Until now, this series of posts on Easter Island has not considered embellishments to moai, of which the most obvious are the addition of so-called “top knots.” As promised, this brief note takes up the topic. In case you want to review, previous posts have reviewed: 1) Easter Island (Rapa Nui) itself; 2) basics on moai and ahu; 3) how/where moai were made; and 4) moai transport via roads to their ahu.

I have already noted the clear development of moai over time, especially in terms of increasing height and weight, but also in style. Another major feature of some later moai is the addition of “top knots,” as they are conventionally called.

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai, sporting a pukao “top knot” and (reproduction) eyes at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many, but not all, late moai (standing when Europeans first came to Easter Island) sported a large cylindrical “top knot” atop their heads, called pukao by the native Rapanui. Invariably these were made from red scoria, a much more porous and harder volcanic stone than the tuff from which the vast majority of moai were carved. All known pukao were produced from the distinctive red scoria found at Puna Pau, a quarry on the central west side of the island—quite distant from Rano Raraku, where the statues were made.

Puna Pau
Completed pukao of red scoria, abandoned before transport at the Puna Pau quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Pukao themselves were quite large and heavy. For transport, it is assumed (without much debate) that they were simply rolled to various ahu for finishing and installation (that is a somewhat more difficult problem) on standing moai. They appear on moai with varying styles and always seem to project precariously forward over the brow. Not all ahu featured statues with top knots, but it is interesting that only ahu with pukao-crowned moai also frequently featured bands of red scoria facing on their front face.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach, with red scoria panel facing and pukao on its moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, you should be wondering by now: what did the pukao represent? There are three main options (not involving aliens). The designation “top knot” represents the idea that pukao represent tied-up hair, the red color because of the practice of using red dye. A second possibility is that pukao represent hats of some kind, bolstered by the mania for (and constant theft of) the hats of early European explorers by native Rapanui. Another, and in my mind most convincing, suggestion is that pukao represent the rare red-feather headdresses worn by chiefs throughout Polynesia.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Detail of Moai with different pukao on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 Pukao, along with the increased size of moai, seem to represent one-upmanship in which clans or chiefs attempted to outdo each other in the constructions on their respective ahu. Was this competition a prelude to the impending collapse of Rapa Nui culture? Some conclude that “Easter Island chiefs . . . acted so as to accelerate deforestation rather than to prevent it: their status depended on their putting up bigger statues or monuments than their rivals. They were trapped in a competitive spiral, such that any chief or king who put up smaller statues or monuments to spare the forests would have been scorned and lost his job. That’s a regular problem with competitions for prestige, which are judged on a short time frame.”1  Stay tuned for more on this issue a couple of posts from now . . .2

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Moai with loin cloth belt and tattoo indications at Anakena (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Another form of embellishment appears on moai in the form of decorations that represent loincloth cords and perhaps the tattoos of the depicted departed chiefs. Since most moai are severely weathered, it is not clear how extensive this practice was. It is only clearly preserved on some mostly-buried statues at Rano Raraku and at Anakena Beach, where fallen moai lay in preserving sand instead of exposed to the elements.

Indeed, all the moai on Easter Island were eventually toppled and their pukao strewn about like hats tossed at a graduation. I will turn to the fall of the moai in the next installment . . .

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png


1 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 431.
2As a preview, Diamond posits an ecological disaster on Easter Island as the cause for the collapse of the moai-building culture there, following John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).

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