Easter Island Heads

The Moai

Certainly, the Easter Island heads (Moais) are the most relevant expression of Rapa Nui art. Although their origin in time has not been determined, oral tradition states that King Hotu Matua brought the first head to the island. Another version indicates that the first settlers did this.

Easter Island Heads are believed to be the representation of an ancestor with supernatural and divine power. Some people also say they were sculpted to perpetuate the memory of the deceased. The head is a male torso with a long nose and ears. At first, they were manufactured with basalt, trachyte and red slag, but finally the islanders preferred the volcanic material from the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano. The style of the moai evolved with the years. At first, they were smaller, with wider heads and short ears. Later, they evolved to the classic and unique stylization of the moai that remain in the slopes of the island. Today, it is incredible to observe there are more than a hundred moai in the slope of this extinct volcano. Some are finished, and some lay half-sculpted on the mother stone. All of them have a similar shape, except one that is sitting. The history of Rapa Nui tells that this moai was built and immediately buried, so that it would be discovered at the end of the millennium, that is, now.

Once built, the moai were transported to the different ahu. Did they travel lying down, facing the ground, or facing the sea on logs or wooden cribs? Did they “walk” standing up, or were they transported like great wardrobes? Maybe they were transported on pieces of timber and wooden rails? The latter appears to be the most convincing theory for modern researchers, in spite of another fairly implausible and unfounded hypothesis that suggests the heads were transported by sea on big rafts made of wood or reed. Nevertheless, it is certain that after leaving Rano Raraku, the moai took four different roads, “Ko te Ara o te Moai”, in order to scatter themselves around the island. The first road was the most direct, and led the heads from the quarry to the neighboring Tongariki ahu and the surrounding platforms. The second started at the quarry and went along the southern coast of the island. The third crossed the island through the center and led to the ahu of the west coast. Finally, the fourth went around the Rano Raraku towards the beach of Anakena. Along this route we can find the biggest head ever to be transported. It is 11 meters long; it is broken and looks at the sky. The whole construction and installation process was executed according to a strict sacred ritual, since it was the expression of the supernatural power of an ancestor promoted to the category of a god. Once the moai was installed, sockets were opened in its face and eyes of white coral were crimped. Finally, enormous cylinders of red slag were placed on the head, which symbolized the importance and hierarchy of the tribes.

The average height of a moai is 4 meters. However, in the northern shore of the island there is one over 10 meters high, and in the quarry there is another one of 22 meters. Although many think these sculptures look to the ocean, the moai face the island and watch over their people. Only one ahu is oriented towards the Hiva, their mythical continent of origin.