The Giant Heads of Easter Island

How Were These Enormous Statues Sculpted and Why?

Easter Island belongs to Chile. It is located in the area of the Polynesia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This island of 163.6 km² has become an important tourism attraction, especially due to the mysteries that surround the ancestral culture that inhabited it, the Rapa Nui ethnic group. This etymology also gives the traditional name to the island, Rapa Nui, which means “Great Island” in the language of the ancient sailors from Tahiti.

Although this great islet is practically an outdoor museum due to its ceremonial places and petroglyphs, the moai, the giant heads sculpted in stone, are undoubtedly the main attractions.

Ahu Nau Nau

The Construction of the Moai

We know that the giant effigies or moai were sculpted, probably during the 12th to 17th century, in volcanic rock from the inactive volcano of Rano Raraku. Around 300 statues were made within the walls of the crater and were later transported through the slope.

In the crater there were also another 400 unfinished statues found. Some had just been started, while others were almost ready to be transported. Near them there were also chisels and axes made of obsidian. These tools show that the craftsmen intended to return and finish the monoliths, but for some unknown reason they never could.

Along the path descending from the volcano there were also dozens of these statues found, already finished, that were scattered for 40 or 50 meters. Most of them weighted 30 tons and were around 4 meters long, but one piece was discovered, still unfinished, that reached 30 meters and weighted 50 tons.

The Mysterious Transportation System

The exact way in which the giant and heavy moai of Easter Island were transported is still unknown. The hypothesis that they used tree logs as rollers has been discarded. However, some scientists consider that the disappearance of the palm tree woods was caused by indiscriminate felling by natives who used them to transport the statues. It was proven that no tree in the island has the necessary magnitude to transport the statues.

The theory of dragging or swinging them with ropes has also some gaps. In 1986, the Czech engineer Pavel Pavel, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki Museum proved that 20 people and some ropes were enough to transport a statue of 9 tons. Nonetheless, most statues far exceed this weight.

The most recent study conducted in the year 2000 by a U.S. archaeological team suggests that the natives used complex machines manufactured in the island centuries ago. The construction of this heavy machinery may have partly caused the current deforestation of the island.

¿What Happened to the Rapa Nui?

According to all signs from ancient colonization, in its origin, Easter Island was inhabited by several thousands of people. From the drawings found in the island we can deduct that many social strata existed among them. The people with great ears represented in sculptures may have been the rulers, who managed to prolong their lobes with weights. Another theory states that the moai represent deceased ancestors.

The population growth and the shortage of food may have caused the destruction of several ceremonial altars and the abandonment of the quarries where the moai were sculpted.

The key to all these enigmas is possibly related to a Peruvian dealer from the 19th century, whose name remains unknown. Apparently, he captured more than 1,000 natives, among them the last king and the sorcerer of Rapa Nui. The fate of the captives remains unknown, although it is possible that some of them returned to their island carrying some type of disease, which may have caused the extinction of the rest of the population.

With them, the last possibility to discover how this primitive people raised a whole army of giant monoliths with human faces has disappeared.