt end of the statue-carving.
All of the Moai were toppled in tribal wars about 250 years ago. Many have recently been rebuilt - starting in the 1950's. They sit on rocky lava strewn about telling a story of fallen monuments of a long lost civilization who created them. The Moai were depictions of their ancestors. The Rapa Nui were ancestor worshipers and only had one diety - Make Make. The Moai were excavated for the first time by Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950's and were photographed at that time.
Moai sit on platforms - ceremonial shrines called Ahu. Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place, a sanctuary and celestial observatory built about 1500 AD which was the subject of the first serious restoration accomplished on Easter Island by archaeologists William Mulloy and Gonzalo Figueroa, with excellent results. As in the case of many religious structures on Easter Island, it has been situated with astronomical precision: it's seven statues look towards the point where the sun sets during the equinox.
Ahu Akivi is an unusual site in several respects. A low ahu supports 7 statues all very similar in height and style. The site is odd in that it is located far inland and the statues were erected to face the ocean. The only site where this was done. Like other Easter Island sites the statues were found knocked off the ahu, lying face down in the ground. In 1960, Archeologist William Mulloy's team spent several months raising the statues to their original positions.
During the excavation and restoration of this site many cremation pits were uncovered behind the ahu. The pits contained fragments of bone, shells, fishing implements, and obsidian flakes. Whether sites like these were used regularly for cremations and or burials is not certain. At other sites skeletons have been found buried within the ahu structure, but these burials are believed to have occurred after the statues were toppled.
Folklore holds that its seven moai represent the seven young explorers that legend says the Polynesian King Hotu Matu'a dispatched from across the seas, probably from the Marquesas Islands, to find this new homeland for him and his people. They are among the few moai that face the sea.
These seven stone giants may well symbolize those seven explorers, but no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows what any of the moai really represent or why only a few of them face the sea. The generally accepted theory is that these majestic stone statues were built to honor Polynesian gods and deified ancestors such as chiefs and other figures important in the island's history. Most of them are attributed to the 14th and 15th centuries, although some were erected as long ago as the 10th Century.
Their function, it is believed, was to look out over a village or gravesite as a protector. They may also have been status symbols for villages or clans.
The seven at Ahu Akivi each stand about 16 feet high and weigh about 18 tons. The tallest Moai on the island exceed 30 feet. Moai in the range of 12 to 20 feet are common. Even the occasional tiny moai that you come across are at least 6 feet high.
The ahu of Easter Island vary in length - the longest one is 300 feet, while some that hold one Moai are only several feet long. Each ahu has a stone masonry base that slopes upward to a high terrace upon which the moai rest. Some terraces are as high as 15 feet above ground level. All are fairly wide - the bases of the moai that stand upon them measure as much as 10 feet long by 8 or 9 feet wide.
The island's volcanic rock from which they were carved is softer and lighter than most other rock, but even the smallest Moai weighs several tons. Some of the Moai have been estimated to weigh as much as 80 to 90 tons.
Many of the Moai - there are hundreds of them - are erected at sites miles from the quarry at which they were carved. How could so few people move them even a couple of feet, let alone several miles, and without breaking them?
And once they did move them, how did they erect them? Even today, using powerful cranes, it would be no simple task.
Theories on How the Moai Were Moved
Many Rapa Nui people believe that the statues were moved and erected by 'mana' a magical force. Great kings of a long-gone era simply used their mana to command the Moai to move to the distant sites and stand there. Mana is a word and concept you hear frequently in South Seas lore. The people of Rapa Nui believed that the moai also possessed mana, which was instilled at the time their white coral eyes were put in place, and that the moai used their mana to protect the people of the island. Today none of the Moai have genuine coral eyes - and thus the mana is no more.
Writer Erich Von Daniken suggested that a small group of 'intelligent beings' were stranded on Easter Ialsn and taught the natives to make 'robot-like' statues. His main thrust is that the stone from which the statues are made is not found on the island- a complete fabrication. This links with theories that Easter Island was once part of the lost civilization of flying machines.
Other theories include men sliding the moai along on layers of yams and sweet potatoes. But, the generally accepted belief is that they were transported on sledges or log rollers and then levered erect using piles of stones and long logs.
Thor Heyerdahl, whose books Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku stirred great interest in Easter Island, conducted an experiment showing that an upright stone statue could be moved using ropes, tilting and swiveling it along. But the experiment was conducted on a flat surface for only a short distance, and this theory, like Heyerdahl's theory that the islands of the South Pacific were settled from east to west from South America rather than from west to east from Southeast Asia, is not considered plausible.
All but a few of the Moai of Easter Island were carved at Rano Raraku, a volcanic cone that contains a crater lake. It is an eerie spot. Scattered all around Rano Raraku are 394 moai in every stage of evolution. Some are fallen - a common sight around the island - and some appear to have only heads, although they are really full figures that have been nearly buried by soil over the centuries. For reasons that remain a mystery, it appears that the workers at Rano Raraku set down their tools in the middle of a multitude of projects - and the moai-building abruptly ceased.