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The Heads of Easter Island

“In Easter Island the past is the present, it is impossible to escape from it… The shadows of the departed builders still possess the land. Voluntarily or involuntarily the sojourner must hold commune with those old workers; the whole air vibrates with a vast purpose and energy which has been and is no more.” – Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919.

The famed Easter Island heads, moai, number around 1,000 and are scattered throughout the island. These giants can tower up to 30 feet high and weigh up to 80 tons. The moai sit on ahus, or altars, which are as sacred as the statues themselves, as they were built not only as stages for the heads, but also as gravestones for their ancestors. Theories vary on the dates of the moai, with most scholars saying the carving occurred between the 10th and 15th centuries AD, becoming more stylized and less primitive as time went on. Legend has it that the original immigrants, Polynesians, brought to the island their tiki-carving tradition, which expanded on Rapa Nui over the centuries. Representing deceased ancestors, all statues are male (Rapa Nui continues to be a very patriarchal society), and were carved out of relatively soft volcanic rock, using basalt tools (metal wasn’t introduced to the island until modern times).

Facing inland, representing ancestors’ mana (Rapanui for “power”), the statues lie in great mystery. Even world-renowned scientists and archaeologists continue to question the purpose of the statues, how they were carved and how and why they were transported such great distances. When the statues at Tongariki were set back upright in the 1990s after a devastating tsunami ravaged the island and flung the statues miles, archaeologists had to import a custom-made crane from Japan to complete the job. An even bigger mystery, as quested in the brilliant book The Statues that Walked, is “Why did [the moai] emerge only on this tiny island, whose populations should have, by all accounts, been focused solely on where to find the next meal?”

Moai sit on ahus, stone altars built to hold the statues. The ahus are as revered as the statues (many of the island’s deceased were buried under the altars). Locals and visitors are asked to not walk on the ahus, in order to pay respect to the ancestors and keep the sites safe. There are however no ropes or fences protecting any of the archaeological sites on the island (increasingly a problem due to the fact that the wild horses like to scratch their backs on the stone statues!)

How the moai were moved is a topic of great debate. They either were ‘walked’ into position, using a complicated and sophisticated method of pulleys and levers, or they were rolled on tree trunks. We know that paths were cleared for movement between the quarry and the ahus but scientists are confused as to how either method might have occurred with the absence of strong trees. (The only ones on the island today are skinny Tahitian palms.) However, recent scientific studies have discovered that thicker palms were endemic to the island but have since disappeared.

Recent initiatives have seen the reforestation of the endemic palms, which were thicker and strong and thus more conducive to rolling heavy objects. (Visitors interested in this planting project can visit the island’s nursery, Vivero.)

Many moai were knocked down either by weather-related tragedies or during wars between the islanders. Some have been restored to their upright positions by archeaologists, but just as many sadly remain lying down. Broken moai lie, fallen and forgotten, around the island alongside the moai paths. Some theorize that during the moving process, the statues would fall and break, or break then fall, and the artisans would give up and abandon them where they fell. Academics are still learning more about the culture and their artifacts: a previously unknown (in modern times) moai was just discovered in the year 2000. Studies have also shown that some of the heads (including Ahu Huri a Urenga, Ahu Akivi and Ahu Vai Teka) were positioned in accordance to where the sun sits on the winter and summer solstices.

Published onJune 11, 2014

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