We’re taking a break from our Antarctica series to share with your our experiences and the things we have learned from our interesting post-Antarctica destination.
From the remote white wilderness of Antarctica, we hopped to the most remote populated island on earth – Easter Island. After the icy adventure, we thought that it was a perfect place for us to thaw out. It was a lovely island, warm but not too hot, not overrun by tourists and really laid back, and we finally satiated our ardent curiosity about this island that remains so mysterious to the outside world.
For starter, here are some basic facts about Easter Island:
• It is the easternmost island in the South Pacific.
• It is so remote that its closest neighbor, Pitcairn Islands, is situated 1,200 miles (1,900 kms) away and the nearest continental point, Chile, is 2,300 mi/3,700 km away.
• It is a tiny speck of volcanic land measuring 63 sq mi (101 sq km) 0r 14 mi by 8 mi (23 by 12 km).
• It forms one of the 3 points of the Polynesian Triangle with Hawaii and New Zealand being the two other points.
• Its first inhabitants were Polynesians seafarers, led by King Hotu Matu’a, believed to have sailed from Marquesas Islands around 300-400 AD. They called the island and its inhabitants Rapa Nui.
• The island was christened Easter Island by Dutch explorer in honor of the day they arrived in the island in 1722.
• Easter Island is a special territory of Chile annexed in 1888.
• The island’s current population is roughly 6,000 consists of Rapa Nui descendants and Chileans.
Whenever Easter Island is mentioned, the word ‘mystery’ always comes to mind. Its claim to fame and the source of its mystery are the awe-inspiring monumental stone statues called moai.
Between 1300 and 1500 AD, the Rapa Nui inhabitants carved over 950 moai* that stand up to 40 feet tall and weigh up to 86 tons. They were placed all over the island, mostly along the shore and facing away from the sea.
Explorers, archeologists, historians, travelers and the plain curious have marveled for many years on why and how a small population on a tiny remote, treeless, impoverished island could have created and transported hundreds of colossal statues.
*Moai and ahu are used as both singular and plural
The moai stand on impressive platforms called ahu. Some 350 of these stone platforms are scattered along the coast of the island. The largest of the ahu supporting 15 moai is Ahu Tongariki.
It is believed that the statues were meant to deified the dead ancestors and that the vast majority of them were erected to face inland so they could watch over their descendants at all time.
Some statues used to don topknots called pukao. Only one of Tongariki’s moai is wearing one and the rest of the pukao are laying on the ground. It is believed that a moai with a pukao suggests that the ancestor it represents had a very high status within the clan.
You see, the ahu we see today with standing moai are all in restored state. During the late 1700’s, all the maoi were toppled face down.
According to our guide, oral history indicated that economic difficulties faced the island during that period. The inhabitants blamed the depletion of wealth and resources to extravagant focus on building the statues. In condemnation, they toppled down the moai and stopped building more.
But some scholars believed that they were topple down due to tribal conflicts. Pushing them face-down was an insult to the surviving members of the other tribe or by pushing their faces down the gods did not have to witness the conflict of their descendants.
The hundreds of moai standing on Easter Island today were restored by archaeologists, historians and anthropologists starting in the mid-1900’s.
AHU VINAPUAhu Vinapu is another ahu that has been left unrestored. It is believed to be one of the most important ceremonial sites on the island. The journal of Captain James Cook who once explored the island recorded 20 massive moai standing on this ahu before its collapse. It must have been a majestic site.
AHU NAU NAU
One of the most beautiful ahus in the island in Ahu Nau Nau. Symbolically, it is one of the most important ahu as it is erected in a historic location – Anakena Beach. It was the landing site of King Matu’a and his entourage who were the first inhabitants of the island.
The statues of Ahu Nau Nau may not be the largest in size but they have the most refined features. They are also the most preserved having been buried in beach sands for many years before they were restored. It is also striking that most of them have their pukaos intact.
Tahai is a ceremonial complex comprised of three ahu. One of them is Ahu Ko Te Riku, an ahu with a lone moai and is very unique as it is the only moai with eyes. The white part of the eyes are made of corals and the black parts are of obsidian rocks.
Where did the moai came from?
The two parts of the moai – the pukao and the body – came from two different parts of the island and were made of two different kinds of stones.
PUNA PAUPuna Pau is a quarry in a small crater where the pukao or topknots placed on the head of the maoi were made. The pukaos were carved out of the red scoria rock that are found on the crater. The scoria rock is softer and lighter than the material the bodies of moai were carved out of.
Many unfinished pukao are scattered around the hills that surround the crater. It was easy for the scholars to figure out that the pukao were transported by rolling them to the location of the ahu but they have not figured out how the Rapa Nui placed them on the head of the moai.
THE QUARRY OF RANO RARAKUThe bodies of all moai were carved and transported from the slopes of the volcano called Rano Raraku. The highly skilled Rapa Nui artisans carved them out of the quarry’s tuff, a harden volcanic ash, using crude hand axes made of basalt rock.
Earlier excavation revealed that they were full statues that the ancient Rapa Nui sculptors left standing in deep trenches where they could be erected easily to fisnish the carving.
It is unknown if the trenches were deliberately buried by the statue carvers or if they were filled by sediments from erosion over the centuries, leaving only their heads above ground.
The Statues that Walked
But the biggest question and mystery is, how were the multi-ton statues transported?
Many ideas have been tested by scientists. Earlier speculation was that the statues were transported in horizontal position, lying in some kind of wooden platform and was pushed and pulled in some fashion by hundreds if not thousands of people.
However, the islanders were skeptic about this notion and insisted that their ancestors made the moai “walk” to their destination.
In more recent development, a local archeologist Sergio Rapu gave two American archeologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, some clue on how his ancestors “engineered the statues to walk.” Sergio pointed out that the statues in the quarry had large bellies and wide bases (they were trimmed down at the ahu) and that their bases were angled to lean forward. He said the statues were carved in this configuration to move them.
It made sense for Lipo and and Hunt. They realized that it was basic physics – that the statues’ center of gravity was positioned to make them stable in motion. With the center of gravity in front (in the potbellies to be exact!), it was relatively easy to make them “walk” through rocking motion.
In cooperation with National Geopgraphic and NOVA, Lipo and Hunt tested the theory that rocks! Please see the video below.
No one knows for certain if this was the exact way the ancient Rapa Nuis made their statues walk. But so far the islanders of today seem to be happy with this experiment.
We hope that you enjoyed this post about the moai of Easter Island. There’s, however, more about Easter Island than the moai and we would love to share them with you in our future post.
• Getting there: LAN Airlines offer daily flights, except Tuesdays. from Santiago, Chile and one flight a week (Tuesdays) from Papeete, Tahiti. It’s about 5 hour flying time from both cities
• A national park pass is required for some main attractions. It’s best to buy it at the airport upon your arrival. There’s only one other place where you can purchase it in the island and it’s not convenient to find. The cost of the pass is $60.
• Recommended Reading: The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo
• Recommended Accommodation: Hare Noi – It is a beautiful and luxurious lodge situated in a lovely expansive surrounding, eco-friendly, excellent service, and conveniently located from the town center and most attractions.