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.

Ahu Tangoriki, Easter Island, ChileAhu Tangoriki

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.

Ahu Akivi, Easter Island, ChileAhu Akivi

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

AHU TONGARIKI
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

Ahu Tangoriki, Easter IslandWe learned from our guide, who was a direct Rapa Nui descendant, that based on oral histories the statues represent clan ancestors of those who built them.

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.

Ahu Tangoriki, Easter Island, ChileIt is also believed that statues was not only a symbol of fervent ancestor worship but also became a display of power. The clans tried to outdo each other by building bigger and bigger statues.

Pukao (stone hats) in Ahu Tangoriki, Easter Island, ChileSome 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.

Ahu Tangoriki, Easter Island, ChileAhu Tongariki is the best sunrise spot in the island. We returned one early morning but only caught the tailend of sunrise. It was still lovely.

TOPPLED DOWN!
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 Te Pito KuraTe Pito Kura, Easter Island, ChileSome toppled maoi have been left in state of collapse like the one in Ahu Te Pito Kura. It is the largest moai transported and placed on an ahu.

AHU VINAPUVinapu Easter Island, ChileAhu 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.

Vinapu, Easter Island, ChileThe stoneworks of the platform of Vinapu displayed the skilled craftmanship of the early Rapa Nuis. The stoneworks are reminiscense of the work of the Incas that feature precise stone fitting.

Fallen statue face in Vinapu, Easter Island ChileOne of the stone faces that were scattered around Vinapu.

AHU NAU NAU
Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena Beach, Easter Island, ChileOne 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.

Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena Beach, Easter Island, ChileThe 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.

Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena Beach, Easter Island, ChileIf only the moai of Ahu Nau Nau can turn around, they would see that the historic beach that lies behind them is simply spectacular.

Anakena Beach, Easter Island, ChileAnakena Beach

TAHAI
Ahu Ko Te Riku in Ahu Tahai Complex, Easter Island, ChileTahai 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.

Ahu Ko Te Riku in Ahu Tahai Complex, Easter Island, ChileTahai complex is a good place to watch sunset. It is within walking distance from the Hanga Roa, the town center. Grab a drink and find a good spot.

AHU AKIVIAhu Akivi, Easter Island, ChileAhu Akivi is very unique among all the ahu. It is the only ahu that is situated inland. It is also the only ahu where the moai are facing towards the ocean. They are also remarkably similar.

Ahu Akivi, Easter Island, Chile
According to oral tradition, the moai of Ahu Akivi represent the 7 young Polynesian men sent to explore the island before the arrival of the colonizers led by founder King Hotu Matu’a.

Ahu Akivi, Easter Island, ChileLike most ahu, the placement of Ahu Akivi has astronomical significance. The moai directly face the sunset during spring equinox and the sunset is directly behind their back during autumn equinox.

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, Easter Island, ChilePuna 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.

Puna Pau, Easter Island, ChileMany 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.

Puna Pau, Easter Island, ChileMore pukao near the ground of the Puna Pau quarry.

THE QUARRY OF RANO RARAKURano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileThe 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.

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileHundreds of moai were left on the slope in different stages of development. They seemed to be waiting for their sculptors to return any moment to complete them.

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileOne of the unfinished statues still attached to the rock.

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, Chile

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileIt was fascinating to see all these giant scultpures referred to as “heads.” But it was actually more fascinating to learn that….

668578-norwegian-archaeological-expeditio ….these heads actually have bodies!

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.

 

 

 

 

Kneeling statue (moai) Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileHigh up on the quarry is an interesting figure called Tukuturi. It is the only moai with legs and is kneeling.  (The moai of Ahu Tangoriki can be seen far away in the background near the water).

The Statues that Walked

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileFrom the quarry, the statues were distributed throughout the island to their designated ahu. Network of roads have been built from the quarry to facilitate the transport.

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.

Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, ChileNot all moia were able to “walk” all the way to their destination. Some fell and cracked along the way during transport and were abandoned.Fallen Moai, Rano Raraku Quarry, Easter Island, Chile

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.

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 Travel Notes:
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.

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About Marisol

Taking you on our journey one photo - and footstep - at a time.

64 responses to “The Mysterious Statues (Moai) of Easter Island

  1. thank you so much. I have learnt so much from you today. I didn’t know that the moai faced away from the ocean, I for some reason, always thought they faced towards to ocean. It makes sense that they are looking inland towards the people. I found the video fascinating of how they “walked” the moai, and it seems very feasible given there is little wood on the island. I didn’t know either that Easter Island is so populated.
    A fascinating post. thank you. and happy travels.

    • Marisol

      Hi Jill, our pleasure. So glad to hear that you have learnt something from the post. That video was truly fascinating.

    • Marisol

      Really? So nice to hear to that. Thanks Leigh.

    • Marisol

      Thank you, Rachel. It’s definitely worth being added to your bucket list.

    • Marisol

      I hope you get to check it off soon.

    • Marisol

      Aww, so glad you enjoyed the read and the photos, Jan! The statues walking and their settings were truly amazing.

  2. I’ve never wanted Easter Island on our bucket list – until today. You’ve done an amazing job of telling the story of the Moai and the photos — as always — so perfectly illustrate the narrative. Love your travels and your tales~
    Jackie Smith recently posted..‘Twas the Season in Kalamata ~ The Olive Oil SeasonMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Jackie, thank you! I’m pleased that we talk you into adding Easter Island to your list. I’m pretty sure you and Joel will enjoy it there.

  3. I’ve learnt so much more than I ever knew about these iconic statues and I loved seeing so many photos of island scenery too. Most pictures I’ve seen of the statues focus on them so closely that I’ve never gotten a feeling for the lie of the land before. I’ve never seen the one with eyes either. Thank you for a lovely post. I want to go to Easter Island even more now!
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    • Marisol

      Hi Phoebe, I’m so pleased that you had learnt something new about the statues and that we were able to share the island sceneries that you had to seen before. I hope you get to visit the island soon.

  4. Wow, this is very informative. The statues are amazing, but what’s more amazing as I read this is that there were more in the hillsides. Incredible trip.
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    • Marisol

      HI Maria, I’m pleased that you think so. They’re actually more statues that we have not included here. It really was an incredible trip.

  5. Fascinating! I have learnt a lot from you about the statues of Easter Island and the fact that it is part of Chile territory. I didn’t realize that there were a variety of statues on the island and I have always wondered about their history. What an interesting world it is!
    Kathy Marris recently posted..Riversdale Estate Crater ChardonnayMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Kathy, it truly is an interesting world. I’m glad to hear that to learnt more about the statues.

    • Marisol

      No editing out people, no cropping. I actually like people in the photos. As I mentioned in the intro, one reason we liked the island was that it was not overrun by tourist. It’s not the kind of place where they have bus loads of tourists. The most we encountered at a site was a van load with about ten people.

  6. Fascinating! On a recent road trip around the North Island of New Zealand we found an Easter Island statue. It was amazing – just standing there on its own looking out to sea as if pining for home. It had been given to New Zealand by Chile as a gesture of friendship.
    Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields recently posted..How to wreck a bike! (part 2).My Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Lyn, that’s fascinating that you have a moai in NZ! What a special gift to your country. But I can imagine how lonely it must have looked.

  7. I didn’t know there were a lot of different groups of Moai! I’ve only seen the Ahu Tangoriki in photos. Great post again, so informative. I want to go there as part of my backpacking trip in South America but I heard that plane tickets from Santiago are so expensive.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Aleah, yes there are a lot of different groups of them. There were more that we have not included in the post. I’m pleased you found it informative. You definitely have to include it in your backpacking trip in South America. You can probably get good ticket price if you purchase way in advance.
      Marisol recently posted..The Mysterious Statues (Moai) of Easter IslandMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Stephanie, thanks! They’re actually built to watch:)

  8. Rachel

    What a fantastic article! I never knew that the ‘heads’ also had bodies, but I love the mystery still around them-it’s nice knowing that there are some things in the world we don’t have answers to, I think :-)
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    • Marisol

      Hi Rachel, thanks! You know it’s nice to have the mysteries solved but it’s true, it’s also nice to know that some things will remain mysteries.

  9. Ruth

    This is the best post I have ever seen about Easter Island. The pictures are incredible. Not only they do show the statues but the the landscape too. I am glad I stopped by today. You guys knocked it out off the park!
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  10. Anda

    Ah, Easter Island! I want to go there someday. It was on my radar for a while but there are so many interesting destinations to see… Easter Island look so, beautiful. I’ve seen some documentaries before, but they were filmed in overcast weather, making the statues look a little grotesque. You were lucky, you had perfect weather.

    • Marisol

      Hi Anda, I hope you get to go sometime. It’s a beautiful and interesting destination where you and your camera would have a field day.

    • Marisol

      Hi Amial, thank you. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.

    • Marisol

      Hi Paula, it will be worth your time. I hope you can fit it in.

  11. Corinne

    Good advice to buy the national park pass at the airport. We didn’t find the other location until late in our trip and had kept wondering when and where we had to pay. Easter Island was amazing and your photos do a great job of showing that!
    Corinne recently posted..Weekend Travel Inspiration – Doug MackMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Corinne, thanks! We were thankful that we found out about the pass prior to our arrival in the island. Otherwise we would have wasted a lot of time figuring out where to get them.

  12. Bama

    Marisol, Easter Island’s mystery has intrigued me since I was little. Those giant moai scattered across the breathtaking backdrop of such a remote island is truly something worth traveling, no matter how long and how much it takes. Simply stunning images, Marisol. And I didn’t know that those heads actually have bodies! What an island it truly is!
    Bama recently posted..The Menjangan Part 2: Underwater GardensMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Bama, you have to visit Easter Island. It’s truly is rewarding, especially if it intrigued you for so long. It’s a very special island and its people are really wonderful. Yes, it really is worth the long travel.

    • Marisol

      HI SJ, thank you. It’s hard not to take cool photos of something fabulous:)

  13. Thank you for sharing all those wonderful photos! I’ve seen an Easter Island statue at the Smithsonian in DC, but the ones in your photos seem to be much bigger and much more impressive. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to go to Easter Island, but we have read quite a bit about it once when my son was crazy about the statues. Thank you for rekindling our interest.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Jolanta, you’re very welcome. I’m glad we rekindled you interest on the island. I hope you and your family get to visit there someday.

  14. It’s hard to imagine how they transported those huge stones years ago. Just the size of some of the statues are overwhelming. I hope to make it to Easter Island one day, I really enjoyed all your pictures. Thanks for sharing and linking up to #WeekendWanderlust this week.
    Carmen | Carmen’s Luxury Travel recently posted..Waterfront Dining in Fort LauderdaleMy Profile

    • Hi Carmen, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope you make it to the island sometime soon.

  15. Nancie

    Fabulous post! A lot of people are definitely intrigued by this mysterious island, and I am one of them! Your photos are over the top gorgeous, and the history and details you’ve shared made this a very special read. Thank you! And thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday
    Nancie recently posted..Chiang Mai: Delicious Ruam Mit for Travel Photo ThursdayMy Profile

    • Hi Nancie, thanks! It really is intriguing and I’m so pleased you found it a special read.

    • Hi Margherita, thanks! Easter Island is worth to be in your bucket list. We wish for you to get there soon.

  16. Jess

    I love that picture of an unfinished stature – I’ve never seen that before!

    I used to dream of working on Easter Island – I still think I’d like to find a volunteer project there for a few weeks one field season. So far, the closest I’ve made it is the archaeological museum in Vina Del Mar, Chile – the museum was closed my one day in town, but they have a moai outside. I was torn between awe and preservationist panic at seeing it exposed to the city’s air pollution!

  17. Agness

    This place has an amazing history I learned when I was in my high school. Absolutely breath-taking place and your pictures perfectly captured the moment! I feel like I was there! <3

  18. Gabby

    I really, really, really love your site.

  19. Easter Island is on my list for a long time, but I’m not sure if I will be lucky enough to make it one day.
    Your gallery is great. I didn’t know there are so many gigantic statues. I liked the most your statues of Ahu Nau Nau :)

  20. This was just fascinating to read, Marisol. I loved learning all about these moai statues – its history and the people behind them. I actually found this a whole lot more interesting than the whole Stonehenge mystery :) I didn’t realize just how big they were and that some had bodies. We saw one of the moai statues at the British Museum a couple of years ago. Thanks for such a detailed and great virtual tour. Beautiful photos as always.
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  21. Great post Marisol. Amazing the amount of statues still on the island and I think the rocking theory is a good one too. The beaches also look incredible and I’m amazed that over 6,000 people call the place home. Did you hear anything about the drug rapamycin, which allegedly comes from the soil on Easter Island?

  22. Lauren

    Incredible post, I found this to be so interesting and thorough. I love how you described the different moai. I watched a documentary about Easter Island on Netflix that was really interesting, not sure if you’ve seen it (Can’t remember what it was called) but it really made me want to travel there. Love your pics.

  23. This is such a fascinating read. I learned so much — pretty much everything that you wrote was news to me. I didn’t realize that Rapa Nui and Easter Island were the same place. I imagined the island being much, much smaller and practically deserted. The walking theory sounds good to me. That’s how I move empty bookcases around by myself. As always, wonderful photos accompany all the great info.

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