When we think of Eastern Island we think of of huge stone carved figures - monoliths- that dot the coastline. They are called Moai - (pronounced moe-eye). Moai are statues carved of compressed volcanic ash on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The statues are all monolithic, that is, carved in one piece. However, less than about one-fifth of the statues that were moved to ceremonial sites and then erected once had red stone cylinders pukau placed on their heads. These "topknots," as they are often called, were carved in a single quarry known as Puna Pau.
About 95% of the 887 moai known to date were carved out of compressed volcanic ash at Rano Raraku, where 394 moai still remain visible today. Recent GPS mapping in the interior will certainly add additional moai to that count. The quarries in Rano Raraku appear to have been abandoned abruptly, with many incomplete statues still in situ.
However, the pattern of work is very complex and is still being studied. Practically all of the completed moai that were moved from Rano Raraku and erected upright on ceremonial platforms were subsequently toppled by native islanders in the period after construction ceased.
Although usually identified as "heads" only, the moai are actually one piece figures with heads and truncated torsos.
The most widely-accepted theory is that the statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island beginning by about A.D. 1000-1100. In addition to representing deceased ancestors, the moai, once they were erect on ceremonial sites, may also have been regarded as the embodiment of powerful living chiefs. They were also important lineage status symbols.
The moai were carved by a distinguished class of professional carvers who were comparable in status to high-ranking members of other Polynesian craft guilds. The statues must have been extremely expensive to craft; not only would the actual carving of each statue require effort and resources, but the finished product was then hauled to its final location and erected.
It is not known exactly how the moai were moved but the process almost certainly required human energy, ropes, wooden sledges and/or rollers. Another theory is that the moai may have been "walked" by rocking them forward.
By the mid-1800s, all the moai outside of Rano Raraku and many within the quarry itself had been knocked over. Today, about 50 moai have been re-erected on their ceremonial sites.
Ancient island legends speak of a clan chief called Hotu Matu'a, who left his original home in search of a new one. The place he chose is now known to us as Easter Island. When he died, the island was divided between his six sons and then, later, sub-dividied among their descendants.
The islanders may have believed that their statues would capture the chiefs' "mana" (supernatural powers). They may have believed that by concentrating mana on the island good things would result, rain would fall and crops would grow. The settlement legend is a fragment of what was surely a much more complicated and many-faceted, mythic sketch, and it has changed over time.
Ron Fisher in his work Easter Island Brooding Sentinels of Stone,
mentions as one explanation for the statues that "two classes of people, the-so-called Long Ears and Short Ears, lived on the island. The Short Ears were enslaved by the Long Ears, who forced the Short Ears to carve the Moai. After many generations and during a rebellion, the Short Ears surprised the Long Ears killing them all, which explains the abrupt end of the statue-carving.
Some of the Moai face the sea -
most face inland to watch over the villlages.
Many of the were buried up to their shoulders and thereby appearing as disembodied heads.
All of the Moai were toppled in tribal wars about 250 years ago. Many have recently been rebuilt - starting in the 1950's. They sit on rocky lava strewn about telling a story of fallen monuments of a long lost civilization who created them. The Moai were depictions of their ancestors. The Rapa Nui were ancestor worshipers and only had one diety - Make Make. The Moai were excavated for the first time by Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950's and were photographed at that time. AHU
Moai sit on platforms - ceremonial shrines called Ahu.
Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place. Ahu Akivi is a sanctuary and celestial observatory built about 1500 AD which was the subject of the first serious restoration accomplished on Easter Island by archaeologists William Mulloy and Gonzalo Figueroa, with excellent results.
As in the case of many religious structures on Easter Island, it has been situated with astronomical precision: it's seven statues look towards the point where the sun sets during the equinox.
Aligned with the moon
Ahu Akivi is an unusual site in several respects. A low ahu supports 7 statues all very similar in height and style. The site is odd in that it is located far inland and the statues were erected to face the ocean. The only site where this was done. Like other Easter Island sites the statues were found knocked off the ahu, lying face down in the ground. In 1960, Archeologist William Mulloy's team spent several months raising the statues to their original positions.
During the excavation and restoration of this site many cremation pits were uncovered behind the ahu. The pits contained fragments of bone, shells, fishing implements, and obsidian flakes. Whether sites like these were used regularly for cremations and or burials is not certain. At other sites skeletons have been found buried within the ahu structure, but these burials are believed to have occurred after the statues were toppled.
Folklore holds that its seven moai represent the seven young explorers that legend says the Polynesian King Hotu Matu'a dispatched from across the seas, probably from the Marquesas Islands, to find this new homeland for him and his people. They are among the few moai that face the sea.
These seven stone giants may well symbolize those seven explorers, but no one knows for sure. Just as no one knows what any of the moai really represent or why only a few of them face the sea.
The generally accepted theory is that these majestic stone statues were built to honor Polynesian gods and deified ancestors such as chiefs and other figures important in the island's history. Most of them are attributed to the 14th and 15th centuries, although some were erected as long ago as the 10th Century.
Their function, it is believed, was to look out over a village or gravesite as a protector. They may also have been status symbols for villages or clans.
The seven at Ahu Akivi each stand about 16 feet high and weigh about 18 tons. The tallest moai on the island exceed 30 feet. Moai in the range of 12 to 20 feet are common. Even the occasional tiny moai that you come across are at least 6 feet high.
The ahu of Easter Island vary in length - the longest one is 300 feet, while some that hold one moai are only several feet long. Each ahu has a stone masonry base that slopes upward to a high terrace upon which the moai rest. Some terraces are as high as 15 feet above ground level. All are fairly wide - the bases of the moai that stand upon them measure as much as 10 feet long by 8 or 9 feet wide.
The island's volcanic rock from which they were carved is softer and lighter than most other rock, but even the smallest moai weighs several tons. Some of the moai have been estimated to weigh as much as 80 to 90 tons.
Many of the moai - there are hundreds of them - are erected at sites miles from the quarry at which they were carved. How could so few people move them even a couple of feet, let alone several miles, and without breaking them?
And once they did move them, how did they erect them? Even today, using powerful cranes, it would be no simple task.