Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Easter Island: How did the Moai Move?

By Matthew Zuk

Partially buried Moai on Easter Island

As explained in the previous article; Easter Island: Statues of Mystery, the statues of Easter Island, called Moai, have baffled archaeologists. One of the chief mysteries that surrounds them is the question of how the inhabitants of the island moved the massive Moai. There are two primary theories that attempt to answer this question: the wooden sledge theory and the “walking” theory.

The wooden sledge theory

The testing of the wooden sledge theory

The first theory is that the Moai were placed horizontally on a wooden sledge, which was then rolled over log rails. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island statue research at UCLA and a leading researcher of the Moai, has successfully tested this theory.[1] This theory may be the most prominent because it gives an explanation for the large-scale deforestation that took place (evidence suggests that there once was a palm forest on the island). This overexploitation devastated the island, leading to social collapse, civil war and even extreme acts of cannibalism and ultimately the demise of the civilization.[2] By the time of its discovery in 1722, the island had become treeless and the population had fallen from about 15,000 to a mere 1,000-2,000 people.[3]

The “walking” theory

The testing of the "walking" theory
Sheela Sharma -

There is another theory that was tested in the summer of 2011, which holds that the Moai “walked” to their locations. This idea correlates with the ancient tales told by the local population. According to legend, mostly discredited as mere fairy tale, the statues actually “walked” to their positions. The legend has now become a theory, shown to be one of the possible ways the inhabitants moved the massive statues.[4] This theory suggests that three ropes were tied to the Moai’s head, one on each side and one on the back. The statue would then be leaned forward and each side would pull, shifting the statue from side to side, rocking it, which resulted in forward motion.[5] The key to this technique relies on the belly of the statue, which, according to this theory, was designed specifically in order for the Moai to be moved this way. The belly provided the weight and center of gravity for the statue to move forward when it was rocked.[6]

Testing the Theory

This theory was tested by a team led by three leading experts on the Moai; Carl Lipo (California State University), Terry Hunt (University of Hawaii), and Sergio Rapu Haoa (archaeologist and former governor of Easter Island). Lipo had noticed that many of the statues found lying on the roadside were on inclines, having fallen from an upright position. On an uphill climb the statues fell on their backs, on a downhill climb they fell on their faces. This and other observations contradict the widely accepted wooden sledge theory, which caused the team to investigate the ancient “walking” legends.[7] In order to demonstrate this technique, the team made a 4.35-ton replica of a Moai and eighteen people succeeded in moving it 100 meters in an hour.[8]

Not everyone considered the test a success. Jo Anne Van Tilburg claimed that the replica was an inaccurate model and thus the entire experiment was void. She had experimented with the wooden sledge theory, proving that the Moai could be moved in such a fashion, and stands by her own test.[9]

While there are still other differing views, these two are the most prominent and most reasonable theories explaining how the Moai were moved. Both theories appear valid, but many have taken a liking to the new walking theory. If the “walking” theory is correct it not only correlates with the ancient legends, it also exhibits the ingenuity of ancient man. It means they had the ability to engineer a statue made to “walk” to its destination. In either theory the sheer size and design of the statues denotes engineering capabilities far beyond what is typically thought possible for ancient man, especially man that was so far removed from any other civilization. The Moai are an incredible example of ancient man’s incredible ingenuity and genius.

Read our previous post describing these Statues of Mystery in more detail.

[1] "Did Easter Island statues walk? Or rock and roll? | Fox News." (accessed January 28 - February 12, 2013).
[2] Bloch, Hannah. "If Only They Could Walk." National Geographic: Easter Island: The Riddle of the Moving Statues, July2012, (accessed January 28, 2013).
[3] Batty, David. "Easter Island statues 'walked' into position, say experts | Science |" (accessed January 28, 2013).
[4] (Bloch)
[5] Lorenzi, Rossella. "Easter Island Statues Could Have 'Walked' : Discovery News." (accessed January 28, 2013).
[6] Callaway, Ewen. "Easter Island Statues Might Have Been "Walked" Out of Quarry: Scientific American." (accessed January 28, 2013).
[7] (Lorenzi)
[8] (Batty)
[9] Gayle, Damien. "Did Easter Island's statues'walk' into place? Controversial theory suggests the megaliths were moved as one would position a fridge | Mail Online." (accessed January 28, 2013).

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