The Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture

Easter Island - The Statues and Rock Art of Rapa Nui

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Using basalt stone picks, the Easter Island Moai were carved from the solidified volcanic ash of Rano Raraku volcano. They are all monolithic the carvings are created in one piece and an average weight of 20 tons and measuring 20 feet tall or more. One unfinished statue is 69 feet tall, estimated to weigh 270 tons. But why was this Moai, representing the pinnacle so far of the statue culture, unfinished? Was it simply too large to move? Had ambition over-taken reality? Or had something else happened? Once completed, the statues were then moved from the quarry to their intended site and erected on an 'ahu'.

easter island pukau red stone crowns
Pukau red stone crowns
Many of the Moai on Easter Island had red stone crowns pukau placed on their heads. These topknots were carvings from a quarry known as Puna Pau. It appears that the pukau indicated special status, red being a sacred color in Polynesia. The Moai that were placed upon their ahu platform were activated by having their eyes opened. In the cavities, they added inlaid eyes made of coral and red scoria stone pupils. Significantly, all statues placed on their ahu faced inland, looking over the ceremonial area.

The first moai carved were small, round headed statues, with large circular eye-sockets and arms across the chest. Some of these have been found fairly recently in the rubble of ahu being reconstructed. This 'style' is virtually identical to those found on Pitcairn, and other Polynesian islands including Tahiti. Over time, the statues became larger and the heads more in proportion to the torsos. By the last phase, they had become very tall and slender figures.

The larger the statue placed upon an ahu, the more mana the chief who commissioned it had. This would have been seen by another chief, who would have ordered an even larger one, to show he had more power and status.

Many Moai are still standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku volcano. These statues were still under construction. They were carved on three sides, then lowered onto the slopes below where they were stood upright. Then the backs of the statues could be completed. Once that was done, they were then ready to be moved to their intended ahu. But moving them was harder than carving them, and today many are still standing on the crater slopes.

moving the easter island statues
Moving the Statues
The logistics involved must have been staggering. The Moai were lowered to the ground by ropes in order for the carving to be completed. Thus we find, on the very peak of the volcano rim, round holes carved into the rock, five feet deep and over two feet in diameter. Into these, the islanders would have placed palm trunks to act as bollards, and by running ropes around them they could control the statues as they lowered them down the 45 degree slope. It is calculated that the ropes must have been about 600 feet long and at least three inches thick - a considerable amount of rope, and a considerable amount of tree bark from which to manufacture it.

Ropes were also used to move the Moai statues to the platforms. For this to work, the hauling ropes would have had to have been about 250 feet long, which at an inch thick would have weighed over a ton. Many people required to make the rope, many people required to pull. Some Moai were erected up to 15 miles from the quarry, and until recently it was assumed they would have been hauled along on wooden rollers. However, latest research by Professor Charles Love who has been excavating the moai roads, shows that rollers would not have worked because the road beds themselves were not level, but slightly concave. How they moved the Moai statues is still one of the great mysteries of Easter Island. Whatever means were employed, once a statue arrived at its intended ahu, it had to be levered upright. Then the red crowns, some weighing up to 11 tons, could be placed on top.

The style and sizes of the Moai statues evolved over time, just as one sees in archaic Greek statues that evolved into the perfect classic sculpture. And as their technique evolved, the islanders found they could make them larger and more stylized. Over time, the moai became larger and thinner, more elegant and sophisticated. As for the placing of inlaid eyes into a statue, by opening them, they activated the power inherent in the statue. Eye sockets were only carved after a statue was placed on its ahu platform. Then coral and stone eyes could be placed in the sockets. It is possible that the eyes were only placed in the sockets for special ceremonies.

Evidence therefore shows Easter Island's evolving culture, one not without its socio-political changes, but always with traditions carried out for the purpose of religion and status. But the island itself was at breaking point.


Easter Island Introduction
Sentinels in Stone - Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture | Page | 1 | 2 | 3 |
The Rock Art of Easter Island
The Birdman Cult / Motif of Easter Island
Sea & Marine Creatures in Easter Island Rock Art
Designs & Motifs of Easter Island's Rock Petroglyph Carvings
Dr Georgia Lee - Publications on Easter Island
Moai Location Map & Islanders
Contemporary Easter Island Art
Easter Island Glossary
Easter Island Conclusion

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