Tag Archives: Easter Island

Easter Island 3: The rest of the moai, a volcanic crater and Birdman

28th March 2018

There are various different estimates of the number of moai on Easter Island, but “upwards of 900” seems to cover it. Some are near platforms and therefore count as official moai, some are in the quarry, some are just any old where and therefore can be presumed to have fallen and broken on their journey from quarry to platform. Ah, well, back to the drawing board. It only takes a year to make another. (And size doesn’t, as far as anyone knows, make much of a difference. The moai appear to have grown over the course of the culture, with later moai being bigger than earlier ones. But bigger ones don’t necessarily take longer, as you can have more men working on a larger statue.)

So, let’s wrap up the moai part of the Easter Island segment of our odyssey with some photos of many of those that have been restored. Firstly, and strikingly, one has been restored with replica eyes being put in place.

Ko Te Riku- with restored eyes

This can be found at Ahu Tahai, and the eyes certainly add character to the appearance, although whether that’s an improvement is a moot point.

Another important platform can be found at Ahu Akivi.

Ahu Akivi

The significance of this platform is that it was the first to be restored, through the energy, insight and enthusiasm of Thor Heyerdahl working with American archaeologist William Mulloy. Sort of Thor Ragnarok Restoration.

Jane’s joke, not mine. She has a thing for Chris Hemsworth. Can’t imagine why.

Heyerdahl is most famously associated with his 1947 Kon Tiki raft experiment in which he sailed 5,000 miles from South America to the Tuamoto Islands to demonstrate the viability of long sea journeys as a way of cultural migration. (Anyone of my approximate vintage will remember that The Shadows had a hit with a record called Kon-Tiki, which just goes to show that pop music can have an educational role.)

Heyerdahl first discovered and photographed the moai in 1955, and he recruited Mulloy to drive the restoration work at Ahu Akivi, which started in 1960, and so has significance as the first platform to be restored.

Mulloy ran several archaeological projects on Easter Island and had great influence in the way it appears today, for which he is justly respected by today’s islanders. He is buried at the Ahu Tahai site.

There are several unusual features of the Ahu Akivi platform:

  • It is inland and facing the coast, whereas other platforms are on the coast facing inland
  • It is aligned so that the moai exactly face the rising sun during the spring equinox; no other platform is so precisely aligned
  • All seven moai are of the same size

There is, of course, a legend about Ahu Akivi, concerning the original Rapa Nui King Hotu Matu’s priest having a dream about an island, the king sending out scouts who discovered the island, with seven remaining to await the king’s arrival as he moved his entire people to Rapa Nui. There are several reasons why the experts dismiss this legend, but, hey, it’s a great story.

And that about wraps it up for the moai part of the Easter Island story. But there’s more, and that is to be found at a site called Orongo, in the south west of the island.

The first thing you encounter as you approach the Orongo site is a spectacular view across the Rano Kau volcanic crater, which is a mile wide.

Rano Kau

The lake is actually a wetland, bordered in some places by a rainforest. Fruit trees grow inside the crater, and the lake, although essentially stagnant, has had special fish put in it which do not need much oxygen to survive but which eat the mosquito eggs and so keep the island’s mosquito population down.

Turning your back on Rano Kau, you go through the Orongo reception (some interesting photos in it, by the way) and into the site of the Birdman ceremonial village.

The Birdman culture replaced the moai culture on the island, being in existence between the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. It was based around a race to the furthest of three small islets off the south-western tip of the island.

The Birdman islets;

The basic idea is that each of 18 tribes on the island submitted a champion, whose job was to climb down the cliff, swim across to the furthest islet (called Moto Nui), await the arrival of the migrating sooty tern seabirds, procure an egg from a nest and transport it back to the ceremonial village. Intact. The winner was the first to arrive with an intact egg (often transported, we understand, attached by cloth to the competitor’s forehead). His reward was to liaise with three virgins who had been specially kept aside for him; the reward for the chief of his tribe was to become the Birdman for the year, a position of some status.

The village itself consists of several stone houses which were, essentially, used only for the period of the Birdman competition.

Stone houses used during Birdman Challenge

Stone houses used during Birdman Challenge

Of these, around a couple of dozen – about half of the total number – have been restored. Embarrassingly, some of the originals were damaged by the British, who hacked them about in order to get at some murals inside them. To compound this, the Brits then stole a unique moai, made of basalt and carved with Birdman petroglyphs and this (“the stolen friend”) stands in the British Museum. Just down the corridor, one assumes, from the Elgin marbles.

So, why did the moai culture die out? And why was it replaced by the Birdman cult? (“no-one knows”, but perhaps the deforestation of the palms left the islanders unable to leave, and the migration of the sooty tern gave them the illusion of being able to come and go at will?) Whatever, it’s another of Easter Island’s unusual sites and sights, and part of a wonderful, compelling and mysterious story which it was a pleasure to spend two days discovering.

Easter Island 2 – The making of the moai

28th March 2018

The lunatic idea behind Stonehenge (“Hey, let’s make a monument of 25-ton stones! And just to make it fun, let’s transport them from 150 miles away!”) seems to have found some resonance in Easter Island. All of the moai, wherever they ended up on the island, were made in a single place, Rano Raraku, and then, somehow or other, transported to their final platform. How? “No-one knows.” But there’s an engaging theory, for which read on.

Rano Raraku is effectively a quarry, fairly high up among the island’s hills.

As you walk through it, the first impression you get is that of heads sticking up out of the ground, and the first descriptions of the moai, such as the one which excited Jane’s curiosity when she was a child, were “the heads of Easter Island”.

Rano Raraku

It took a while for archaeologists to realise that these were actually just the tops of full statues that were buried. And then it became clear that the moai were actually fashioned in place. The shape was hacked out of the rocky ground (“the ground” is formed by compressed volcanic ash named tuff, sometimes erroneously called tufa). The moai shape was started lying on its back on the slope, and then, as parts of it were completed, the ground was hacked out from beneath it and it was gradually raised upright so that the completed moai was standing in its own depression. What has happened in the picture above is simply that the depressions have been filled in over the centuries.

Evidence for this can be seen higher up, where a moai is just being started.

Look carefully just to the left of centre of the picture, into the cavity hacked out of the stone, and you should be able to make out the chin and nose of a moai that’s lying on its back.

There’s a mystery moai at the quarry called “Tukuturi”, unique in that it’s in a kneeling position

Tukuturi, the kneeling Moai at Rano Raraku

and unusual in the shape of its face, which is less stylised than the ones typified in the Tongariki 15 that you can see in the background.

The face of Tukuturi, the kneeling moai

One legend is that it represents a master moai craftsman, and it’s erected to keep watch over the work being done in the quarry. As usual, “no-one knows”.

So, that’s the story of the statues. But what about the other key part of some moai, the “Pukao” – topknots?

These are made from a different, red-cloured stone, called scoria, which is much less dense than tuff. This rock was mined in a different place on the island, called Puna Pau.

Puna Pau

You can tell that the material is easier to work than tuff from this stone.

Excavated Topknot

This is not some mysterious symbolic shaping; it’s the work of a shepherd, who hacked out a cavity to shelter from wind and rain!

So, it’s known where the pukao were made – here’s a pit where some were in progress when work stopped:

A pit where the topknots would be created

What is less clear is (a) how did the islanders get the pukao out of depressions such as this?, (b) how were they transported to the platforms? and (c) how were they placed on top of the moai? As usual, “no-one knows”.

What is known is that completed pukao featured a depression which matched the top of the head upon which it was to sit. We know this from another location on the island, Vinapu.

Topknot - inverted

This is an inverted topknot, revealing the depression. You can see that it will not have sat foursquare on a head – in fact the topknots sit slightly forward on the heads.

Vinapu, by the way, is the site which demonstrates most clearly the amazing stoneworking skills of the Easter Islanders. There are two platforms, both of which show astounding precision in the way that stone was carved in order to align exactly.

High-precision stonework

You literally can’t get a sheet of paper between the stones, so precisely are they carved. This is workmanship akin to that found on the Inca Wall at Cusco which we (apparently) will see later on in the trip – keep an eye out for the blog post on that – but experts cast strong doubt that there was any explicit cross-fertilisation from Inca culture. There is also a legend that the Islanders found a way to make stone soft, so that it could be manipulated just like cheese. But, as usual, “no-one knows”.

The final part of the puzzle is – how the hell do you move a stone statue that weighs several tons? We know that they were made in one place and then moved to their final destination, and, as usual, there are several theories about how it might be done, but “no-one knows”. Our guide Malena told us of the words of one old woman who asserted that the moai “walked – two steps a night”. This sounds preposterous, but there’s actually a video of this being done with teams of men on either side making a replica (10 ton) moai sway from side to side, while a team from behind stopped it falling forward. In this way, the moai “walks”:

And another thing: assuming that this works (and recent ground scanning techniques have uncovered trails radiating from Rano Raraku that look like they may be tracks along which the moai may have been moved), how did they get the damn’ things up on to their platforms, sited accurately on their stone plinths?

That’s right: “no-one knows”.

For the continuation of this story, and what happened to the moai culture, read the next post – click here.

Easter Island – 1: mystery history

27th March 2018

It’s a long journey to Easter Island from Patagonia – a couple of hours on a plane from Puerto Montt to Santiago, then five and a half from Santiago to Easter Island, via a longish stopover; thank heavens for Starbucks, which provided Earl Grey Tea, WiFi and plenty of places to charge the various mobile devices.

The main reason for including this huge diversion in our odyssey was Jane’s desire to see the Moai – the Easter Island statues – which has been with her since she saw a photo approximately like this one as a child.

Rano Raraku

We travelled on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner which was pretty comfortable, but the disembarkation was slightly surreal, as we got off the back of the aeroplane and took a relatively long walk across the tarmac to the terminal.

But our baggage arrived safely, and our guide Malena was waiting to take us to our hotel, the Taha Tai, which was very close by.

The next day, Malena treated us to day one of a sightseeing and history tour. A Belgian chap we chatted to during our travels from Bariloche was scornful about Easter Island, saying it was “too commercial”. Mind you, he was scornful about a lot of things. Tourism is of huge importance to Easter Island’s economy and it’s quite a small island, so fitting in all the people and all the things to see whilst preserving the integrity of what’s there to be seen means that you sometimes feel you’re on something of a production line. It’s tourism à la TCP/IP; instead of big coaches descending on places with vast numbers of tourists, you get a large number of smaller vehicles dispensing tourists in packets, which reassemble at place after place. (And, yes, there are many retail opportunities to buy souvenirs and other tat; but I didn’t feel that it detracted from the overall experience.) And, for that reason, it’s important, I believe to be guided around the island. The official tour guides tend to have routes around the various sites and sights which enable them to tell the story of the island so that it unfolds over the course of a stay.

So, Malena started off telling us the history of the island, which is quite bizarre, and many parts of it are shrouded in mystery; the answer to many “why did such-and-such happen” or “what about this-or-that” is “Nobody knows”. I commend the Wikipedia entry to you. The island is famed for its moai, statues of a size up to monumental of male figures. When that famous oxymoron “western civilisation” first found the island (on Easter Sunday, 5th April 1722, hence the island’s name), as far as we know, all these statues were upright, as they were by 1770, when the Spanish arrived. James Cook arrived from England four years later and noted that some statues were toppled. They were all toppled by the time of arrival of French missionaries in the 1860s. So they were gradually, and, it seems, systematically toppled, but no-one really knows why.

Another mystery concerns deforestation. At one stage, during the moai culture, the island was a jungle of palm trees (not coconut palms – if you see one these days, it’s imported). And all of the palm trees were systematically, patch by patch, destroyed. Why? “No-one knows”. One theory asserts that this loss of palm trees, and therefore the means to escape the island in boats, gave rise to the Birdman culture – you’ll have to read about that in a later blog – but all is speculation about why the moai culture disappeared and why the Birdman culture replaced it.

One of the main reasons for the loss of historic knowledge is that the island’s population dropped at one point to 111 individuals, with the rest being wiped out by slave trade, western disease such as smallpox and tuberculosis and other such occidental delights. Many people were removed from island by Peruvian slave traders in the 1860s, despite this being illegal. An attempt was made to repatriate slaves; but no-one knew who came from where, so the island was repopulated rather randomly by people who “looked polynesian”.

A statue represents a village elder or other important person after death. The statue is erected on a stone-built platform, alongside others that may be there, as a symbol of the continuing power of the elder to protect the village, as the moai all face the village. One theory goes that with the arrival of western visitors, disillusion set in and the statues were toppled in anger. One thing is clear – it was human activity and not some natural catastrophe; the reasons for this are the timespan, as the toppling spanned several decades, and the direction of fall, which is always forwards, on to the face.

There are some 887 moai on the island. Most platforms are ruined and feature toppled moai, which are archaeologically interesting, but photogenically rather dull, particularly since the national park rules tend not to let one get in really close to explore interesting angles.

Ahu Akahanga

There are, famously, several platforms which have been reconstructed. The one with the largest number of the largest moai is called Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki

There are 15 moai, the tallest being 9 metres tall and weighing in at 88 tons.

Ahu Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki

You’ll notice that one, the penultimate one to the right above, has what’s locally called a “topknot” – maybe represents a hat, but no-one knows – but it’s certain that some moai had this and also all had coral-and-stone eyes inserted in the eye sockets to give them distinctive eyes. Nearby this reconstructed set of moai are three things of interest: a collection of topknots that putatively fitted them

Topknots in waiting at Ahu Tongariki

(in the background, by the way, is the quarry where the moai – all of them, for the entire island – were made (see my next blog post); and a small number of moai heads, which were just lying around on the site, putatively the remains of previous very old, decayed and replaced moai.

Discarded and replace heads at Ahu Tongariki

(the one on the right looks a bit like ET, don’t you think?); and a single, stand-alone statue (the travelling moai) which has been used in exhibitions around the world.

The travelling moai

The next stage on our trip involved visiting the site of the quarry where all of the moai on the island were made; it was very interesting, and you can see my next blog post for details. But also, before the day ended, we visited one more site, Anakena, which featured another set of restored moai, including several with topknots. Note that the topknots seem to be towards the front of the statue. This will become relevant in a later post.


All in all it was a fascinating day, with some of the history and culture of the island revealed as an ongoing story. We heard more – oh, so much more! – on our second day, and there’s also a lot to tell about the quarry where the moai were made, which you can read in the follow-up to this post – click here.