Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Easter Island: Statues of Mystery

By Matthew Zuk

Row of statues located on Easter Island
Press photo © 2000-2006 NewOpenWorld Foundation -

The statues located on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) have long been subjects of mystery.[1] Many questions have been asked ever since their discovery: What was their purpose? Why were they placed on the coast facing inland? How did the inhabitants move such massive stone statues?

With more questions than answers, the mystery only seems to deepen upon further study. One thing is clear; there are several key aspects about these statues that testify to the intelligence of the ancient people who created them.

The island’s discovery and the features of the Moai

 The Easter Island statues, known as Moai, have long been the subject of mystery and debate. They present a technological achievement that has been the cause of wonder among modern historians. Dutch Admiral Jacobs Roggeveen discovered the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. The explorers were surprised to find the statues on the island as its inhabitants were primitive and had no wood for machinery, or strong rope.[2]
One of the largest statues found on Easter Island 
The island is 63 square miles[3] and almost devoid of wood,[4] typically a necessary ingredient when moving large objects. Not only that but the statues themselves exhibit a feat of engineering that is reminiscent of an advanced civilization, which was not apparent upon the island’s discovery. As of June 21, 2012, 887 statues have been officially documented; experts estimate that there are at least 1,000.[5] The largest Moai is 33 feet tall and weighs 74 tons. These statues were carved in a quarry and then transported, apparently without wheels or animal labor.[6] Both the number and size of these Moai clearly show that incredible engineers masterfully crafted them, and cause wonder as to how they were moved.

Where are the Moai located?

Map showing the location of the statues on Easter Island

There is an interesting observation that has been made by those who have documented the island’s Moai: they all face inland. Many are placed near the island’s coast, and yet all of the erected Moai have been placed facing the island.[7] They also tend to stay away from the two corners of the island, and are primarily located on flatter surfaces. Many Moai have been discovered in transit from, or unfinished within, the quarry of Rano Raraku[8] (marked in blue on map).

Why did the creation of the Moai end?

There are several theories explaining why the creation of the Moai was stopped. The over-exploitation theory suggests that rival chieftains built the Moai in competition with one another. The creation and transportation of the Moai required a great deal of wood and food (to feed the workers) and once the resources of the island were depleted civil war broke out. Thus the statues were no longer produced and were even toppled over at times by the natives.[9]
Fallen Moai
A new theory, based on the way the statues were moved, has been developed which offers a more optimistic approach as to why the conditions on the island deteriorated. This theory suggests that the island’s forests were destroyed due to the inhabitants bringing Polynesian rats with them when they settled on the island. These rats had no predators outside of the humans and thus experienced uninhibited population growth. Archaeologists have found marred palm nuts with gnaw marks created by rats. The theory suggests that these rats ate the palm nuts, which prevented the slow growing trees from repopulating. Thus, even without the humans using the wood, the rats alone could have led to the forests’ demise. Thus the Moai were not the cause of the depletion of resources, the rats were.[10]

All of these facts lead to one of the major “mysteries” that archaeologists have often pondered ever since the island’s discovery in 1722: How were statues of this size moved?

Read our next post to discover the different theories for how the Moai moved.

[1] Bloch, Hannah. "If Only They Could Walk." National Geographic: Easter Island: The Riddle of the Moving Statues, July2012, (accessed January 28 – February 12, 2013).
[2] Coppens, Philip. "The stone heads of Easter Island." (accessed January 28 - February 12, 2013).
[3] 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 - February 12, 2013).
[4] (Coppens)
[5] "Did Easter Island statues walk? Or rock and roll? | Fox News." (accessed January 28 - February 12, 2013).
[6] (Gayle)
[7] Batty, David. "Easter Island statues 'walked' into position, say experts | Science |" (accessed January 28, 2013).
[8] Callaway, Ewen. "Easter Island Statues Might Have Been "Walked" Out of Quarry: Scientific American." (accessed January 28 - February 12, 2013).
[9] (Bloch 2012)
[10] Ibid.

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