Moai stone statues on Easter Island

The moai of Easter Island are a cautionary tale, evidence of a once thriving civilisation that appears to have nearly destroyed itself through lack of forward planning.
One of the world’s most enduring mysteries surrounds the moai: why were they built, how were they moved, and why after hundreds of years were they abruptly knocked over and abandoned? Very little is known of early Rapa Nui culture, as the people almost died out, so it’s likely we’ll never be completely sure, but here’s what we do know.
There are almost 1,000 of these monolithic giants dotting the coast of Easter Island, carved from solidified volcanic ash between the 13th and 16th centuries. Hundreds of moai in varying stages of completion can still be seen in the quarry, located in the extinct crater of Rano Raraku.
Many people think of them as huge stone heads, but actually most have torsos, and some even have legs. It’s thought the effigies represent former chieftains, and were positioned facing inland to watch over their descendants. Some of the surviving moai display red topknots (pukao), and while most are men, there are a few that clearly depict women, too.

When the moai were complete they would be erected onto ceremonial platforms known as ahu, and only at this point would their eyes be carved – bringing them to life. Most are between three and four metres in height, and weigh upwards of 12 tonnes, but the tallest found measures some 10m, and the heaviest over 80 tonnes. Which leads to question number two – how did they get from Rano Raraku in the east to other parts of the island?

Moai motion, moai problems

These statues are huge. Even the smallest will dwarf a person. Without cranes, wheels or powerful animals, to move just one of them any distance would have required great manpower and ingenuity, and the Rapa Nui moved hundreds of them. So how did they do it? One commonly held theory is that they rolled each of them up to 18km using logs, which would have required felling a lot of trees.
That explains what went wrong for the Rapa Nui – they ran out of trees, so they could no longer build boats and the deforestation caused a loss of fertile soil. For an island just twice the size of Manhattan and a society dependent on fishing and farming, it spelt disaster. This, combined with disease and slavery, meant that by the 19th century there were only a few hundred Rapa Nui left. This would also explain why there are so many moai left in the quarry – they simply ran out of trees to move them.

Heading for disaster

After standing watch for centuries, towards the end of the 1800s the moai were all purposefully toppled over. While some, such as the seven in a row at Ahu Akivi and the 15 at Ahu Tongariki, have been restored, the majority remain where they fell, gradually deteriorating. Paro, the largest moai to successfully be erected, at Te Pito Kura, was 10m tall and even though it lies face down and broken, the scale is still very impressive.

So why did the moai fall? Again, a mystery, but one popular theory is that with the rise of the Birdman cult, the Rapa Nui felt they no longer needed their old guardians. Or perhaps, it was done in a fit of pique, as they realised their impending doom.

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Key moai sites on Easter Island

Ahu Akivi

The seven moai of Aku Akivi are unusual in that they are positioned inland rather than on the coast, and that they look out towards the ocean. Legend has it that they represent seven scouts, sent across the sea by the king Hotu Matu’a to locate the island, or that their role was to calm the waters for sailors. But they have another unique feature too: each one is exactly 4.9m high, and faces the exact point that the sun sets during the Spring Equinox, and have their backs to the sunrise in the Autumn Equinox.

Ahu Tongariki

Probably the most spectacular moai site on the entire island, and certainly one of the most photographed, Ahu Tongariki is the place to be at sunrise. Here between two extinct volcanoes and with their backs to the Pacific stand no fewer than 15 moai, one still wearing his topknot. In 1960 a tsunami off the Chilean coast caused substantial damage to the site, but it has now been restored, and is considered among the most significant monolithic monuments in the Polynesian region. For photographers there’s no more important site to visit.

Rano Raraku

If you want to understand the moai, you need to go back to where they started: the quarry in the extinct volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Here at the moai factory, stone figures dot the slopes, around 400 of them in varying stages of completion, giving clues to how they were created. Large rectangular blocks of stone were cut first, then a corridor was dug around them so the sculptors could move freely. The face was carved, then the neck and torso. When complete, the statues were slid downhill using tree trunks and ropes – the area is covered in fragments, indicating many accidentally broke up in transit.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alanbritom] [Cautionary tale: Nicolas de Camaret] [Quarry: Mayumi Ishikawa] [Ahu Akivi: Goran Hoglund (Kartlasarn)]