A Brief History of Easter Island's Incredible Moai Statues

Moai statues of Easter Island
Moai statues of Easter Island | © Iñi Piñi / Flickr

The Moai are some of the world’s most fascinating and widely-recognised monolithic statues. Located on the remote Chilean territory of Easter Island, they tell a mysterious story of the island’s early people and their obsession with rock carvings. Much research has been carried out on these famous statues and many of the damaged and fallen statues have since been restored around the island.

What are the Moai?

The Moai statutes date back nearly a thousand years and are the work of the early inhabitants of Easter Island. They are tall sculptures made out of volcanic rock, with disproportionately large heads. The average height of a Moai is about 13 ft (4m) and can weigh around 13.8 tones (12.5 tonnes) each, but some are up to 40 ft (12m) tall.

The faces on these Moai have distinct features, such as broad noses and strong chins jutting out from the rest of the body. The Moai have eye sockets carved, with archaeologists believing coral eyes were used.

Moai at Rano Raraku

What do the Moai represent?

It’s thought that the Moai were symbols of religious and political power and leadership. Carvings and sculptures in the Polynesian world often have strong spiritual meanings, and followers often believe a carving had magical or spiritual powers of the person or deity depicted.

Many archaeologists believe the Moai represented the ancestors of the people. This is emphasised by the fact the Moai are almost always facing inland or towards a community, rather than out to sea, suggesting they were looking after the people.

There are seven Moai which go against this and face out to sea, perhaps to guide visitors to the island.

Close-up of Moai head

Why were the Moai toppled?

Most information about the history of the Moai is down to witness accounts passed through the generations. When the Europeans began arriving in 1722, the Moai were still standing. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the Moai reportedly had all toppled and fallen over.

There are different theories about this – some believe it was because of earthquake activity, others say the statues were toppled during tribal wars as a way of humiliating their opposition.

One of the other theories which still exists today, is about a woman on the island who had special powers, and toppled all the statues out of anger.

Fallen Moai

How were they moved across the island?

It’s incredible to see so many of these Moai in many places. They were all carved from the Rano Raraku quarry, so how on earth, given their size and weight, did they get moved around the island?

It’s a credit to the ingenuity of the Rapa Nui people. Of course, there are also multiple theories which exist about this too, including beliefs that elders commanded the statues to move.

The most likely theory was also what brought about the downfall of the Rapa Nui people. It’s believed Easter Island was full of trees in the early days, but were chopped down to create logs in order to roll the statues around the island. Unfortunately, the deforestation of the island continued and eventually this precious natural resource was used up before any new trees could be planted.

The Fifteen Moai

Where on Easter Island can you find the Moai?

It’s unclear exactly how many Moai exist, but there are hundreds that can be seen right across Easter Island. You don’t have to look far. The rest are thought to be buried in the slopes under rubble or at the quarry at Rano Raraku – in fact, there could be hundreds of Moai still yet to be unearthed.

The most photographed Moai tend to be the row of 15 of Ahu Tongariki. It’s the largest ahu (a raised shrine) on the territory.

Scuba divers can also see a submerged Moai off the island, but this did not fall in any conflict or earthquake. It’s understood it was placed there as part of research.

Moai Statues

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