On average, an Easter Island statue stands 13 feet tall and weighs a whopping 13.8 tons. Despite the monuments’ size and presence, though, no one knows much about these figures or why they came to be. But researchers may now have an answer to at least one enduring enigma: why are the statues situated where they still stand today?
Experts have long strived to understand these incredible carvings. And for years researchers have come up with theories to explain everything from the look of the statues to how their creators must have transported them hundreds of years ago. Some of these opinions have been pretty credible too.
Yet the mystery of why, exactly, the Easter Island community placed their statues where they did still remains. So a team of six researchers from educational institutions across the U.S. put their heads together. These experts then analyzed the landscape of the surrounding area and came to realize how a long-lost civilization might have selected the precise sites for their imposing carvings.
But what is the history of these monoliths? Well, around the start of the 13th century, a handful of people from Marae Renga boarded two canoes to explore the south-eastern Pacific Ocean. And their expedition led them to what we know today as Easter Island. To say they had found a remote piece of land, then, would be something of an understatement.
Easter Island sits at the Polynesian Triangle’s southernmost corner, after all. And today the nearest piece of permanently settled land is Pitcairn Island, which is almost 1,300 miles distant. So to reach the nearest continental landmass, Easter Island residents have to sail 2,182 miles to Chile – the country that had laid claim to the isle in 1888.
But after the Marae Renga people initially discovered Easter Island – in about 1200 AD, according to the experts – the Polynesians who settled there developed a unique and prosperous culture of their own. And the most famous proof of the community’s sophistication is of course the Easter Island statues themselves. Yet much mystery still surrounds the stone effigies created by the people who came to be known as the Rapa Nui.
Of course, the answers to many of these mysteries would disappear with Easter Island’s inhabitants. Many locals in fact perished or left when devastating changes came to their land. One interesting example of such a shift came via the introduction of a very small, yet very harmful species: the Polynesian rat.
Throughout history, you see, the arrival of the Polynesian rat and other similar rodents to new lands has caused irreversible damage to vegetation. And on Easter Island the rodents chewed and damaged seeds that would have otherwise thrived. As the land’s ecosystem drastically reconfigured itself, then, the Rapa Nui population plummeted from as many as 15,000 people to no more than 3,000 in the space of about a century.
Then in 1722 the Europeans landed on the island – and found the indigenous population already much diminished. Yet the newcomers also brought diseases that then wiped out a further section of the land’s natives. Peruvian slavers made another dent in the island’s headcount too. So perhaps these raids explain why some Rapa Nui chose to move to move to different archipelagos.
Yet even as its population dwindled, the people of Easter Island continued with their lives and traditions. Between about 1250 AD and the start of the 16th century, in fact, the Rapa Nui built their famous moai. The enormous anthropomorphic statues look eye-catchingly different to real-life people, though. The huge head on each giant figure tends to make up almost half of each structure, after all.
So experts do know some details about these enormous figures. For starters, distinguished carvers made the monolithic statues – although it’s unclear how they earned the right to perform such important tasks. One theory is that the carvers held high-ranking positions in the social hierarchy. Another suggests that tribes might have chosen a seasoned carver from each of the island’s clans.
In any case, the monuments these artisans created are truly impressive, artistic achievements. Consider the tallest completed moai, Paro. The statue measures in at nearly 33 feet and weighs just over 90 tons. And among the uncompleted Easter Island statues, experts have found one that, if finished to scale, would have stood an estimated 69 feet tall and weighed up to 165 tons.
Researchers have therefore wondered for years how the Rapa Nui were able to transport their enormous statues around the island. And at one point, experts believed that the island had been treeless – which made the mystery even more confounding. But later analysis of Easter Island pollen revealed that trees had in fact covered the landscape until about 1200 AD. Some species persisted for another four centuries after that too.
So, knowing that trees were indeed available, experts could come up with theories as to how the people used their resources to move such enormous and heavy effigies. One explanation imagines that the locals balanced the statues on felled trees and rolled them from point A to point B. This method would have required up to 150 people to transport a single stone.
Other investigators have envisaged that the Rapa Nui used a combination of human strength as well as ropes and wooden contraptions similar to sleds. The experts have also theorized that the people constructed tracks – since dubbed the Easter Island roads. Pushing the statues along such pathways would have made transportation easier.
More recent studies have drawn different conclusions, though. In fact, archaeological evidence has revealed that the Rapa Nui probably wrapped ropes around the statues from opposite sides. Then they likely pulled the ropes to rock the moai from one way to the other. This would have made the statues do a sort of walk to their chosen resting places.
In order to complete such a ritual without toppling their carvings, though, the islanders had to coordinate such a “walk” perfectly. So experts believe the Rapa Nui had a chant that they’d recite while pulling the moai. The rhythms of the chant would keep them tugging in perfect synchronicity.
This revised theory dovetails with the oral history passed down by the Rapa Nui too. You see, the legends state that the islanders used divine power that inspired the statues to walk themselves to their designated locations. Some stories say that a king had such abilities, while others highlight a lady who resided by herself atop of the island’s mountain and directed the moai.
Yet another moai-related mystery that is believed to have been solved is who the strangely proportioned statues represent. The carvings have distinct features, after all. Their large and wide noses, for instance, give way to chiseled chins. Plus, the statues have angular, rectangle ears, and the carvers used deep slits to give the impression of the figures’ eyes.
Many of the statues sited along the outer edges of Easter Island face inward towards where the Rapa Nui once lived too. So all of these details have led archaeologists to believe that the statues symbolize the souls of important community figures. These could include chiefs, ancestors and others who held significant tribal positions.
One archaeologist who supports this theory is Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has spent years studying the Easter Island moai. Van Tilburg in fact argues that the people built the statues in a standardized style – yet each one stands for a different, revered individual. The archaeologist told TV channel PBS that the living probably used the statues to talk to their gods too.
On top of that, Van Tilburg believes the extra-large statues were built large specifically to bridge the gap between this world and the next. The Rapa Nui might have therefore believed the outsized figures opened lines of communication with those who had passed on. “The moai thus mediates between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods,” Van Tilburg explained.
Some of the island’s oral history backs up this idea too. Benedicto Tuki, who lived on Easter Island and claimed he was a blood relation to its first king, said the inward-facing statues looked over the land and its people, which both shared the Rapa Nui moniker. And the few moai that faced outward did so in honor of the seas and lands from which the tribes originally came, he said.
Tuki’s knowledge, which he shared with Smithsonian magazine, had come from the stories that older family members had shared with him. He said, “This is not written down. My grandmother told me before she died.” Many mysteries of the island therefore still linger – and experts strive to solve them.
In 2009, for instance, British researchers Colin Richards and Sue Hamilton cracked one long-standing mystery about the moai. For years, you see, people had wondered why some of the statues appeared to wear red stone headgear. And to answer the question, Richards and Hamilton’s research required them to retrace the Rapa Nui’s steps in constructing the figures.
Richards and Hamilton then found that the red stones came from an ancient quarry that held special meaning for the Rapa Nui. As Richards told The Independent in 2009, “It is clear that the quarry had a sacred context as well as an industrial one. The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living thing and after they carved the rock the spirits entered the statues.”
So, according to Richards and Hamilton, the Easter Island people added the sacred stone to their statues to represent the status held by the figure while they had lived. The researchers also said the stones stood in for the topknot or braid that tribal chieftains would wear to show their dominance. Hamilton described their society as “highly competitive” too.
Ten years later, researchers would explain another of the lingering mysteries surrounding the Easter Island moai. This time, though, it had to do with the positioning of the statues. As previously mentioned, some islanders apparently claimed that the figures faced inward to watch over them and their land.
But researchers wondered if the actual locations of the effigies and the ahu – the platforms on which many moai stood – had any further meaning. So an archaeological team, comprised of experts from six American institutions, focused their studies on Easter Island’s eastern side. And in that area they found and analyzed 93 ahu.
The researchers then looked at each ahu and surveyed its surrounding areas. Specifically, the team looked to find any sort of nearby resources that the statues might highlight. They searched for evidence of the sweet potato, for instance, as well as potential fishing sites and other amenities.
Such a study was a long time coming, according to Robert DiNapoli, a researcher and anthropologist from the University of Oregon. He told the Daily Express in January 2019, “Many researchers, ourselves included, have long speculated associations between ahu, moai and different kinds of resources.”
Yet upon compiling the list of ahu and the resources in their proximities, DiNapoli and the other researchers found no connection between most of them. For one thing, the statues sat nowhere near any gardens. The experts could therefore conclude that the figures didn’t exist to protect or otherwise monitor such valuable pieces of the landscape.
But the research team did find something interesting when it came to ahu and water. Namely, the monoliths didn’t signpost any sort of undersea resource. The statues did, however, seem to denote areas in which the Easter Island locals could have found fresh water. This would have been an important resource in spots where potable H2O wasn’t readily available.
And Easter Island doesn’t actually have any springs or streams to provide drinkable fresh water. The research team therefore realized that the people would have drank groundwater discharge. This fresh water flows out from aquifers at the coast and into the surrounding ocean.
Anthropology professor Carl Lipo of Binghamton University in New York co-authored the Easter Island research study. He explained groundwater discharge to CNN in January 2019, saying, “Fresh water would literally come out right between the coast and the ocean in a stream. We’d see horses drinking out of the ocean, and it turned out they knew exactly where the fresh water was coming out.”
Lipo and the rest of the researchers subsequently concluded that the moai placed along Easter Island’s coast stood there to point out the areas where groundwater emerged. Inland, meanwhile, their presence highlighted sources of natural, potable water. For instance, some moai stood near caves where fresh water hid.
So the research team had their answer. They believe the Easter Island statues owed their placements at least in part to highlight the presence of fresh water. As Lipo put it, “Building the statues wasn’t inexplicable behavior, but something that was not only culturally significant but central to their survival.”
University of Arizona anthropologist and researcher Terry Hunt also chimed in about what the practice said about the Rapa Nui. According to the Daily Express, he said, “The monuments… reflect generations of sharing, perhaps on a daily basis, centered on water, but also food, family and social ties.”
And, Hunt concluded, the moai’s placement highlighted the Rapa Nui’s propensity for communal behavior. He said, “The sharing points to a critical part of explaining the island’s paradox: despite limited resources, the islanders succeeded by sharing in activities, knowledge and resources for over 500 years until European contact disrupted life.”
Of course, researchers still don’t have all of their answers when it comes to Easter Island. But that’s precisely why their work continues. The same team hopes to get their heads around why the statues came to be in the first place, for instance. Yet Lipo already knows one thing. He told CNN, “It’s incredible how much energy went into them.” And the same can be said about those working to better understand this unique island community.