The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu

Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.

The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.

Rano Raraku
Moai buried to different extents on the outer slope of Rano Raraku quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1 Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.

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

Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . .  << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, with its seven restored moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, from the side, showing the wing extensions and platform construction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?

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[Updated 2 July 2018: better map!]


1Moai and ahu are both singular and plural.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World

Since my last post,* I was able to take my wife on a trip that we have both desired to make for most of our lives: a trek to Easter Island. As I have just completed teaching a brief series of classes on the subject for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi (more affectionately: OLLI), I’ll offer a few summary posts here.

Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.

Rano Raraku
A couple of the famous heads at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo ©Daniel C Browning Jr)

There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .

Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1

While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).

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Elevations and major physical features of Easter Island, with inset showing isolated location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.

Poike from SE coast
The SE coast of Easter Island with Poike in the distance (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).

About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3

The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4

But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.

2018-03-11 08-43-18
A bad thing happened . . . typical fallen moai at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Continue to Part 2: Click Here!

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*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
3Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 91.
4See, for example, Sebastian Englert, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Scribners, 1970), 30-31.