achievement of the people of Rapa Nui was the creation, but especially the transportation and erection, of hundreds of monolithic moai—stylized giant human heads-on-torsos—carved in hardened volcanic tufa. On average, the statues are 13 feet (4 meters) high and weigh 14 tons (14.22 tonnes). But the largest ever raised once stood at the prominence known as Ahu Te Pito Kura; nearly 33 feet (9.80 meters) high, it weighed about 91 tons (83 tonnes). Even it would have been dwarfed by another found incomplete in a quarry: measuring almost 72 feet (21.6 meters), its weight was perhaps 185 tons (168 tonnes).
Since the Dutch seafarer Jacob Roggeveen made Rapa Nui known to Europe in the 1720s, scholars have debated the origins of its culture. Local legend has it that the canoes of Hotu Matu’a (the Great Father) arrived from Polynesia around a.d. 400. Some scholars, citing archeological evidence, assert that they came between 300 and 400 years later. Whatever the case, among the lush palm forests the newcomers planted their gardens of bananas, taros, and sweet potatoes. The South American origin of the latter led the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl to conjecture that Polynesia had been colonized by pre-Inka people, a view refuted by later scholars, who cite biological, linguistic, and archeological evidence to support Southeast Asian origins. As compelling as it is, the question is not our present concern.
Unique in Polynesia, the mysterious moai are thought to have been carved between a.d. 1400 and 1600 by specialist master craftsmen using tools made from obsidian found at Orito. The figures, always male, are believed to be iconographic representations of powerful beings—ancestors, chiefs, or others of high rank—rather than portraits. The red volcanic stone for their headdresses (pukaos) came from the Puna Punau volcanic crater; their eyes were made of shell and coral. They were the product of a spiritual and cultural imperative that seems to have become an obsession.
The archeologist Jo Anne van Tilburg of the University of California at Los Angeles suggests that the statues acted as ceremonial mediators “between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods.” The statues were transported, probably by conscripted labor, from where they were quarried and set up on the perimeter of the island, mostly on the southeast coast. Some were moved up to 14 miles (22.4 kilometers) and placed facing inland upon flat mounds or stone pedestals (ahu) about 4 feet (1.2 meters) above the surrounding ground. The word ahu also conveys a sacred site, and some, comprising massive masonry blocks and tons of fill, supported a whole group of moai.
For fifteen years van Tilburg carried out a “census” of the moai, finding a total of 887 statues. Fewer than one-third (288) had been transported to their coastal locations. She recorded another ninety-two as “in transport,” that is, on their way to their intended locations. The remainder were still in the quarries at what van Tilburg calls the central production center, in the volcanic caldera known as Rano Raraku near the eastern end of Rapa Nui. Perhaps they were abandoned because flaws were found in the stone, perhaps they were too large to move, or perhaps deteriorating social conditions forced the work to end.
How were they moved to their solemn stations around the coast of Rapa Nui? Several possibilities have been suggested. There is a local tradition that the moai “walked” to their sites, which led Heyerdahl to conclude that they were stood upright and rocked from side to side, thus “walked” along. A poorly rendered Dutch illustration of 1728, showing a statue standing upright on a base at which people are working, has been interpreted as moving the moai on rollers. Both systems have been tested using pseudo-moai and both worked. Others have suggested that the gigantic figures were laid prone, just as they had been carved, and dragged on sleds. Working from computer models that took account of many variables, including the food needed for the workers, van Tilburg proposed a plausible alternative, tested by experiment: the massive figures were moved in the prone position, supported on long logs that were rolled on smaller ones. In fact, no one knows with certainty how such loads were moved over the difficult terrain of the island.
Around a.d. 1550, Rapa Nui’s population reached a peak of about 10,000, placing an untenable load
on the tiny island’s resources just when moai carving and, more significantly, transportation reached a climax. Over the next century or so, radical change occurred, heralding the collapse of the society. Some scholars lay most of the blame for decline on the compulsion to construct the colossal figures. The once abundant palm forests were cleared for housing and crop production and to provide tools and pathways for moving the moai. Deforestation allowed the erosion of topsoil, and crops failed. Soon, driven by territorial imperatives, the island clans descended into civil war and even cannibalism. All the coastal moai had their eyes smashed out and the statues were toppled and decapitated by the islanders themselves.
Contacts with the West from the beginning of the eighteenth century served only to make matters worse, and in 1862 Peruvian slavers and exotic diseases together ravaged the population, reducing it to little more than a hundred. The process was reversed after Rapa Nui was annexed by Chile in 1888, and in 1965 it received the same privileges as other Chilean provinces. The economy now depends on sheep ranching and tourism. The main attraction for tourists is the mysterious moai, whose uniqueness led to the island being inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1995, with the following description:
Rapa Nui … bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin … established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the tenth to the sixteenth centuries this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures, moai, which created an unrivalled cultural landscape and which today continue to fascinate the entire world.