One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is the question of how the large statues, called moai, were transported from the one quarry where they were made to their points of display upon the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, all around the island. This series has already explored some basics on: the physical nature of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the ahu and moai; and the carving of moai in the Rano Raruku quarry. We turn now to the moving of moai.

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

How Easter Islanders could effectively move hundreds of huge monolithic creations without modern conveyance is a long-debated topic. Lacking metals when Europeans arrived, the Rapanui (native Easter Islanders) were a Stone Age culture—that is not a denigration, but the reality of isolated life in that remote volcanic place.

Rano Raraku
Waiting on the Bus: completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, ever vainly awaiting transport to ahu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Data which made the original transport problem and proposed solutions more vexing: some 300 ahu are found all around the island, at distances up to nine miles from the Rana Raraku quarry. The largest moai transported to ahu were nearly 10 meters (almost 33 ft) tall and weighed around 75 metric (82 US) tons. The calculated “Statistically Average Moai” (dubbed SAM by Jo Ann Van Tilburg and her Easter Island Statue Project)1 is 4.05 m (13.2 ft) tall and weighs in at 12.5 metric (13.78 US) tons. Easter Island was devoid of trees of any significant size (for use as levers or rollers) when first seen by European explorers. There is no evidence the wheel was known or utilized by Rapanui in prehistory. They also did not have draft animals (nor any native land mammals at all).

Rano Raraku
More completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, with a transport road barely discernible in a meandering path roughly from the statues towards the left face of the Rano Kau crater in the far background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 To make it more interesting, the collected cultural memory (ethnography) is unanimous that the moai—imbued with the mana of the deceased ariki (chiefs) they represented—actually “walked” from the quarry to their ahu. All of this is fuel for the “Ancient Aliens” people and one does not have to look far online to find extraterrestrial origin theories for the moai. But such theories only develop and take root because of a widespread assumption: that ancient people lacked the capacity to solve problems we find daunting. Our inability, from a modern perspective, to conceive of working solutions for ancient problems encourages a disbelief which, coupled with cultural elitism, is a recipe for latent racism in which “primitive” becomes “savage” or even worse.

One part of the transport solution has been known since 1914, when Katherine Routledge recognized the traces of several tracks radiating from Rano Raraku quarry and deduced they were for moai. Indeed, excavation has confirmed they were built as roads with a standard surface design. Moai can be found lying about along those paths, apparently abandoned when they broke—or fell—during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
A fallen moai on the road (called Te Ara O Te Moai) leading SW from Rano Raraku quarry, where statue heads can be seen on the left slope of the crater in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Several “experimental archaeology” efforts have attempted to show how the moai were moved.2 Some of these have assumed the statues were transported horizontally—laying down—with both supine (face up) and prone (face down) positions posited. But abandoned statues lie (none were found standing) along the moai roads in both prone and supine positions. Further, many moai on roads are not broken, suggesting they were abandoned because they fell from a vertical position during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
Unbroken fallen prone moai on the Te Ara O Te Moai road (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most recent, and in my mind most convincing, reconstruction of moai transport on Easter Island proposes a system not requiring huge amounts of timber, manageable by a relatively small number of workers, and even satisfies the oral tradition of “walking” moai.3 Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo noted that moai have a low center of gravity, a significant forward lean (in examples at the quarry or in transport), appear to be slimmed down in the final finishing at their ahu, and have a D-shaped footprint with the straight side at the back. Based on this they proposed a system of rocking and stabilization by three teams pulling on ropes attached to the head or neck of the moai.

 

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Rocking to one side on the D-shaped base will cause the opposite side to pivot forward. The low center of gravity and guy-ropes held from behind keep the statute from falling over. When it rocks back past vertical in the opposite direction, the moai will pivot forward on the other side. In this way, the statue can be “walked” forward with coordinated rather than brute effort. See the results (preceded by a review of other theories) in this clever National Geographic video

Next in this series: embellishments of moai.

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1Jo Ann Van Tilburg, Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
2A review of attempts up to 1998 is conviniently summarized by PBS’ Nova series here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/past.html.
3With details summarized in Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).

 

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