The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 8: A Warning to Us All

This is the end (for now, at least) of my series of posts on Easter Island (sorry it has gotten so long; I got really interested). Having covered the remoteness of moai makers, the meaning of moai, moai manufacture, moai moving, moai mania, moai mysteries, and moai myths, it is now time to give my Rapa Nui wrap-up.

In a nutshell, a culture in complete isolation on a marginal island in the south Pacific managed to create unexpectedly large statues (moai) on equally impressive platforms (ahu) with stone age technology and limited resources. The organization and innovation required (unless one goes with ancient aliens) implies an advanced and flourishing society. But, when Europeans arrived, the great construction projects had ceased and the Rapanui people were living in poverty on a nearly barren island. Within another 140 years, every moai had crashed to the ground and the once impressive ahu lay in total ruin, the sites of makeshift tombs.

From Order . . . (re erected moai at Ahu Akivi; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Repeating the question of my previous post: What happened; and why should we care? In other words, what caused the cultural collapse on Rapa Nui, and is it a warning to greater modern society? Is Easter Island a post-apocalyptic preview?

. . . to Chaos (Broken moai head among ruins at Akahanga; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The first question (what happened?) is the most difficult to answer, but the history of interpretation provides some instruction in itself. Archaeologists and historians inevitably tend to view data through the lens of their own times and experience, and this can be seen in theories about Easter Island. My admittedly over-simplified review of academic reconstructions follows.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure and book, organized and led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955. He theorized that the “Long Ears” were the original settlers of the island from South America and responsible for the monumental building, but were nearly eradicated by a rebellion of later settlers of Polynesian origin, the “Short Ears.”1 There is an implied ethnic/racial bias in Heyerdahl’s view, especially since he preferred to think of the South American settlers as ultimately hailing from Europe. It was a theory of the times; now definitively disproven by genetic and other data which show Easter Island was settled only by Polynesians. Nevertheless, how can ethnic bias and violence—seemingly on the rise in our times—not be a warning to us all?

New data emerged in the 1980s-90s demonstrating that the treeless Easter Island found by 18th century Europeans was once heavily forested with tall palm trees, akin to Wine Palms found in Chile. Further, the palms’ decline and extinction occurred during the time span of human occupation and seems to have preceded the end of moai erection. Significant data supports ecological disaster, with deforestation as a major component, as the cause for societal collapse and starvation.2 

Palms at Anakena today are not native; indeed, the average temperature of Easter Island would not have permitted coconut palms like these, if transplanted by the settling Polynesians, to fruit; today however, because of global warming, they do bear coconuts! The palms that once heavily forested Easter Island were similar to Wine Palms of Chile (the largest of all palms) but are now extinct through deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One view is that deforestation was caused by cutting trees for moai transport and erection and that depletion of the trees brought that activity to an end.3  More likely, the forests were cut to create farmland for an increasing population and to provide cooking fuel. In any case, deforestation occasioned many other problems, such as soil erosion, loss of groundwater retention and thus habitat for taro and other crops, depletion of building material and fuel, and a lack of wood to make boats for deep-water fishing. The loss of deep-water protein and other food sources would precipitate a spiraling shortage and result in social chaos.

Papa Vaka: Tuna and Shark petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Papa Vaka of tuna and shark, deep-water species reachable only with large canoes, which were unavailable after deforestation on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Things apparently got very bad.

Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum
A kavakava statue, the emaciatied depictions of which support the starvation and desperation recounted in ethnological memory; from the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are even claims of cannibalism in the ethnological record, although unconfirmed by archaeology (see caption of pic below). As a further consequence, destruction of Rapa Nui’s environment by deforestation also trapped the inhabitants on the island, as boats sufficient for escape could no longer be built! Easter Island, with a population unable to leave their isolated home and resources depleted by their own overuse, seems a microcosm for the Earth itself and a warning for its inhabitants wantonly exploiting its bounty.

Ana Kai Tangata
Ana Kai Tangata, often translated “Eat Man Cave” and thus cited as evidence for cannibalism; however the name can also as easily render “Man Eat Cave” (meaning a cave where man eats)—ironically, this very cave was used for a scene in the 1994 film Rapa Nui in which the protagonists escape the island in a boat after the last tree was felled and chaos erupted (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Not everyone is comfortable with the notion that Easter Islanders caused an ecological disaster of their home; and, perhaps more to the point, many resist the idea that we all may be doing the same. Consequently, there has been some push back and presentation of mitigating evidence. As we have seen in this series, the moai were demonstrably transported without extensive timber requirements, so deforestation cannot be blamed on monumental moai mania. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Polynesian Rats feasted on the small nuts of the Easter Island Palm and prevented regrowth of trees, so man was not the only agent of deforestation. And, it is rightly pointed out, the Rapanui were marvelously innovative in the face of environmental change, evidenced by their resourceful use of lithic mulch to salvage marginal crop areas and development of sheltered crop enclosures to conserve moisture.5 

Ahu Te Peu
The northwest coast of Rapa Nui from the area of Ahu Te Peu, showing the treeless landscape strewn with stones used as lithic mulch, an ingenious method of preserving some soil productivity after deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Still, evidence is irrefutable that islanders cut down the old growth (and slow regrowth) forests. If Polynesian Rats prevented regrowth, it is only because they were brought there by the Polynesian settlers themselves! In effect, the rats turned a theoretically renewable resource into a non-renewable one. They also helped the settlers in irradiating the once-extensive bird population of Easter Island. It is a clear case in the microcosm of catastrophic introduction of an invasive species—like so many examples in the larger world. There is no cultural condemnation here. The Rapanui did not intentionally overpopulate, overfish, introduce invasive species, and deforest with bad intention. But they did do those things and the unforeseen consequences ruined their world.

Surely we are smarter than Easter Islanders that lived a stone-age existence, and surely we can overcome the problems we create with our superior technology. Really? Recall that the famous “mysteries” of Easter Island involved how they manged to build the fantastic monuments—such that we still do not know definitively, and many are willing to chalk it up to aliens! No; these were amazing and innovative people who attempted and accomplished great things . . . and who still ruined their environment beyond repair. We all should take heed. 

Perhaps you, the reader, are not convinced that ecological disaster even occurred on Easter Island or, more likely, that it is relevant to the rest of us. Fair enough. There is something here for everyone. Above I recounted theories that attribute collapse of the microcosm to racial or ethnic conflict and social class rebellion. To these must be added others not discussed for lack of space: tribal warfare, failure of the religious system, epidemic disease introduced by visitors, materialistic culture, disruptive foreign influence, and innate human nature. None of these are lacking in our wider world, but the last one frightens me the most.

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

Proponents of deforestation as the key to ecological collapse like to speculate on the thoughts of the Easter Islander(s) that cut down the last remaining tree. Jared Diamond wonders, “Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research . . .’.”6 While this speculative monologue has rhetorical value for Diamond’s points (with which I agree), I rather think the real thoughts were more disturbing for humanity. If not “acting under orders,” I suspect the last hewer was thinking, “I’m going to get this wood before someone else does!”

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1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
2The data is stated most definitively in John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).
3A violent class struggle between the poor workers and the well-fed elite is easily imagined;as in the historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.
4The view of Easter Island as a microcosm of the future of human society in the face of resource destruction is taken up by Jared Diamond in his excellent (and sobering) book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), chapter 2 and throughout the later discussion.
5See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).
6Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 114.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?

What happened on Easter Island and why should anyone care? It is appropriate first for me to answer a slightly different question pair: what caused me to care enough to dig into the story of the island, and why did I bother to make this series of blog posts about Rapa Nui’s story?

[This is part 7 of a series; see the others (but in reverse order) here.]

The origin of my interest in Easter Island: Yours truly in 1966 (age 9) at Jungle Land, an amazingly kitschy attraction featuring a pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme in Panama City Beach, on Florida’s “Miracle Strip;”; its “perilous Journey to the Center of the Earth” (led by bikini-clad “jungle girls”) included a large moai head, and I bought a ceramic wood-grained one in the gift shop that day which stayed on my desk as a pencil-holder through my college days (current whereabouts unknown—I blame my brother-in-law Bruce for its disappearance) (photo by the original Daniel C Browning Jr; © Daniel C Browning Jr [Jr])
I wanted to visit Easter Island since my youth—the same was true for my wife—and we had an opportunity to do so this past Spring. I excitedly dove into reading about Rapa Nui’s monuments, history, and “mysteries.” As I came to the academic literature with minimal specific knowledge, but with archaeological and historical experience in other areas, I found the history of interpretations of Easter Island particularly fascinating. Looking at the data without an agenda, I was struck by the similarity of issues in scholarly reconstructions to problems in my own fields. For me, Easter Island became a case-study of how traditional material and interpretation of physical remains can be used (and abused) in historical reconstruction.

It also happens that I developed an interest in the collapses of civilizations and “ends of the world as we knew it,” such as the end of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world (about 1200 BC). Easter Island provides an opportunity to study (and for many to opine upon!) a collapse of a completely isolated culture (at least before 1722). As for why anyone else should care, it turns out that many have interpreted the collapse of Rapa Nui’s impressive moai culture as a warning for the world at large—something of a pre-apocalyptic preview, as it were.

Tongariki from Rano Raraku
The largest ahu on Easter Island, Tongariki, viewed from from Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Before taking on the collapse of Rapa Nui statue culture (in the next installment), I turn to whether the fall of the moai is directly related to the cessation of their construction. In other words, did the forces that brought an end to moai making, moving, and erection on ahu also cause them to be toppled?

Ethnological legends gathered by early 20th century researchers spoke of a major conflict between Rapanui groups called the Hanau Momoko and Hanau ‘E‘epe, long translated (wrongly) “short ears” and “long ears” respectively. The former, according to the account, rose up against the latter and eradicated them. As moai generally have elongated ear lobes, it was often assumed that  “long ears” represent chiefs of the privileged elite or dominant clans.

Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku quarry; note the extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Early interpreters could not resist assuming that the conflict remembered in the legends was a memory of a rebellion of the less-privileged group (“short ears”) against the elite (“long ears”). But it turns out that the terms probably have nothing to do with ears and should be translated “thin people” and “stocky people.” If the “thin people” are assumed to be the workers who labored to make statues for the elite “stocky people,” it is a short jump to connect intentional felling of the statues with a class rebellion. This is the view (but with the old translation) assumed in the rather historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Head of a moai on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena with extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Also, as noted in my previous post, all statues were noted standing by European explorers who first came to Rapa Nui in 1722—although moai making had apparently ceased before that time. By 1868, however, all the moai had fallen. It is tempting to relate the toppling of statues with internecine conflict; i.e., victorious groups felling monuments of rival clans. But the ethnology preserves only a single account of a moai pulled down by people (apparently the largest erected one, called Paro). On the other hand, legends also tell of priestly curses and moai falling in a nocturnal conflict between the gods. These memories suggest non-human causes for the toppling of many moai. Indeed, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary,1 the ethnology and physical evidence at fallen moai sites is consistent with consequences expected from earthquakes.2

Vinapu: Ahu Vinapu
A row of moai fallen in the same direction at Ahu Vinapu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island’s many rows of moai fallen in the same direction is is quite like so many lines of fallen columns toppled by earthquakes in Late Antique sites of the eastern Mediterranean—my usual stomping grounds. A good example is the major earthquake in the Sea of Galilee region in 749:

Church ruins at Hippos above the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; note the columns lying fallen in the same direction, a result of the earthquake of 749 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So the fall of the moai may well be unrelated to the cessation of their creation. Nevertheless, the collapse of the cultural system on Rapa Nui that created the moai and its causes are the main show in terms of why we should care about what happened there. To that I will turn in my final post in this series.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 64.
2Edmundo Edwards, Raul Marchetti, Leopoldo Dominichelti, and Oscar Gonzales-Ferran, “When the Earth Trembled, the Statues Fell,” Rapa Nui Journal 10.1 (March 1996): 1-15.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

Ancient Dan

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…

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

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.

“A View of the Monuments of Easter Island [Rapanui],” William Hodges (circa 1776) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London;
But Cook also reported many statues were toppled, ahu were apparently used for burials, and skeletal material was seen scattered about on moai sites.

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.

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

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Fallen moai and pukao at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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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.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 5: Hats Make the Moai?

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 . . .

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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).

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 4: the Mystery of Moai Moving

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.

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:
3With details summarized in Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).


The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 3: the Making of a Moai

Following an initial physical introduction to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and an overview of the moai (statues) and ahu (ritual platforms), this is the third installment of the series on Easter Island. If you “skipped those classes,” you should do the remedial readings (part 1 and part 2) and I won’t have to redefine terms and catch you up! While I am waxing professorial, let me add that you should always read the footnotes.1

While the word moai is combined in the names of certain wooden statues—notably the emaciated male figures called moai kavakava—term used alone applies particularly to the monolithic statues of Easter Island. “Monolithic” means consisting of a single stone and in archaeological contexts usually implies significant size.

Ahu Huri A Urenga
Felicia’s favorite Moai at Ahu Huri A Urenga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Dating of megalithic monuments is fraught with difficulty, but it seems that the moai were carved, moved, and installed on ahu over a lengthy period sometime between 1100 and 1680 (a generation before the arrival of Europeans). Most researchers posit a somewhat shorter range within those extreme dates.2 While the most famous statues appear nearly identical in widely circulated pictures, there is a clear development of moai style and size over the period of their construction. Old moai reused as fill in later ahu construction or expansion demonstrate as much.

Tongariki: older Moai fragments from Ahu platform
Older and smaller moai fragments from Ahu Tongariki’s platform show a variety of styles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Volcanic rock—the only stone available on Easter—comes in many forms with varying qualities. A few statues are made from hard basalt (hard, fine-grained lava) or red scoria (dense, highly pitted lava) stone, but the vast majority of moai (and all that clearly stood on ahu) were carved from tuff. Tuff is compacted and consolodated volcanic ash. It is usually easily carved but the surface hardens with exposure to air. An excellent source of pinkish-gray tuff is found in and around the rim of the crater called Rano Raraku. The quarry there is the very near exclusive source of moai associated with ahu on Easter Island, and nearly half of known and cataloged moai are still found at Rano Raraku. This can be seen by the concentration of red moai symbols in my map:3

Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Rano Raraku is the “place with all the heads” and the source of most recognizable photos of moai. This is because hundreds of statues were created there and still awaited transport for placement on ahu when that whole process ceased (a “mystery” to be covered in a subsequent post). Moai left in upright positions in pits were gradually buried by erosion to various heights, most often with only the head exposed. The effect today is that of an abandoned sales lot, like some bizarre version of those concrete statue places found outside cities in seemingly every part of the world today—and oddly similar to a statue “factory” about which I have posted in Turkey.

Rano Raraku
A typical view of partly-buried standing moai at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But Rano Raraku features moai in every stage of completion, from just laid out, to shaped but not separated from the rock, to standing and awaiting final details, and ready for transport. Statues were carved in a horizontal position and mostly completed while still attached to the natural rock by a backbone ridge.

Rano Raraku
Roughed out but unfinished moai still attached to natural rock at Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The connecting ridge was broken away and the freed moai slid downhill into a pit wherein it would stand vertical for finishing and details. Unfinished and finished examples stand adjacent in this pic:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the more-distant one at center right completed, but the one in the foreground with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

And also in this view of the same statues from the other side:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the near one completed; the one in the left background with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most impressive unfinished moai is also the largest ever attempted, at 21 meters (69 ft) tall, over twice the height of the tallest one ever erected on an ahu. It would have weighed about 250 metric tons (275 US tons) if completed! 


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That this giant could be successfully moved for display is reasonably doubted. Still, the largest moai ever successfully installed on an ahu stood 10 meters (about 32 ft) and weighed 74 metric tons (about 82 US tons)! As this was no small feat, transport of these these behemoths is another “mystery” of Easter Island, to which we’ll turn in the next post.

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1Yes, you should. Your reward for looking at the footnotes: moai jokes.
2Scholars tend to argue about such things; for an overview, see Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011), 9-18 (and throughout the book).
3An excellent online database/map, which also shows the incredible concentration of moai at Rano Raraku is provided by B. Shepardson, “Moai database–Rapa Nui,” 2007;