There are hundreds of Moai scattered throughout the island. The best places to admire them are the ahus or the Rano Raraku volcano. Each statue was different from the others and had distinctive features that made it possible to identify it with the ancestor it symbolized. Each one had a name of its own, and sometimes they were painted. It is also possible that they had a defined gender. The size and design of the statues of Easter Island evolved dramatically over time. The smaller and more ancient statues are similar to the Tiki of the Marquesas and are about 1 meter high; the bigger ones are 21.65 m and weigh approximately 180 tons. The biggest moai ever to be finished and taken to their destination was from the Te Pito Kura ahu (of approximately 9.84 m and 74 t), and the heaviest one was raised in Tongariki (of 88 t, lifted by a crane).
It is impossible to separate the moai from the ahu, the stone structure where they rest. There are approximately 272 ahu in the island, but only tens of these altars scattered around Rapa Nui held a statue. Most of them were built near the sea, but there are also 25 relatively big ahu in the inner part of the island, like the Akivi ahu or the Uri a Uranga ahu. Actually, an ahu could have a first life, then over time and after wars, it could be destroyed in order to reuse the stones and statues and build a second ahu. Initially, these ceremonial platforms were not to exceed a length of 20 meters, but during the most classical period of Easter Island’s history, some ahu were over 100 meters long and held more than 10 statues from different periods. Almost every ahu was conceived so the moai would stand with their back to the sea and protect the clan with their Mana (power, inspiration, in a way, the conscience of the islanders). There are no precise traces of the way in which the priests worshiped their ancestors and gods in the ahu, where it is also possible they exposed the corpses of noble people. In more recent times, the rest of the deceased were sometimes buried, like the skeleton and bones found under the tombs of these open temples can prove. However, most of the time, there were special places behind the ahu especially designed for the cremation of the bodies. Each family, tribe or clan wanted to have the most beautiful ahu, one that could reflect the power acquired and guaranteed by the deified ancestors.
Of the 288 statues that were transported to the ahu, only 164 were built during the classical period of the island. The rest, from a previous time, were built-in. Only 58 statues had a pukao. A little more than 90% of the moai came from the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano, though some were built in the Poike with white trachyte, red slag, and even with basalt.
The Tongariki ahu
Of all the ahu in Easter Island, the most prestigious one is certainly Tongariki, which has 15 statues located in front of the Rano Raraku quarry, less than 2 km away.
Like all the other ahu, the Tongariki was devastated during the time in which the clans that fought against each other rejected the worship to the ancestors. Although the Tongariki exposes 15 statues, other 17 older moai were found at the base. Some of them still remain at the site (in fact, three ahu were superimposed in the same place throughout history). Today, the specialists study cubic meters of valuable archives. As for the statue that lies on the ground in front of the ahu, it is not a moai from Tongariki, but a statue that was being transported. The eyes hadn’t been sculpted yet, since it had just left the quarry of Rano Raraku.
Hopefully, the sea will not wreak havoc again, because it would ruin the restoration work that lasted over 2 years. In light of this excavation, and with modern equipment such as cranes or computers, it is possible to estimate the genius of the ancient islanders to lift all the ceremonial platforms in the island only with the strength of their arms. Today, the Tongariki ahu, whose left part was restored in 2001, is the biggest South Pacific monument (the professional tour guides of the island will show you the petroglyphs and other details associated with this impressive monument.)
Ahu Uri A Urenga
The Uri A Urenga ahu is located a bit further than the airport, to the left of the route leading to Anakena. It does not attract much attention. Its restoration took place in 1972 under the direction of William Mulloy. Oriented facing the eastern sun, it surely had an important role in the Polynesian astronomical calendar. We must remember that 1,500 years, ago the Polynesians who sailed the immense ocean in their double canoes followed a route. They used maps made of sticks and shells, they knew the currents and the dates when they changed direction, and above all, they knew the “celestial map” provided by the stars. Thanks to the knowledge they acquired through the observation of the stars, they could decide where to go and how to return during any season of the year. There is almost nothing left of that skill.
Below the Rano Aroi lake, in front of the Rano Raraku quarry that is seen from afar, is located the “central” ahu, the small ahu Vaipu or ahu Ava Ranga Uka. It is made from poorly assembled stone blocks, and a 3.4 m long statue made of tuff lies on it facing the sky. The eyes haven’t been sculpted. If this moai was destined to be placed on this altar, the builders did not have the time to install it, nor to place its two coral almonds. This place is accessible through the cannon (Ava Hanga Uka) created by the waters of the Rano Aroi. Geographically speaking, this ahu is located exactly in the center of the triangle formed by Rapa Nui.
This enigmatic ahu is also called “7 moai”, and it is located northwest of Hanga Roa, near the underground network Te Pahu. The seven moai look into the faraway ocean (unlike the rest of the statues that always face the island in order to protect the clans with their Mana). Nobody knows with certainty the exact role of this ceremonial place, though many believe it was used by the island’s astronomists. The moai are lined up with their back to the eastern sun, oriented according to the solar line of the equinox. A minute ahu observes them from the other side of the plain.
Beyond Vaihu, on the road of the south coast leading to Rano Raraku, the pavement goes along a set of amazing statues, which are essential to visit. In fact, two ahu go around a small bay. The first, the Ura Uranga Te Mahina ahu, has five fallen statues. On the other side of the bay, the Akahanga ahu is composed by at least 16 statues, possibly from different periods. Some lay fallen by the sea. Near this, it is possible to observe what used to be an islander town: natural caverns, foundations of shiphouses, etc. Approximately 100 meters away from the great ahu lay the remains of a much more rustic ahu that does not have any statues. This means that the construction can only be subsequent to the great ahu (otherwise, the stones would have been used for the foundations of the main building.) This small rudimentary ahu shows that after the statues of the ancestors were demolished, the islanders who fought for the island maintained worship practices that were very similar to the previous ones. They used smaller statues such as the half-built ones on the top part of the Rano Raraku, and more rustic ahu, which are testimonies of a time of decadence. Almost in the center of the bay, there is a big statue laying face down. It is in perfect state and dates from the period of splendor of the Rano Raraku quarry. The design is exceptional; though the statue could not reach its destination (the eyes are not open). According to oral tradition, it wasn’t destined to seat at the Akahanga ahu, but in the minute construction where it rests. Some people believe that this mound of stones harbors the tomb of Hotu Motu’a; others believe it is located on the other side of the island, near the Ura Uranga Te Mahina ahu.
Ahu Nau Nau
The most representative ahu in Easter Island is the Nau Nau ahu, located in the spectacular beach of Anakena. It is one of the few ahu that is almost completely restored (the right part hasn’t been restored yet); although the archeological work carried out was not very extensive. Symbolically, this ahu is one of the most important, since King Hotu Matua and his people disembarked on this beach between the years 400 and 600 of our era. They came from the land of Marae Renga, in the island of Hiva. The legend specifies that seven explorers were sent before the migration.