The Moai of Easter Island

This is a collection of the moai and ahus (ceremonial platforms) that I saw visited around Easter Island. For facts and history of the moai, click here.

Anakena

Anakena is one of the only landing harbors on Easter Island, and it is the one that King Hotu Matu’a and the original settlers used when they arrived on the island. The clan that subsequently lived here was historically powerful, both because they were direct descendants of the king and because they had a monopoly of the harbor.

The moais at Anakena are about 50m in from the beach.

This single moai was made earlier than the rest, in the 1300s. It is special because it was the first moai to be re-erected in history. Two local men told archaeologists of an old pry-and-wedge method, and they successfully used it to re-erect the moai in 17 days with only 12 workers. Today, most believe that the Rapa Nui originally used this method to erect all of the moai.

The row of moai hail from the 1400s. Their backs are decorated with carved loincloths and spiral designs on the butts, which is not seen on many moai. However, it’s possible that all of the moai originally had designs like this on their backs, and they are simply no longer there because the statues were toppled face-down, so the backs eroded more.


 

Rano Raraku

 

Moai at Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku is the volcano that served as the standardized quarry for the Moai, and it is where more than half of the Moai still remain today. Some of the Moai are still half carved into the mountain, while others dot the hillside. These abandoned Moai, left in various stages of production, supply key information as to how the Moai were made.

The standing Moai were originally just buried at the base for the final touches. But the mountain has eroded around them over time, so now only the faces are showing. Archaeologists have dug up some of the statues and found that under the ground, they are almost perfectly preserved with smooth yellow skin and intricately carved hands. But these have been covered up again to preserve them.

The largest moai that is fully finished and ready to transport is Piro Piro, which stands at 38ft tall. It never left the quarry, however, as funds probably ran out before it could be transported.

The overall largest moai ever attempted is El Gigante, which still lies embedded into the mountain side. If finished, it would measure something around 70ft tall and 280 tons. Experts say that workers likely would never have been able to move this statue with the technology they had, something that the masters and stoneworkers must have known at the time. Thus, this might have been a classic project to keep the workers busy during the decline of the Moai period.

Towards the end of the moai period, there was almost serial production of the moai. This can be seen in areas like these, where there are 5 moai carved in a space of less than 5x5 meters.

Another cool feature of this area is the negative of a moai face that is in the corner (difficult to see in the picutre). Here is where the archaeologist Heryerdahl carved a test moai to determine how hard the stone was and how difficult the Mmoai would have been to carve.

Moai Tuku Turi is one of the rare kneeling Moai. There were many kneeling statues before 1200, but once a single quarry was standardized and the statues had to travel long distances, the standing statues became the standard because they were most efficient to transport.

This statue dates from the 1300s, and legend goes that it is of a master carver that was cursed to be crippled by the same witch that made the statues walk. It was found after a local man told the archaeologists that there was a statue here that was different than the others. Shortly after, the same local man suffered a stroke or a like illness and was paralyzed from the waist down. Some say this was a curse from the statue for exhibiting its shame.

More pictures of Rano Raraku:


 

Ahu Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki at sunrise

Ahu Tongariki

Right next to Rano Raraku is Tongariki, the most impressive lineup of moai on the island with 15 moai standing in a row. This is a popular place to watch the sunrise, which I was fortunate enough to do with new friends from the hostel.

The biggest currently standing moai is here, weighing in at 72 tons and 30ft tall. It is among the statues made during the richest period, numbers 11 and up from left to right. Statues 4-10 were the oldest statues, while statues 1-3 were the last to be made. The decline of the economy is clearly reflected in statues 3, 2, and 1, as each statue was smaller than the last.

This entire area was completely wiped out in 1960, when a 9.6 earthquake in Chile caused tsunamis which even reached Hawaii and Japan. Here on Easter Island, there were 10m tall waves. Thankfully, no one was hurt because the tsunami hit the East side of the island, where nobody lived, but Tongariki was right in the path of the tsunami.

The ahu (platform beneath the moai) was totally destroyed. All 15 moai originally had topknots, which were also damaged beyond repair. But the moai themselves were fortunately saved because the people had toppled them facedown and they had accumulated dirt around them. During the tsunami, they were not knocked over, moved, or otherwise beaten around. In 1992-1996, Tongariki was restored, with the ahu rebuilt as a replica of the original one.

Also at Tongariki is a separate statue that stands on its own. This is the traveling moai, a moai ambassador of sorts that was exhibited in different places in the world to teach people about and generate interest in Easter Island.

When the tsunami destroyed the ahu, it unearthed some pieces of older statues that had been built into the surrounding area. One of these pieces is an unusual moai that had a small torso with stubby hands. Because the moai represent idealized beauty, this was very strange and likely intentional. One of the theories is that this could have been a dwarf that was born into nobility and ended up as a leader, a la Tyrion Lannister in popular fiction.

More pictures of Ahu Tongariki:


 

Aka Hanga

Down the coast lies Aka Hanga, once one of the richest and largest villages. It has an impressive row of statues that span more than 300 years, but they are all still toppled and have not been restored yet.

One of the statues on a separate platform was abandoned while it was being raised, giving archaeologists insights into the methods that the Rapa Nui used. When found, it was face down on a pile of rubble, in the middle of being erected using the pry and wedge method. It was abandoned weeks or perhaps even days before it was raised - so close, but yet so far.


 

Vinapu

 

Even further along the coast is Vinapu, unique because it has the “Incan wall of Easter Island”: an ahu with perfectly fitted blocks, similar to Incan techniques.

The presence of this wall has led some to wonder whether the Rapa Nui might have originated from South America. Some coincidences exist in the oral histories of the two groups, as the Incans also had Legend of a diety with red hair who sailed off and was never seen or herd from agin. Could this be Hotu Matu’a? Well, we do know that the Rapa Nui had contact with people from South America, and it’s more likely that some people went to South America, saw the Incan rocks, and decided to replicate them back home.

This village in particular was 9 miles away from the quarry as the crow flies, but a moai had to be transported 30 miles around obstacles to reach it. It was a rich village, but smaller, less wealthy villages could easily afford much bigger moai simply because they were closer to the quarry. Thus, they had to find another means to show off, so they compensated with large stones, which didn’t have to be transported as far, and unique stonework to stand out.

Vinapu is also home to a rare female statue (it looks pretty darn phallic to me now, but I take the guide’s word for it). The head is gone and it was destroyed by a catholic missionary with an axe, but you can still tell that it’s female because there are breasts and a symbol for vulva. It was probably made during the birdman cult period and not the moai period and used as an amulet for fertility. Only around 10 female moai have been found, as they were usually made in wood, kept indoors, and depicted pregnant and/or deformed female forms. 


 

Puna Pau

Puna Kao

Puna Kao

Puna Kao

On the other side of the island from Rano Raraku is Puna Pao, the quarry for the red pukao, or topknots. Around 20 pukao lay abandoned here, with the biggest one weighing in at 28 tons - twice as heavy as the biggest transported pukao.


 

Ahu Akivi

 

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Akivi is home to the only row of moai that looked outwards to the sea instead of inward towards the villages. The story behind this is that the 7 moai represent the 7 explorers that King Hotu Matu’a sent ahead of the expedition to find and prepare the island. Hiva lay to the west of Easter Island, so the 7 moai looked to the west as they waited for the rest of the party to arrive.

However, scientists believe that Ahu Akivi is actually an observatory. It is part of a set of 3 ahus that function as a sun calendar with 12 months. Standing with all 3 ahus line up in a row, the 7 statues of Ahu Akivi tell which month it is depending on where the sun sets. On the winter solstice, June 21, the sun sets on the head of the 1st moai. One month later, on July 21st, the sun sets on the head of the 2nd moai. The sun continues moving over until December 21st, the summer solstice, when it sets on the head of the 7th moai. Then, it moves in the opposite direction for the next 6 months.

The statues were all built around the same time, so it was likely a joint effort between multiple villages to create a calendar. The nobles probably kept it as a secret to manipulate information, which could be why the true purpose of Ahu Akivi was lost over time and the legend of the 7 explorers endured.

 


 

Huri a Urenga

Another atypical Ahu that might have been built as an observatory instead of for traditional purposes is Huri a Urenga. It faces east, and is positioned so that its shadow falls directly in front of it or behind it on the solstices.

The statue is also unique because it has 4 hands. All statue deformities likely had meanings, but the significance has unfortunately been lost over time.

Behind the statue is a crematorium, the only one that has been reconstructed because it was never actually used. Even so, it was still built because crematoriums seemed to be an important piece of the ahu configuration.


 

Tahai

Sunset at Tahai

Last but not least is Tahai, a moai site right outside of Hanga Roa. This is a popular place to watch the sunset, and it’s also home to the only modern day statue with eyes.

This statue honors William Mulloy, an America archaeologist that conducted research and restorations on Easter Island in the 50s and 70s. He played a pivotal role in spreading the word of Easter Island and the importance of its artifacts. Mulloy wished to retire on Easter Island, but he died of cancer before he could. His family sent some of his ashes over to the island, and the locals conducted a re-enactment of the traditional ceremony of burying his ashes and giving a statue its eyes in order to bring it to life with his spirit. Now it stands here to see the future that Mulloy helped shape for the island. 

More pictures of Tahai:

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