History & CultureMysteries Of The World

Fascinating Easter Island Facts And The History Of The Moai Statues

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Female looking at the iconic 15 Moai statues of Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island, Chile, South America.
Wondering what makes these giant stone statues larger than life?

Many monuments and artifacts around the world garner amazement and intrigue, but perhaps one of the most puzzling is the Easter Island heads, also called Moai. The Moai are statues that stand on the incredibly remote Chilean Polynesian Easter Island. Below, I look at the history of these figures and what they mean to the culture of Easter Island. So, please sit back as I dive into some of Easter Island’s history.

Where Is Easter Island Located?

Map of Easter Island in conjunction to Chili and the 5.5-hour length of the flight.
Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.

Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui by its original inhabitants, is located in the Southeastern Pacific Ocean within the Polynesian Triangle. Annexed in 1888, Easter Island is a territory of Chile. It is an isolated volcanic island and is the easternmost point of the Polynesian Islands nations, with its nearest inhabited neighbor over 1,000 miles away.

Map of Easter Island showing size, town, and volcano locations.

Easter Island is approximately 15.3 miles long by 7.6 miles wide. The maximum altitude of the island is 1,663 feet tall, and there are no permanent streams or rivers. Easter Island has three volcanoes: Terevaka, Poike, and Rano Kau. All three of these volcanoes are extinct, but they gave the island its unique triangular shape. At one point in history, Poike formed its own natural island. However, a massive eruption from Terevaka caused the two masses to join.

Rapa Nui National Park, established in 1935, is a protected wildlife space, covering over 40% of the island and encompassing many archeological sites. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named Easter Island a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

What Is Easter Island Famous For?

Ahu Tongariki statutes on Easter Island.
Ahu Tongariki statues on Easter Island.

Easter Island is best known most for the giant megalithic stone statues of human monolith-type figures carved from stone, often referred to as the Easter Island heads. Before more recent discoveries, people thought they were only heads because the torsos were buried in layers of sand and earth from years of wind and shifting tides.

The Moai Statues Of Easter Island

Moai (pronounced mo-eye) is the name for these mysterious statues, but little information is available about why they are referred to as Moai (other than it being a Polynisain name).

These statues represent human forms and generally feature the statue’s body down to the thighs. The hands are massive, and the heads have long ears and deep-set eyes. Some bodies have intricate carvings on them, which were protected by layers of dirt. Because the head of each statue comprises 3/5 of the entire statue, the Moai are commonly referred to as the Easter Island heads.

The torsos were discovered and excavated by archaeologists in 1914, though much of the world did not learn about the discovery until 2012. Other than one kneeling statue, all the monolithic figures are depicted as standing figures without clearly defined legs. Not all statues have bodies, but the majority do.

How Many Moai Are There?

Moai on Easter Island facts about largest smallest average and number of giant megalithic stone statues of human monolith type figures carved from stone.
Moai on Easter Island facts about the largest, smallest average, and the number of giant megalithic stone statues carved from stone.

There are 1,043 complete statues at the last count. The true number of statues on Easter Island is a real mystery, as an unknown number lay buried in the Rano Raraku quarry, where the majority of the statues are believed to have been created.

The History Of Easter Island

Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean as seen from space.
Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean as seen from space.

Archeologists believe Easter Island was settled between 700 and 1,200 CE, around the same time that settlers first arrived in Hawaii. Some linguists and literature suggest it was settled earlier, around 400 CE. The first Easter Island settlement is historically said to have been at Anakena, the landing point on the island that provides the most protection from rough maritime weather. However, recent radiocarbon dating contradicts this theory, with multiple other Easter Island locations outdating Anakena by as much as hundreds of years.

The first people to settle on Easter Island are believed to have been the Polynesians from the Marquesas and Gambier Islands. The language most similar to that used on Easter Island is Mangarevan, the official language of Mangareva in the Gambier Islands.

It is believed that the initial community structure on the island focused on a high chief or Ariki, who controlled nine smaller clans and the chiefs who led them. As legend has it, the grand chief was always the eldest descendent through the first-born lines of the founder of the island – Hotu Matu’a.

Why Is It Called Easter Island?

While locals refer to the island as Rapa Nui, most others refer to it as Easter Island. This name comes from Dutch explorer and first recorded European visitor Jacob Roggeveen, who found the island on Easter Sunday in 1722 during his search for David’s Island.

The Origin Of The Moai

Crooked Moais in a hillside quarry with a path for tourists.
Crooked Moais in a hillside quarry with a path for tourists.

The Moai were constructed under the leadership of the Ariki, to honor the dead. The full name of the statues, “Moai aringa ora,” translates to “living face of the ancestors.” It is believed they were erected between 1,400 and 1,600 CE.

The Moai represent the ancestral heads or chiefs of each family line. In the belief system of those living on Easter Island, the dead and living were dependent upon each other. It was the dead that provided the living with all that they needed to live, and in return, the living gave the dead offerings that gave them a better place in the spirit world.

The Rapu Nui believed the chiefs were descendants of gods, with supernatural powers believed to protect them. The carvings were believed to hold magical powers, or “mana,” serving as a ceremonial conduit to communicate with the spirit world.

Moai are generally situated along the island’s coastlines since this is where the settlements of Easter Island stood. These Moai were always built with their backs against the water (where the spirit world was located), and their faces turned towards the tribes they oversaw. The exception is seven statues located at Ahu Akivi. These face out towards the ocean, safely guiding travelers inland. They also face the spot where an ancient village once stood.

The Birdman Cult

As things began to look grim for the Easter Island population, a warrior class, called Matatoa, took over leadership of the society and eliminated the Ancestor cult. The Birdman cult moved in around 1,400 C.E. Under this new leadership, inhabitants of the island believed that while the dead still provided for the living, contact between the living and dead was done through competition rather than through the giant Moai.

Men on the island would compete each year for the position of the “Birdman.” The winning tribe would get to use the island’s resources first. This practice was pivotal in helping the people survive, as it regulated the use of the island’s limited resources.

The carving and dedication to the Moai waned as the warrior class began to replace the builders. By the time the Dutch landed in 1722, many of the statues had been toppled, and carvings of the Birdman, half-man, half-bird, dominated the art of the island. The Birdman cult was suppressed in the 1860s by Christian missionaries.

Thriving On Easter Island

The well-structured society of Easter Island was thriving until the point that the ecosystem changed drastically. Researchers are unsure as to what really led to this decline in civilization, but some hypothesize that deforestation played a significant role. More recent research indicates that deforestation may been more gradual and that the Rapa Nui people were fairly resilient to it.

This newer research points to the arrival of European visitors and the interference in the indigenous culture rather than deforestation. That said, the treeless island was once covered in Rupa Nui palms, Paschalococos disperta, a now-extinct native species thought to have died out near 1,600 CE.

Today, Easter Island has limited flora and fauna. Only 31 wild flowering plants, 14 mosses, and 14 ferns have been identified. Much of the natural wildlife has been destroyed, unable to survive the island’s ecosystem. Today, a few native species of reptiles, birds, marine life, and insects still inhabit Easter Island. Non-native animals like goats, horses, sheep, and cows also roam the island.

When the European settlers arrived on Easter Island in 1722, the population had dropped to between 2,000 to 3,000 from the 15,000 it was 100 years earlier.

More Devastation On Easter Island

While the change in leadership and new explorers to the area had not been enough to devastate Easter Island, in the 1860s, Peruvian slave raiders struck, abducting more than 1,500 men and women — at that time, approximately half of the island’s population. The slave raids took enough of a toll on the island that eventually, the Peruvians were forced to return some of the people they had taken.

Unhappy about having to return their “bounty,” the Peruvians returned Easter Island inhabitants along with the smallpox virus. The epidemic that would follow decimated the Easter Island population. In the years following, whalers would also introduce tuberculosis to the island and further reduce the island’s population. As natives began to die from these diseases, missionaries and ranchers moved in and bought up the land of the deceased islanders.

As the island was slowly bought up and settled, both the overall population and the cultural background of the island were lost. French mariner Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier bought most of the land, except the missionary settlements in Hanga Roa, for farming. As conflict began to take place between natives, Dutrou-Bornier, and the missionaries, the population of the island plummeted to just 111 in 1871. Somehow, the islanders built up their numbers again, but it was too late to preserve much of the culture’s heritage.

Today, it’s estimated about 2,000 native people live on the island, which has a current population of approximately 8,000 people. Nearly 90% of the population lives in Hanga Roa, the largest city on the island.

Physical Characteristics Of The Moai

Side view of Moai Tukuturi statue, the only one with legs.
Side view of Moai Tukuturi statue, the only one with legs.

The Moai stand on Easter Island not only to mark the tribes that once were but also to remind the native people of their culturally rich past. The over 1,000 Moai statues also show just how amazing the founding people of Easter Island really were.

The Moai are each carved from a single rock and have characteristic flat, plain features. This unique-looking art style is commonly found in Polynesian art. The most intriguing characteristic of the Moai is the incredible size of their heads, a tribute to the importance of the chief or head of the tribe.

The significant size of the Moai’s heads led many people to refer to them as Easter Island heads, but there is also another reason for this moniker. Before the 1950s, many of these significant statues were lying flat, and those that were standing stood on Rano Raraku slopes buried up to their shoulders. This burial made the statues appear as though they were nothing but heads.

Each of the Moai is different in some aspects, but the average height of one statue is around 13 feet, and the average width is 5.25 feet. The largest and tallest Moai ever discovered to date, named “El Gigante,” still inhabits the Rano Raraku quarry and, if upright, would stand 69 feet tall, weighing an estimated 200 metric tons. The smallest Moai is located on Poike and stands just 3.76 feet high.

Of the Moai recovered to date, at least 900 are made from compressed volcanic ash, also known as tuff. After being carved from tuff, each statue would be rubbed with a pumice stone to smooth out rough edges. Thirteen of the remaining Moai are made from basalt, 17 are made from red scoria, and 22 are made from trachyte.

Moai Eyes

For some people, one of the most enthralling characteristics of the Moai is the eyes. When recovered, many Moai had small coral rock fragments at the discovery site. The eyes of these statues were deep and appeared to be designed to hold coral, which gave them the appearance of having eyeballs. The pupils would have been constructed from red scoria or black obsidian.

However, not all Moai had eye sockets, and researchers believe that these “special” statues were designed to watch over ceremonial sites and the ahu. The term ahu refers to stone platforms that were constructed over the island. A total of 313 ahu were constructed, and 125 of these at one time held Moai.

Tukuturi The Kneeling Moai

There are a few distinct differences between the statue Tukuturi and the other Moai statues. For starters, it is the only statue with legs and the only one depicted kneeling and not standing. It is also the lone statue with a beard. All other Moai have smooth, clean-shaven faces. This statue stands just over 12 feet high and weighs around 10 tons.

Another significant difference is that Tukuturi is carved from red scoria, not volcanic tuff. This is unusual as only 17 of the statutes discovered are made from red scoria. Along with that, the statue has a rounded head, eyes, and more delicate, realistic features, setting Tukuturi apart from the other Moai. Along with that, the statue gazes upward toward the Ranu Raruka, something no other Moai do.

Only one other Easter Island statue, much smaller and highly eroded, has a similar rounded shape, though it does not have legs or highly discernable features. Some think the kneeling Moai is an earlier version of the others, while others believe it may not be a Moai at all. Rather, they believe it may be a Polynesian totem called a tiki. Tukuturi remains an even deeper puzzle within the larger mystery of the Easter Island heads. What was the purpose and significance of this lone statue? Only the Tukuturi itself may know the whole answer.

Designs And Motifs On The Moai

Some Moai also featured additional markings and features that made them stand apart from the rest. Headdresses and pukao (cylinder-shaped “hats”) are two of these features. These headdresses and pukao were carved from red scoria. Other Moai also featured distinguishing motifs generally only visible on the non-tuff statues.

Tuff is easily eroded, and over time, statues made from it have lost some of their defining features. Those Moai not made from tuff, however, show evidence of unique designs on the backs and bottoms of the figures. In 1914, an expedition found a link between the designs depicted on the Moai and the importance of tattoos to the island’s culture.

Some of the Moai statues were also painted, although this was not a common appearance. One of those that was painted and decorated with white and maroon paint was Hoa Hakananai’a. Hoa Hakananai’a was taken from Easter Island at the end of 1868 by the HMS Topaze. It is now housed in the British Museum in London.

How Were The Moai Carved?

We know that the Rapa Nui carvers created these huge statues, possibly carvers who were members of craft guilds. Another theory is that members of each clan were responsible for carving out the Moai and that the main rock quarry was sectioned off for each clan.

It is said that as many as 15 people would work on a single Moai at one time, transforming a single thick slab of rock into a work of art. The group would begin by selecting a rock section and using picks to free it from the ground. Following that, work would begin on carving the general shape of the statue. Once the figure began to take shape, a single master carver would add in the finer details with the help of his assistants.

Most of the carving would have been completed while the stone lay flat. Final touches were usually added once the stone had been lifted upright through the use of ropes and levers.

The Mystery Of Moving The Moai

For a long time, researchers were puzzled as to how the people moved the exceptionally heavy statues to the shorelines from the Rano Raraku quarry. As traditional stories tell, however, those islanders with great power or “mana” simply commanded the statues to walk to their location, and they did so. Numerous stories abound as to who commanded the statues to walk and how they did so. Some very far-fetched theories claim extraterrestrial help in moving the stone giants.

One possible theory is that the islanders used log rollers to roll the statues with the aid of ropes and manpower. This was long thought to be the way they were moved until a few years ago. More recent recreations and research showed a possible way the statues may have truly “walked” from one place to the next.

This research suggests the Moai were built to move using a rock-and-walk design. Part of the design allows the Moai to “walk” in a sort of shuffle, using guidance from ropes held by people. The ropes guide the stone giants as they shuffle forward, creating a walking-like motion. The tales of walking Moai have long been passed down through the culture, songs, and stories of the Rapa Nui people. Perhaps this method of making the statues shuffle forward provides some insight into where that legend came from.

The video below shows a recreation of the walking Moai, and it is pretty remarkable:

Modern researchers have taken inspiration from this ancient feat of engineering and applied it to robots. The results showed how a very heavy object, like a several-ton stone statue, could be manipulated and moved without using conventional methods.

Numerous attempts at recreating a Moai and moving it have shown it takes at least 40 people to move one average-size statue. Whatever method the Rapu Nui people used to move these behemoths, it was a pretty remarkable feat.

How Did The Moai Fall? Theories On Easter Island

By 1868, not a single Moai – except those that were buried up to their heads in the sides of Rano Raraku – was left standing. Numerous stories exist as to how the Moai were toppled. Some say the ancient warfare among the clans, while others say the indigenous people knocked them down to prevent newcomers from seeing them.

One ancient tale tells of a clan that pushed down one of the Moai at night, but many other tales point to earthquake activity. Being located on volcanic ground, the island likely frequently experienced earth-shuddering quakes, which could easily have toppled the massive statues.

Further evidence to support this random toppling of the statues can be found in how they lay after falling. Rather than all laying uniformly, some of the statues lay on their front, others on their back, and some were broken during the fall, leaving decapitated heads. Of the nearly 1,000 Moai that fell, at least 50 have been re-erected and can now be viewed in museums or back on the ahus where they originally stood.

The Easter Island Fire Of 2022

In October 2022, a fire swept through the island, including parts of Rapa Nui National Park. Over 140 acres were burned, including a large number of statues. Sadly, the damage is irreversible, meaning the ancient guardians may soon crumble into piles of rock. The worst part is that the fire was found to be deliberately set.

The Fake Underwater Moai

Many people have heard of the incredible underwater Moai statue. It is often featured as a marvel, but the statue is a fake. It was commissioned for a movie produced by Kevin Costner in 1994. The movie was a box office flop, and the fake statues placed in several spots on the island offended many locals. Additionally, the production of the film taxed the island’s economy and ecosystem. Divers love to see the underwater Moai, as it is beautiful, but it is not truly one of the ancient stone giants.

Why The Moai Are Important Even Today

The Moai are more than a reminder of the past culture of the Easter Islanders. They also contribute to the world of art. In one single stone statue, the Moai tell a story of history, represent deified ancestors, and bring beauty to a landscape that has suffered a multitude of changes. Even now, the statues are revered, and touching them is forbidden. There is a cause set out to learn more about the Moai called the Easter Island Statue Project.

In 2023, a new statue was discovered in a dry lake bed. This new statue is a true relic and stands just over five feet tall. It was found on its side, partially gazing at the sky. Even after all this time, and despite setbacks, the mysterious Easter Island heads continue to fascinate and surprise us.

I’ve never been lucky enough to visit Rapu Nui National Park to see the ancient stone monoliths in person, have you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Other Mysterious Places To Explore

The world is full of mysterious places to travel to and visit. These include famous locations and those lesser known. For those who can’t afford to travel far away, a camping trip in the mountains or watching the night sky through a telescope can open up entirely new places and sights. Whether you like to find adventure near or far, the world surrounds us with an endless list of new things to learn.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living?

Danielle is a dedicated researcher, educator, and lifelong learner. She has always been fascinated by the world around her and is constantly searching for new knowledge. She has been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places. Danielle has researched many organizations and worked to bring our readers the most recent, accurate, science-based, and data-driven information. She works alongside a dedicated team of individuals who share the same goal.

Danielle DeGroot

Danielle has been a professional writer for many years, working with companies and brands all over the world. She holds a BS in Communication and Marketing from Colorado State University Global and uses her skills to help others share their voices. She has researched and covered a wide range of subjects, from eco-friendly living and burial to healthy living, technology, education, science, small business, and more. Her passion is connecting people with useful information and helping others find their voice. Prior to starting her writing career, Danielle worked in public education, where she worked to support and educate children with disabilities. She works hard to stay on top of the latest changes in safety, technology, and living, which allows her to continue researching and sharing pertinent information to better others’ lives.

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