Hillside with large stone heads
History,  Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui: the birthplace of the moai

Rano Raraku

Because the moai of Rapa Nui represent real people, each has a different expression, something that becomes obvious the more you study them. But they were all ‘born’ of the same place, carved from the rock of the volcano, Rano Raraku. Its compressed volcanic ash, tuft, is soft and easy to carve – essential, as the natives had no metal to carve with, only stone tools.

But to call Rano Raraku the moai quarry, as many do, is in some ways misleading as it was more than that, serving as both quarry and workshop. The moai were not only carved out of the rock here; most of the more detailed work was also done in situ. When the moai culture came to an end, all work ceased and nearly 400 in varying states of completeness were abandoned here. Today they litter the slopes, many partly buried in the surrounding soil, like a sort of Rapa Nui Marie Celeste.

The carvers would carve out the basic shape of the statue, horizontally in the rock, then sculpt the face. They then chiselled around and beneath until the statue could be separated from the rock, before levering it into a pit lined with wood and bark (for protection). This enabled them to reach and carve the back of the head. Finer details, such as the eye sockets, were completed once the moai were placed on their ahu.

Once carved the moai had to be transported to the various ceremonial sites around the island. These could be many kilometres away, possibly because it was believed that it was only when the moai had eyes that their power was activated. As with most aspects of this culture, various theories have been mooted as to how this was done. Early scientific thinking was that they were moved on giant tree trunk rollers while lying on their backs. Most though now agree that it is more likely that they were transported in a vertical position, possibly on wooden sledges lying on rollers.

Oral tradition describes them as ‘walking’ to their final positions and while that sounds fanciful it may not be so far from the truth. In 2012 two US archaeologists and one from Rapa Nui developed a theory that they could have been ‘rocked’ using ropes. They demonstrated using a replica moai that this is indeed possible. If true, this puts rather a large hole in the theory that the deforestation of the island was mainly due to the use of trees as rollers.

Abandoning the moai

Some of the moai abandoned here are huge, with the largest around 21 metres in length – its head alone is seven metres long. This has led to speculation that one factor in the decline of this culture was that the people started to get over-ambitious; that the fighting between the clans was linked to rivalry in the creation of their moai, with each family wanting to show that their ancestors were the biggest and bravest.

Whatever the reasons, one day work here came to an end. The carvers downed tools, leaving their half-finished masterpieces where they stood or lay. As a local guide quoted in an article in the Smithsonian magazine put it:

They’d been carving these statues here for centuries, until one day the boss shows up and tells them to quit, to go home, because there’s no more food, there’s a war and nobody believes in the statue system anymore!

Man with a horse on a hillside
Ranger on patrol

You can read more about the moai in my earlier post, Rapa Nui: the mystery of the moai

I visited Rapa Nui in 2016


  • Anonymous

    These statues are indeed huge. I see in one of your photos there’s a path for tourists … does that mean that you’re not allowed to get close to the moai (or touch them)? I had to laugh when I read the local guide’s quote … it sounds that not much has changed over the centuries 😉.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, you’re expected to stick to the path from what I recall, although at other sights there’s no path and you can walk right up to the moai. I don’t remember that I even considered touching them or saw anyone else doing so, on the other hand I don’t remember being told not to! Maybe we were and I’ve forgotten, or maybe it just seemed instinctively wrong to do so. I guess that guide was making exactly that point – this may have been centuries ago but if we look at it in those terms, we can relate to what happened better.

  • Lesley

    Easter Island – Rapa Nui – was top of my list of places I wanted to go to at the age of 7. It took me 49 years to get there, and I found it absolutely fascinating, and so much more complex than I ever realised until I got there. Great page, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Lesley 🙂 I agree – Rapa Nui is one of those bucket list places that not only doesn’t disappoint but even offers more than you expected! I was fascinated by the Birdman stories too – more on him in a future post 😀

  • Easymalc

    I enjoyed meeting up with the moai of Rapa Nui on one of your previous posts Sarah, and this explains things a bit more. I’ve never been there, and never will now, so thanks for giving us an insight into somewhere that is a long way away and a long way back in time.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Malcolm. I used to say in response to comments like yours ‘never say never’, but I think we all have to accept now that there are some places we’ll never get around to seeing 🙁

  • margaret21

    How fascinating. They look as challenging to install in place as the monolithic rocks of Stonehenge must have been, and so much of the story of how it must have been done is simply informed guess work. You’ve had some fantastic travels!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes. we feel very fortunate to have been able to travel to places like this. It was absolutely fascinating to see these huge creations up close and learn about their history – or at least, what is known about it. You’re right that they have something in common with Stonehenge – in both cases it’s amazing to think how they could have been transported, and in both cases we have to piece together our understanding of their significance 🙂

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you