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Easter Island Statues: History, Discovery & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Easter Island is home to some of the most famous, and yet most mysterious, statues in the world. In this lesson, we'll check out the statues of this remote Polynesian island and explore the mysteries that surround them.

Moai

In 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. Being Easter Sunday, he named the place Easter Island. The people who lived there called it Rapa Nui. On Rapa Nui, the European adventurers were startled to find massive stone carvings called moai. These megalithic statues have amazed visitors to the islands ever since, but there's a lot about them that is still shrouded in mystery. Who knows what ancient secrets the moai still guard?

Moai of Rapa Nui
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The Rapa Nui People

The mystery of the moai begins with the people who created them. For one, the fact that Rapa Nui was ever inhabited is amazing itself. The island is technically owned by Chile today but is around 2,300 miles from the coast of South America. Geographically, it's part of Polynesia, but it's about 1,100 miles from the nearest island. Somehow, ancient Polynesian people and their exceptional canoes made it across hundreds of miles of open ocean, landed here, and built a civilization.

Archeologists believe that the Rapa Nui people thrived from roughly 800-1600 CE, and most archeologists believe that the moai were created sometime after 1100 CE. Beyond that, we know very little else about these people. In fact, when Europeans arrived in the 18th century, they found an island with a relatively small number of inhabitants living there. The island was almost entirely devoid of trees by that point, and the dominant theory is that the Rapa Nui people overextended their resources, leading to their decline.

The Moai Statues

Considering how little we know about the Rapa Nui people, the moai are extremely fascinating. There are nearly 900 of these monumental statues around the island. A little under half of these were found in the Rano Raraku stone quarry, where the volcanic tuff used to make them was located. The statues here are found in various stages of completion, which suggests that the practice was alive and well right before being suddenly and mysteriously abandoned.

So, how'd they make these statues? It seems that after the stone was harvested, the carving was begun on site. A team of stoneworkers worked on each one, completing the face and front, then lifted the stone block upright using ropes and levers. The back was completed and the statue transported to sites across the island by rolling them on sleds or rollers. Archeologists estimate that besides the 15 people used to carve a single moai, another 40 people were required to move it, and 300-400 people were needed to make the supplies, gather food, coordinate resources, and prepare the sites. Rapa Nui must have had a decent population at one point.

An incomplete moai at Rano Raraku
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When it was all said and done, the Rapa Nui people had a monumental masterpiece of stonework. The average size of a moai is 13 feet tall and 14 tons, but at least one unfinished one has been found that would have been 70 feet tall upon completion. The moai are characterized by their sloping foreheads, prominent chins, and heavy brow ridges. However, we forget that there was more to these statues that just heads. Over time, natural forces buried many of them up to the necks, but moai were originally carved with torsos as well.

There are other indications that the moai may have once looked different as well. Red pigment was found around many of the statues, indicating that they were once painted. Bright coral or stones also seem to have been set into the eyes. Some also wore a cylindrical stone hat (which may have represented a headdress or hairstyle). Most completed statues were placed on a pedestal or altar called an ahu and arranged along the coast looking inland (presumably to watch over the people).

Meaning of the Moai

When we look at the moai, the obvious question is this: why? Why would a society with only wood and stone tools go through so much trouble? It's pretty clear that the moai had a significant meaning to the Rapa Nui people. We just don't know what it was.

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