The idea of Polynesian people arriving over 3000 years ago to Southeast Asia and through to New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui is staggering. Seafaring colonists known by their distinctive pottery called Lapita set out from the shores of the western Pacific and reached the islands of Tonga and Samoa by 800 BC.
It took another 2,000 years for them to migrate and reach the archipelago of Tahiti. Legend has it that voyaging in double-hulled canoes some 1500 years ago, a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a (“The Great Parent”) and other islanders had discovered just about every island in the eastern Pacific and settled on Rapa Nui.
Around 1722, on Easter Sunday, the isolated island was rediscovered by a crew of Dutch commanded by Jacob Roggeveen on behalf of The Dutch West India Company; Roggeveen named it Easter Island in honor of the Christian holiday. Tahitian sailors had called it the Great Rapa and its ancient name is Te Pito ‘o te Henúa (The Navel of the World). Discovering Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the most distant of islands, was a feat but clearly none of these explorers were the first to arrive.
Ordinary maps cannot convey Rapa Nui’s remoteness or its tiny size, measuring just about 63 square miles, about the size of Washington, D.C. It is located more than 1,000 miles away from another Polynesian Island, and more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.
Easter Island had been left in peace, but after Roggeveen’s voyage, the Spanish Viceroy of Peru sent out a fleet. They anchored off the island for six days after raising three crosses onto the Poike Peninsula.
More visitors came later. Captain James Cook in 1774 found the circumstances different from what the Dutch and Spanish had found. The islanders now carried wooden weapons, food seemed in short supply and the natives looked ill-nourished and fewer in numbers. In addition, statues had toppled and they speculated that a volcano had erupted and devastated the population.
Twelve years later, a French expedition arrived and encountered a large number of islanders, no trace of famine, and only a few men—leaders—they carried clubs. From 1805 forward, American and Peruvian ships raided Easter Island for slaves.
There are many questions surrounding the original settlers of Easter Island. To begin, how did they get there? Why did the early explorer-visitors have such different viewpoints?
What about the statues there? Did a prehistoric society without the influence of any other culture emerge to produce almost a thousand of the most compelling religious monuments and move them; a true achievement of engineering, perhaps in the world? Who built the statues? How were they formed? How were they moved? What do they mean?
Gargantuan statues called moai are placed on Megalithic altars or ahu; some nearly 40 feet high and weighing more than 75 tons. These gigantic sculptures carved out of a quarry of volcanic ash have some hieroglyphic script and designs with no one to decipher them. Many lie scattered across the landscape having fallen or been broken, but are testimony to an exceptional artistic development.
The statue quarry of Rano Raraku, carved into the cliff-side of the volcano’s crater boasts hundreds of moai standing proudly. Others are buried, some all the way up to their heads and some laying prone arising out of the ground. In 1886, a team of researchers from the American ship USS Mohican surveyed the island for the Smithsonian Institution and located 555 statues, although there are as many as 900-1,000 with some now washed into the sea.
The moai statues range from 6 feet to 33 feet high. The style and shape is a long human head with a prominent chin and an elongated nose ending in small spirals, thin lips and stretched ear lobes; the long torso has arms held tightly at the side and hands resting on a protruding abdomen with a navel sticking out. A carved loincloth covers the genitals. Some have traditional eyes of coral and obsidian. On the platform, the statues all face the interior of the island.
Theories about their movement from quarry to platform have varied from speculation of scientists to ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken who surmised “intelligent beings” from another world carved and left these godlike structures.
The first inhabitants arrived in the fourth to seventh centuries. The platforms were prior to the statues, which were carved after 1000 AD. After 1680, many believe there was a social collapse resulting in warfare and the end of carving. Many people believe the art stopped because of an ecological crisis.
The hardness of the surface of the statue is dense but the rock beneath is not and can be shaped and softened with water. The tools used were hard picks of stone.
In the book, The Statues That Walked, authors Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo say that “…large carved holes in the bedrock near the crater’s summit are likely evidence of giant palm logs fixed into the cliff as part of massive pulleys” to maneuver at least some of the moai. The first experiments done by Thor Heyerdahl showed the massive loads were moved horizontally but that theory doesn’t fit in with the archaeological record.
After much observation and careful trials, Lipo and Hunt believe the upright statues were moved in a vertical posture by an intricate method of securing them with ropes and rocking them in choreography of men with pulleys, in order to make them walk.
The other idea is they were placed in the prone position (horizontally) on a wood platform of rolling timber and pushed or pulled. The island is quite barren but evidence of previous forestation of palms can be seen in the roots carved into rock as they grew. Also the giant palm trees with nuts cultivated back then may have been feasted on (and the subsequent seeds) by invasive rats. Lacking predators for the seed loving vermin, the devastation of the palms was complete.
In 1995, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared Rapa Nui National Park. That means it is the scene of a permanent
- Mordo, Carlos. Easter Island. New Zealand: Firefly Books, 2002. Book.
- Mystery of Easter Island. Marla and Andy Awes, Producers. PBS Distribution: WGBN Educational Foundation, 2012. DVD
- Hunt, Terry and Carl Lipo. The Statutes That Walked. New York: Free Press, 2011. Book.
- James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Mysteries. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. Book.