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The History and Mystery of the Moai

semi-overcast 75 °F

Today we have decided we want to gain a deeper understanding of the history of Easter Island and what the civilization was like during the age of the moai. We book a private tour of the island with a guide that works with Mana Nui, Patricio, who we've heard from other guests at the hotel is very knowledgeable and thorough.

Patricio arrives promptly at 10. About 50 years old or so, he has a kind fatherly demeanor and deeply tanned skin, as you would expect from an islander. We drive up the southern side of the island, stopping at the most historically or archaeologically significant sites along the way and then curling around the northern tip to the white sandy beaches.

Patricio is a wealth of information and explains to us the societal structure of the ancient people, how they lived, the process of sculpting and transporting the moai, and how outside cultures decimated the landscape and precious artifacts.

The ancient people lived in one of 15 island tribes, which traded among each other amicably enough but also were very territorial, which led to much vengeance and animosity between the groups. However, one thing that they had in common was the obsession with using the large moai to honor their dead. The moai were set upon an “ahu,” or ceremonial alter, under which the deceased was buried. Lesser nobles were buried around the edges of the ahu. Therefore, it really isn't too much of a secret what the story behind the moai are—they are burial monuments.

All of the moai on the island were carved out of the rock at a single volcano (called Rano Raraku) and then set along the hillside in a display for those who are in the market for a moai (if a member of their royalty recently died, or if they want to pick one out for themselves). People would essentially walk through the unfinished moai along the hillside to select the one they want to transport back to their village, using food, tools, or even people as a trade.

Patricio explains that it is believed that a single tribe had control of the volcano and worked nonstop as a sort of “sculpture factory,” churning out moai after moai even if there wasn't necessarily a use for them yet. They would have procured a lot of supplies for their tribe and become wealthy because of their access to the volcano. The other theory is that all the tribes cooperatively used the quarry, but this is unlikely because of how territorial the tribes were.

We walk along the edge of the volcano among the moai that sit buried up to their shoulders, amazed by all the moai here in one place and the fact that they are so well preserved considering their age. Some have long, narrow faces and puckered lips; others have thick noses, thick bodies and thick necks—a body type that Patricio attributes to the Hawaiians or Tahitians. There is also a single female moai along the hill—her breasts and fuller lips are clearly visible—likely a special request from a queen of a tribe.

Once a moai is selected from the quarry, the long process of transportation begins. This might be surprising, but Easter Island is a huge, hilly island, so moving a 30-ton moai to the other end of the island would take months. The method used to move the moai is still being debated. According to Patricio, the islanders believe Thor Heyerdahl's theory that the moai were laid flat on logs and then pulled to their final locations at their ahu. But, Patricio says, there is no evidence of logs or rope anywhere near the moai that were abandoned during transport, so this method is not necessarily fact. When I ask about the theory that the moai were “walked” to their final locations, he says that research shows that the bottoms of the moai would have been damaged from being twisted for so long across the island, over hills, and over jagged rocks along the way. And there is no such damage. Again, this is inconclusive.

As we walk around the side of the volcano, we see immense rock faces that stretch into the sky and, when we look closer, we can see moai that were still in the middle of being carved. They all lay on their backs, their bodies carved but not yet separated from their host wall. Some are connected by just a keel, which would have been severed by swinging heavy rock chunks into it. Everywhere we look on this big rock face, we see moai staring up at the sky, laying in a sort of monolithic puzzle. We even see one nearly finished moai that is three times the size of a normal moai, about 90-100 tons, obviously a special request for a wealthy royal. Patricio says that there are about 400 moai here on this volcano, either awaiting a buyer or in the process of being sculpted.


Once a moai had reached its ahu, it was finished by adding a red-stone topknot and sanded to form eye sockets, into which coral eyes with obsidian pupils were added. Only the moai with a topknot and coral eyes were considered the “finished” ones; the ones that I always pictured, with the skinny bodies and blank notches for eyes, were not completed at all.

The villages were centered around the ahus, with the moai along the coast, facing inland to watch over the people of their village. In front of the burial site, people built the foundation for their longboat-shaped homes and cooked over fires. They even did ritual sacrifice of children in front of the watchful eyes of their moai sculptures. We learn that in the case of the ahus with several moai (including Ahu Tongariki, which has 15 moai in a row), each member of the royal family that dies is buried next to their other family members, hence the long rows of moai on a single alter. There may have been several long ahu in a single village, spread out along the coastline.

The moai culture was prevalent until a civil war in which the enslaved “short ears” (who didn't wear adornments in their earlobes to stretch them out) rose up against the “long ears” and actually won. In defiance of their former captors, they toppled all the moai on the island. For a long time, the moai and their ahus lied in ruins, heads broken off from their bodies. Only recently did various interested individuals engage in projects to reconstruct the moai and their ahus, setting them back up where they belong and cementing their heads back onto their shoulders.

Patricio also tell us of how the island was depleted of resources by colonists and looted by greedy traders from Europe. Sacred land was parceled up into grazing fields for livestock, which stepped on the ahus and ancient homes and quickly caused their ruin. Colonists carved moai topknots into cattle troughs and used the moai for target practice, leaving large bullet holes peppering their fragile bodies. Looters stole the eyes off the moai when coral was a precious trade item. Entire moai heads were loaded onto ships and taken to far off museums. No one thought about how sacred the moai are or what they represent, that they were a way to honor the dead. No one cared.

There have been efforts to repair the damage. In addition to reconstruction of a few of the damaged moai and resetting them on their ahus, CONAF (the national park service) has considered reforestation of the island. A previous attempt at this had failed when they planted a eucalyptus forest in the center of the island, selecting eucalyptus as the tree of choice because it grows quickly. However, it also is quite damaging to the soil, so the eucalyptus planting has stopped and government moves too slowly to actually get successful reforestation underway.

Along the rest of the tour, we stop at several important landmarks, including the only finished female moai on the island, a magnetic stone (“the navel of the world”) that is supposed to give you energy if you touch it, ancient cave dwellings, numerous petroglyphs, and many more ahus and moai. We spend almost 8 hours with Patricio and finish our tour with enough knowledge to say that while we might not have cracked all the mysteries of Easter Island, we certainly cracked more than a few.


Exhausted and famished, we walk to town for dinner at Te Moana, where I order teriyaki chicken with a lime daiquiri, and Matt orders a grilled filet with shrimp and potatoes. I attempt to take a soothing bath when we return to Mana Nui, but it scorches my sunburn and causes me to cry out and clutch my burned body parts.

This is our last night on Easter Island, and we have seen so much of this island that our sunburns, blisters and aching muscles are a sort of trophy for all the hiking we accomplished. Tomorrow we will leave this surreal island and return to the fast-paced civilization of the mainland, the Santiago culture of cellphones, high heels and pollution.

There is no pollution here on Rapa Nui. It feels like the purest place on earth.

Posted by GoWander 11.14.2012 20:02 Archived in Chile

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