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 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;