Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, the easternmost of the Polynesian islands. It formed when lava flows from three erupting volcanoes came together to create new land. Triangular in shape and only 62 square miles in area, the island lies some 1,130 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest inhabited neighbor to the west; South America is 2,300 miles to the east.

Since its discovery by Europeans in 1722, and despite a century of archaeological investigation, some writers have speculated that Easter Island is part of the mythical sunken continent of Mu. One popular author accounted for the large sculptures by imagining them popping, fully formed, from the months of fiery volcanoes, flying through the air, and landing upon conveniently placed ceremonial platforms. These sculptures, called moai by the inhabitants, were everywhere one looked, everywhere one walked.

The boldness of the scientific challenge these statues offer – with their audacity in being so accessible, so numerous, and yet so puzzling. Must have fallen from rectangular stone platforms called ahu, upon which ancient rituals were preformed by powerful priests and chiefs. Some statues lie on slopes, in ravines, or along ancient roads. Some are hidden, requiring long hikes and occasional descents into seaside caves to locate, but most are right in front of your eyes.

The questions people most often ask are: Where did the people who live on the island come from? Who carved the statues? How many are there and how were they moved? What in the world did they mean?

The vast Pacific Ocean stretches over some 70 million square miles. So isolated and inconspicuous are most of its islands that from late 1520 to early 1521 Ferdinand Magellan traversed some 9,000 miles from South America through the heart of Polynesia an saw only two islands – and they were uninhabited. For about 14 weeks his fleet of three ships sailed before the warm southeast trade winds, and the mighty ocean he called Mar Pacifico was tranquil.

Such an easy passage, however, was dangerously deceptive. The trade winds swept Magellan’s ships past and out of sight of the Juan Fernandez Islands, Sala-y-Gomez, Easter Island, and Pitcairn, Ducie, and Henderson Islands. As weeks passed, the ships limited stores of food and water became depleted and spoiled. Under the tropical sun, the demoralized crew began to hallucinate and then to die. Finally, the survivors landed, exhausted and in death’s shadow, on an island historians think was Guam.

Magellan and other European navigators were relative latecomers. Centuries before, every habitable Pacific island and atoll had been discovered, settled, and in some cases even abandoned, as people we now call Polynesians spread eastward across the ocean.

Who were these great adventurers? For centuries the origins of the Polynesians were shrouded in mystery. Over the past 30 years, however, scholarship has revealed that a culture known as Lapita arose more than 3,000 years ago in Southeast Asia and is ancestral to Polynesian culture. From their ancient homeland, Lapita settlers and traders traveled to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Many generations later, by the time great voyaging canoes left these islands to sail farther eastward into the Pacific, the people had become culturally Polynesian.

In the mid-1930s Rapa Nui people related their legends and genealogies to anthropologist Alfred Metraux. A modern version of their migration myth recounts how they came to Easter Island: “Our homeland Marae Renga lay a distant journey to the west. There Hotu Matua our king was one of the chiefs: Oroi was his rival. There was a war between their tribes.” Then Hotu Matua’s tattooer, Haumaka, had a prophetic dream about a volcanic island with fine beaches, and “Hotu Matua thought, ‘There is a promise in this dream of haumaka’s.’ He therefore sent away six men to find that land.”

The journey to Rapa Nui was long. According to linguists, the distinctive tongue of Easter Island may have existed by AD 300 or 400, pinpointing a possible settlement date. Research by John Flenley, of New Zealand’s Massey University, confirms that the island the Polynesian voyagers found was fully if not lushly tree covered. Legends say that the voyagers brought “the fowl, the turtle, the banana plant; the [paper mulberry] whose bark gives tapa cloth; the crayfish, the gourd, the kumara [sweet potato] and the yam.” Prehistoric Polynesians were adept farmers, fishermen, and builders.

Given its small size, Rapa Nui has some startling geographic features. Rano Raraku, a volcanic cone in the southeastern sector, rises 490 feet above a nearly flat plain. The crater, holding a freshwater lake, is formed of consolidated lapilli tuff, a material suitable for sculpture. Another cone, 1,063-foot Rano Kau, lies at the extreme southwest point of the island. The freshwater lake within its caldera is nearly a mile in diameter. Here, high above the sea on the rim of the crater, the Rapa Nui people located their sacred village of Orongo, building basalt slab houses and carving hundreds of petroglyphs. Puna Pau is a small cinder cone located east of the present village of Hanga Roa. Its brittle scoria was used by the Rapa Nui for figures and for the distinctive pukao, or topknots, worn on the heads of some statues. The stone’s color, the dark red of dried blood, is held sacred throughout Polynesia.

Both folktales and scientific research confirm that the moai were carved by accomplished, respected craftsmen called maori on Easter Island. Polynesian stone carvers belonged to craft guilds, and their skills, tools, and rituals passed from father to son. Their services were sought by important chiefs who paid for their efforts in food, especially greatly valued lobsters, eels, and large fish such as tuna.

Experts in any Polynesian profession is known as a tufungo. Tufunga included artisans in crafts such as house building and canoe manufacturing. Extraordinarily skilled individuals were believed to possess manna, or supernatural power. The East Polynesian god Tane was frequently associated with these crafts, and priests who belonged to appropriate guilds officiated at ceremonies and rituals in his honor.

Hundreds of heavy basalt carving tools have been recovered from nearly every part of the Easter Island quarries at Rano Raraku. Quarrying methods used in Rano Raraku were similar to those used to cut coral or stone slabs elsewhere in the Pacific. Most often, a rectangular form was first roughed out and then undercut by work parties who stood in trenches around the form. Facial features may have been carved before other details, such as hands, were added. This would make sense; the heads were usually the most important attributes of Polynesian images.

Rapa Nui ahu (platform) architecture varies, but the statues show a high degree of standardization. This suggests that ahu were probably built by local groups of elated people who used a preset plan, but varied the material, size, and style. The statue carvers, in contrast, were well organized and successful in teaching and controlling the work. The degree of technical skill varies, which suggests that some statues may have been carved as part of the master-apprentice teaching process traditional in Polynesia. Although each work part was probably under the direction of a master carver, there does not appear to have been an overall authority.

Throughout Polynesia, when a powerful chief wanted an object of great social and spiritual significance such as a sacred canoe – or, on Rapa Nui, a statue – an expert was engaged to produce it. After a formal agreement between the two, the members of the chief’s lineage and others under his authority made the required payments of food. In this way, the sacred object became the property of the chief who commissioned it and of the lineage that supported the carvers with food. Often the object was also regarded as the property of the island’s paramount chief. He had the responsibility of using all of his manna for the benefit of the whole island.

838 statues are located and described in the island-wide archaeological survey, which is nearly 80 percent complete. Ultimately, as many as 1,000 statues may be recorded. Of the 838 known statues, 396 are in the Rano Raraku quarry sector. Among these, 247 are in various stages of completion and range from 3-1/2 feet to nearly 71 feet in height; 149 of them had been extracted from the rock and stand on the interior and exterior slopes of the volcano.

The Rano Raraku quarries were first mapped in 1914, when British anthropologist Katherine Routledge spent more than a year on the island. Routledge explored the crater many times, pinpointing the statues and describing aspects of quarrying technology. She discovered that confronting the statues in their own environment was a humbling experience: “not till after some six months study could they even be seen with intelligent eyes.” One day, a member of her expedition, standing on a small hill overlooking the south coastal plain, was astounded to see the clear track of a statue transport road winding across the landscape.

Outside the quarry area there are 442 statues; 269 of them once stood on various ahu sites in the interior and on the coast. These regions of generally fertile oil were home to large numbers of Rapa Nui people. The smallest statue recorded on an ahu site is about 3 feet tall; the two largest are about 32 feet tall. Only one of these huge statues was successfully erected on its ahu.

The earliest date we have for a statue is at the ceremonial center of Tahai on the west side of the island. There, the head of a statue carved from red scoria was found in the bay. The platform with which it was probably associated has a radiocarbon date of AD 713. The time span for the use of red scoria statues on the island is enormous. Another red scoria statue found at a different site was known to be in use as late as 1868.

We have recorded only 49 statues that were not carved in Rano Raraku, but instead were cut from quarries of basalt, tachyte, and red or reddish-gray scoria. All of these statues are smaller than average.

Once carving was completed and before the final polishing was done, the statues were transported from Rano Raraku to ahu over the roads that Katherine Routledge’s expedition discovered and that can still be seen today. These roads, between 9 and 13 feet wide, are really tracks of compacted earth. Most of the 47 statues we have documented along the roads lie on their backs, but a few rest on their faces or sides.

These statues lying “in transport” are perhaps the biggest unsolved mystery on Easter Island. Their varying positions mean that not all of them were being transported in exactly the same way. Their locations in relation to one another suggest that some lay almost blocking the roads while others were being manipulated to move around them. Routledge was the first to notice that some of these statues were broken in a violent way. She thought they might have been standing upright at one time and the breakage was the result of their falling to the ground. She concluded that some statues might have been erected to form ceremonial entranceways to Rano Raraku. Were the road statues standing upright, and if so, was this why?

It was discovered that the typical statue is rectangular, measures 13.3 feet tall, and weighs about 13.8 tons. This type was successfully transported and erected all over the island. It was probably preferred because it was manageable in size and weight, and the group of people required to move it could be easily assembled and fed.

It is imagined that the Rapa Nui probably utilized generations of Polynesian expertise in marine exploration and canoe construction to develop statue transport technology. Principles of the fulcrum and lever were easily adapted to statue transport. So, too, were lashing methods and the production of strong cordage, as well as techniques of raising masts.

The average successfully transported statue was moved horizontally and usually on its back, securely lashed in a protective wooden framework. Rollers or skids might have been necessary on some uphill or downhill portions of the roads. It has been calculated that fewer than a hundred people could have moved the average statue in this way. It seems clear that individual work parties of closely related people who lived on shared land moved single statues. Ancient obligations of family required that they participate. Craftspeople and priests of high status and proven expertise would have directed these efforts. A single statue of approximately 89 tons was the heaviest to be successfully transported to an ahu.

Was Routledge right – were the road statues standing erect as ceremonial sentinels guarding or marking the approach to Rano Raraku? Or were they being transported standing upright, as some people have suggested? Had unsuccessful attempts been made to erect some statues temporarily, thus accounting for the breakage? Had others been standing for a social or ritual reason we cannot read in the archaeological record? Or, more likely, were most of them abandoned simply because the chiefs who commissioned them didn’t have the ability to marshal the resources to move them? Were they just too big to be moved with the existing technology? For now, these perplexing questions remain unanswered.

Remote Possibilities: Hoa Hakananai’a And HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui (British Museum Research Paper) (British Museum Research Publication)

There is no recorded evidence to help us understand how the statues were used in ritual. When Capt. James Cook explored Tahiti and Hawaii, he observed and even participated in ceremonies that incorporated god images. These were a vital part of religious beliefs. On Easter Island, however, neither Cook in 1774 nor any other observers before or since have recorded seeing a priest conduct a ritual in front of an erect moai on an ahu. In fact, Cook thought the statues were “Monuments of Antiquity” and did not believe they were worshipped by the islanders.

After discovery, the Rapa Nui suffered severely at the hands of American and European whalers, sealers, and others calling at their impoverished shores. In 1862 – 63 the island was the target of slave traders, and the culture was dealt a murderous blow. Virtually all of the rulers and learned men were kidnapped and carried off to Peru as slaves. After the intercession of religious and other world leaders, the few Rapa Nui who survived were returned to the island with diseases that infected other people and ultimately killed many. In the wake of this tragedy, Catholic missionaries arrived to convert the population, and the remnants of traditional knowledge underwent further transformation and loss.

The work of scholars such as Routledge and Metraux is vital in reconstructing Rapa Nui culture in the years after European contact. Captain Cook and other early visitors to the Pacific recognized the interisland similarities of peoples, languages, and cultures. Cook understood this and took islanders with him as interpreters. Polynesian religious beliefs and social practices on one island can frequently tell us something about similar practices on another.

Genealogies say that the Rapa Nui knew the great Polynesian gods and heroes Tangaroa, Rongo, Tu, Tane, and Tiki as legendary figures or divine ancestors of kings. During historic times, the greatest god of Rapa Nui was Makemake, born from a skull at Ahu Tongariki and incarnate in a small dusky seabird called manu tara – the sooty tern. Makemake was the creator of humankind, and Metraux suggests that he was the Rapa Nui equivalent of the East Polynesian god Tane.

Tane was First Man, widely associated with trees, forests, and birds that dwell in the treetops. He served as patron of woodcarvers and other artisans. Many Polynesians believed he lifted the male sky from the body of the female earth to allow life to develop. Tane held his two cosmic parents apart by erecting wooden posts, or sky proppers, between them.

Props to hold up the heavens are called took in New Zealand. Tahiti they are called pou. The Rapa Nui word for pole is tokotoko, and pou refers to a column, post, or pillar. Most intriguingly, Metraux tells us that Toko Te Rangi, or Sky Propper, is named in the Rapa Nui genealogies as the 13th king of Easter Island. Polynesian chiefs were often metaphorically referred to as the prop around which society was organized.

The Easter Island statues as sky proppers would have elevated the sky and held it separate from the earth, allowing light to enter and fertility of the land to be achieved. Increasing the height of the statues, as the Rapa Nui did over time, would symbolically increase the space between sky and earth and would therefore ensure the greater production of food.

Both Rano Kau and Rano Raraku had been entirely stripped of trees by about 800 years ago, and there were signs of serious soil depletion, overpopulation, food shortages, and other causes of social stress a few hundred years later. By 1500 the Rapa Nui people were undergoing major shifts in social, economic, and political alignments, although they were still erecting statues in 1600.

Rapa Nui traditions tell us that the ancestral chief, Hotu Matua, had divided the island among his six sons, each of whom then founded his own line. These branches, even though all of the Rapa Nui were related through the founding ancestor, were frequently at odds with one another.

The Rapa Nui had entered into a period of uncertainty and probable bewilderment at what was happening to their world. In the midst of these trying times, they began to explore their beliefs, expanding and adapting them to their reduced environmental circumstances. They developed new strategies to entice, beguile, and seduce the supernatural manna of their chiefs, gods, and ancestors. We begin to see at this time some experimentation with statue style and material. For instance, there is a new emphasis on incorporating female sexual symbolism into statue design.

Red scoria sculpture, with its long history of use on Easter Island, might be related to the legends of the perfect chief, who was known as Tahaki. He was clever, powerful, and virile, admired for his beautiful red skin. He sailed a great canoe called rainbow and had the power to control the elements, heal the sick, and resuscitate the dead in battle. His status allowed him to achieve great weight because he had generous access to food, and his long nails were the trademark of chiefly idleness. His sparkling eyes became stars in the sky.

Some island statues, many of which appear to be very late, have symbols carved on their backs that represent sacred, chiefly authority. Some resemble a rainbow, a bird – perhaps the sooty tern – or a sacred loincloth. The exaggerated proportions and emphasis on the hands and elongated nails, the spine, the head, and the eyes reveal these features as focal points of manna.

As elsewhere in Polynesia, the statue itself was probably believed to be an empty stone vessel, perhaps a form of the perfect chief. Into this universal male form various gods and deified spirits of chiefs might have been ritually induced to enter. These summoned gods probably varied in the powers they wielded, and both statue design and ahu variation suggest that the most powerful gods required the most elaborate ceremonial settings. Perhaps Tan and Tahaki, or the Rapa Nui equivalents, were among them.

There are no simple formulas, no easy theories, no shortcuts to understanding the moai. It will probably never be known with absolute certainty what these statues meant in the lives of the people who created them. We do know that the ahu sculptures are not portraits of specific chiefs. They are icons that exemplify the Polynesian concern with genealogy, generation, status, and respect. Not only do they stand erect, visually separating earth and sky; they also symbolically unite the natural and cosmic worlds and provide access to them for both gods and humans. The moai thus mediate between earth and sky, people and chiefs, chiefs and gods.


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