Something went wrong on Rapa Nui. And something caused the moai to fall.

[This is part 6 of a series; see the others here.]

1722: Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen went ashore for a single day after “discovering” (and naming for Europeans) Easter Island. He and his crew observed numerous moai standing on platforms, investigated them briefly and wrongly concluded they were cast rather than carved. Roggeveen did not report seeing any fallen moai, nor did he or any subsequent visitor report any activity of creating, transporting, or erecting them. Most infer that moai construction had ceased by this time. Roggeveen found the natives to be quite friendly and unafraid, until a misunderstanding resulting in a shooting incident in which several Rapanui were killed. Nevertheless, contact was reestablished and the Dutch “left like good friends.”1

1770: Spanish captain Gonzalez led a slightly more lengthy visit. The Spanish rightly judged the statues to be carved and again only saw standing moai.

1774: The famous British Captain Cook saw standing moai, and his expedition artist made the first known depiction of the same.

1-41-william-hodges-a-view-of-the-monuments-of-easter-island-rapanui
“A View of the Monuments of Easter Island [Rapanui],” William Hodges (circa 1776) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13275.html
But Cook also reported many statues were toppled, ahu were apparently used for burials, and skeletal material was seen scattered about on moai sites.

1-40-Figure033
Drawing by William Hodges from Cook, Voyage around the South Pole; note standing and ruined moai and skeletal material in this romanticized rendering

1804: Russian visitors saw only 20 standing moai.

1830: British sailors on HMS Serigapatam saw only eight moai standing.

1838: the last report of a single standing moai was made by French Commander Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars; apparently Paro the tallest ever erected on an ahu.

Te Piro Kura: Paro
Paro, the tallest moai ever erected on an ahu, in its final fallen face-down state at Te Piro Kura on the northeast coast of Rapa Nui (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

1868: J Linton Palmer, British naval surgeon aboard the HMS Topaze could find no standing moai on Easter Island. Paro had fallen, along with the rest.

From the data above, moai creation and erection had ceased before the European discovery of Easter Island. But it was only in the 140 years after European contact that all of the impressive monuments were destroyed. What caused cessation of carving and what caused the statues to fall? And are those questions intertwined or unrelated?

The major tourist sites on Easter Island have moai re-erected on restored ahu, and these are the majestic scenes familiar to the public—along with the iconic “heads” of partly-buried statues at the Rano Raraku quarry. However, I find the unrestored sites with their toppled moai and scattered pukao much more evocative. 

One Makhi
Ahu One Makhi (photo by Felicia J Browning; © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many studies note that most moai were found lying prone, apparently intentionally felled onto strategically placed large stones so as to break the neck. By breaking the neck and planting the image face down, the reasoning goes, the mana (divine power) of the moai was thus voided.

Vaihu
Moai fallen in a prone position at Vaihu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Akahanga
Moai fallen in a prone position at Akahanga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But, in fact, moai can be found fallen in both prone and supine positions, sometimes mixed on a single destroyed ahu. Potential explanations abound.

2018-03-11 08-43-18
Fallen moai and pukao at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
2018-03-11 08-42-59
Supine fallen moai with broken neck at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

I’ll turn to the questions posed above in the next post.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 51.

2 thoughts on “The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

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