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THE MOAI OF RAPA NUI: The Protectors of Easter Island

You’ve probably heard many stories about Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) and about the moai, theories on how they were made, why they were made, and how they were transported around the island. But how much of that is really true? In the summer of 2019, I spent ten days on Easter Island and I’ve learned so much about its fascinating history, and I’m happy to share it all with you.

What are the moai?

Moai from the Ahu Tongariki platform, Rapa Nui, Easter Island

The moai are monolithic stone statues that are very specific to Rapa Nui. These majestic statues are found all around Rapa Nui, and, opposite to what some might say, they do not face the ocean. The moai are always facing inland, looking over the land of the different tribes of the island. They’re there to protect the people of the tribe they’re guarding. But how do they do that, you might wonder? Each moai is carved in the memory of a certain ancestor of that tribe, and that’s not just any ancestor, but very high-ranking ancestor, someone whose spiritual energy, called the mana, would be strong enough to protect the tribe. To do that, the moai were erected on platforms called ahu and there they were placed on top of the bones of that ancestor. This was done so that the mana of that person would move through the body of the moai upwards towards the head, and then the mana was transmitted through their eyes, once these were in place, to their tribe. This way, the Rapa Nui ancestors could always watch over their people and protect them.

Building the moai

The moai were built at the quarry at Rano Raraku, one of the volcanos on Easter Island. Walking around this site gives you the feeling that you’re walking through history. This is the home of many moai who never made it to their platforms, who were left there, either still in the process of carving, or carved and ready for transportation, and even some who had attempts of transportation. You can see some of these moai at Rano Raraku in the image below, where you can see that parts of their bodies are in the ground. For some, that’s several meters underground. That was not intentional, and it happened because when the Rapa Nui stopped building and moving the moai, these moai that you see below were left there and constant rain on the island led to material from the mountain sliding down the slope covering large parts of their bodies. This is why sometimes people assume the moai are just head statues, but, in fact, all moai had bodies.

The moai at the Rano Raraku quarry, Rapa Nui, Easter Island

Going back to the building of the moai, at Rano Raraku, the carvers had plenty of material to work with, as their material of choice for building the moai was the volcanic tuff. About 95% of the moai on Easter Island are made of volcanic tuff, while the other 5% are made of other materials, such as basalt, trachyte, or red scoria. Once the moai reached the ahu, they became alive when they were placed on the platform and the eyes were added in the eye sockets.

Another detail that you see in pictures of moai is a red top added on top of the moai heads. They are called pukao and are made of red scoria. Often people assume, wrongly, that the pukao are hats. In fact, they are their hair, being representative of the topknots. The Rapa Nui people grew their hair long, their hair length being associated with the mana, so the pukao is placed on the top of the moai to help pass on the mana.

Transporting the moai

If you’re thinking of the size of these moai, which could reach 18 m, you can’t help but wonder how did the Rapa Nui people move them around the island with no modern means of transportation? There are pretty much just as many hypotheses of how this was done as they are about how and why they were built. While some of these theories are more worldly, saying that they were transported with the tree logs, which lead to the deforestation of the island, others are a bit more other-worldly, involving the help of ancient aliens, as if humans don’t have enough ingenuity to figure out by themselves how to transport the moai.

While all the theories sound interesting—some more realistic than others—recent studies have shed some light on this mystery. In fact, the way the moai got the platforms is pretty simple—they walked. Obviously, they didn’t walk on their own; that would get us back to the stories of ancient aliens. The moai walked with a bit of help from the Rapa Nui people.

With most of the moai being built at the Rano Raraku quarry, the walking of the moai from the quarry is easier to understand when you think of the fact that Rano Raraku is a volcano, and the moai were carved up on the mountain slope. This helped in getting the moai into their walking position—after carving, the moai were slid down the slope of the mountain until they reached flat ground. There, ropes were tied around the heads of the moai, eye level, and people on either side of the moai pulled the ropes, moving it slowly to their final resting place.

To learn more about the history of Rapa Nui, have a look at the birdman competition and see how the Rapa Nui people managed to maintain peace on the island.

If you’re interested in exploring Rapa Nui/Easter Island with me, please subscribe to my newsletter using the form below and I will let you know when my first novel comes out. It is a Sci-Fi novel that takes place mainly on Rapa Nui and the characters take us on an adventure at the different sites around the island, teaching us about the history of Rapa Nui.