Row of moai
Culture & tradition,  History,  Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui: the mystery of the moai

When Europeans first came to what the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen named as Easter Island, they were astounded at the sight of the megalithic figures that dotted the landscape. ‘We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures’, wrote Captain Cook in 1774.

The moai of Rapa Nui (the islanders’ name for their home) almost all stand facing not out to sea, as you might imagine, but inland, watching over the village. The figures represent honoured ancestors and were placed here to continue to protect their village and its people after their deaths. By the time of Cook’s visit many of these iconic moai had fallen, or been toppled by the islanders. But enough remained to make this powerful impression on the new arrivals from Europe.

Moai on a hill
Ahu Huri a Urenga

By 1868 none were left upright, so the approximately fifty we see standing today have all been re-erected. The Rapa Nui oral tradition recounts that the statues were toppled from their platforms (known as ahu) in inter-clan disputes as society here crumbled in the face of great adversity, when famine came to the island as a result of deforestation. Some were toppled by rival clans during the fighting; some perhaps by the people of their own clan in anger that they had failed to protect them.

This is disputed by some experts who look to earthquakes and volcanoes as a more likely explanation. Our local guides, however, both of them native to Rapa Nui, were consistent in sticking to the clan warfare explanation.

Deforestation on Rapa Nui

There is even more controversy and uncertainly about the reason for the deforestation and its devastating effect on the island’s people. Traditionally the inhabitants’ over-use of resources is blamed: chopping down trees to make rollers to move the moai and for building purposes. Finally no trees were left standing, and they couldn’t even build boats to escape the island, which became their prison. If this is true, it is hardly surprising that they lost faith in the power of the moai to protect them and started to fight among themselves.

But some more recent theories point to the impact of sheep farming introduced by the Chilean government; or to climate change; or to a combination of all these things. Again our local guides echoed the oral tradition and stuck to accounts they had grown up with, that the people had at least contributed to their own downfall.

Moai or Ahu?

There is sometimes confusion between the ahu and the moai. Ahu are the island’s burial sites or shrines, located near each village. They are thought to derive from altars in French Polynesia. They are raised platforms made with stones and rubble, with a ramp that is often paved with beach cobbles and a levelled court in front. Many but not all have between one to fifteen statues on them, and these are the moai. Those ahu that have moai on them are known as ‘image ahu’.

These moai are the iconic symbols of the island. They date from around 1400 – 1650 A.D. There are thought to be between 800 and over 1,000 of them in total, many still buried or half-buried on the slopes of the main quarry, the volcano of Rano Raraku.

The main Ahu

Ahu Tahai

This is a large complex located very near to the town of Hanga Roa. It is actually a group of three ahu: Ko Te Riku, Tahai, and Vai Ure.

Panoramic view of moai
The Ahu Tahai complex

Ahu Tahai itself has a single rather weathered moai which (unusually) stands on a square base with no room for any others to be added.

Single moai with row of five beyond
Ahu Tahai and Ahu Vai Ure

Ahu Vai Ure has five moai, only a couple of which are reasonably whole – two are missing parts of their head and the fifth is headless and barely recognisable. There is also an empty spot where a sixth must once have stood.

Row of five moai
Ahu Vai Ure

Ahu Ko Te Riku will probably make the strongest impression on you here, as it did on me, as its moai is the only one standing on the island to have had its eyes restored. The replica eyes were based on one found at Anakena in 1978. This moai also has a pukao, the red stone topknot thought by most to represent the distinctive hairstyle of the Rapa Nui men.

Ahu Akivi

This group of seven moai are the only ones on the island that face toward the sea. This fact has led to much speculation about their origin and significance. However in truth is they are less dissimilar to the others than at first appears. Like all moai they did look over their village, as it lay in the strip of land between them and the sea.

But thanks to their seaward-facing stance they are, according to oral tradition, regarded as representations of the seven original discoverers of Rapa Nui – the explorers who, the tales say, first came here from Polynesia, on behalf of King Hotu Matu’a, to pave the way for future settlement. Scientists dismiss this story both because of the logical explanation of the positioning and the fact that the moai date from so much later than the era of first settlement. The local account is nevertheless more captivating than the prosaic scientific explanation!

Ahu Akivi

Ahu Huri a Urenga

This is one of about 25 inland ahu, with a solitary moai striking for having two pairs of hands. It is thought to have acted as a solar observatory, marking the start of winter and signalling the culturally permitted times for different fishing and agricultural activities.

Ahu Tongariki

Here is one of the must-see sights on Rapa Nui. This is the largest ahu ever built – 220 metres long, and with 15 moai. It was restored in the 1990s after a tsunami had caused further damage to the already toppled moai.

It is perhaps here more than at any other ahu that you can appreciate the physical differences between the different moai, clear evidence that each was carved to represent a separate individual ancestor. Some are taller and some short; some rather pot-bellied, others slimmer; some have snub noses, others more pointed; and so on. Only one still has his pukao or topknot, but a number of other pukao are scattered around the site. These were considered too damaged to safely replace without causing further irreparable damage. Their distribution gives you a sense of how far inland the waves of the tsunami carried these massive stones.

A little way in front of Ahu Tongariki a large moai lies on its back. You can see from the fact that its eye sockets were not carved out (which was always done once the moai were in place on the ahu) that it was never installed; instead it seems likely that it was damaged while being transported from the quarry at Rano Raraku and never used. It lies among the grass and flowers as if sleeping here, and maybe dreaming of a time when the moai were considered all-powerful by the island’s people.

Moai on its back
Fallen moai, Ahu Tongariki

Near the entrance to the field where Ahu Tongariki stands is a single lone moai, sometimes referred to by islanders as the ‘travelling moai’ because in 1982 it was loaned to the Japanese government to be shown in exhibitions there, as a thank you for the support for the restoration project. You can get some good photos here, with the travelling moai in the foreground and the 15 on the ahu beyond.

The travelling moai

Ahu Nau Nau

This ahu overlooks Anakena Beach on the island’s north coast, popular with locals and visitors alike.

Beach with palm trees
The beach at Anakena

But there is more to Anakena than sun, sand and sea. This beach is full of historical significance for the Rapanui. Oral tradition tells that it was here that first king, Ariki Hotu Matu’a, landed with his men and established the first settlement on the island. He is even believed to have lived in one of the caves here.

The ahu stands among palm trees (imported from Tahiti) It has seven moai, four of them with their pukao in place, and their backs (as always) to the sea, as if trying to ignore the frivolity of the swimmers and sun-bathers on the beach below.

Ahu Ature Huki, with a single large moai, sits on a sandy ridge above Ahu Nau Nau. It was the first to have been stood upright by Thor Heyerdahl, in 1956.

Moai among sand dunes
Ahu Ature Huki

Although they are scattered all over Rapa Nui, almost all of these megaliths were carved from the rock of a single volcano at the heart of the island. But that is a tale for a future post …

I visited Rapa Nui in 2016


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