How the Moai of Easter Island Were Made and Moved

How the Moai of Easter Island Were Made and Moved

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Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific Ocean which is famous for immense, carved stone statues called moai. A completed moai is made of three parts: a large yellow body, a red hat or topknot (called pukao), and white inset eyes with a coral iris.

Approximately 1,000 of these statues were created, faces and torsos of human-like beings, most of which range between 3 and 10 meters (6-33 feet) tall and weighing several tons. Carving of the moai is thought to have begun shortly after people arrived on the island about AD 1200, and ended ~1650. This photo essay looks at some of the things science has learned about the Easter Island moai, how they were made and moved into place.

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The Main Quarry at Easter Island: Rano Raruku

One of largest moai ever carved on Easter Island waits in its bay at Rano Raruku. Phil Whitehouse

The main bodies of most of the moai statues at Easter Island were sculpted out of the volcanic tuff from the Rano Raraku quarry, the remains of an extinct volcano. The Rano Raraku tuff is a sedimentary rock made from layers of air-lain, partially fused and partially cemented volcanic ash, fairly easy to carve but very heavy to transport.

The moai were individually carved out of single bays of the rock (rather than a big open area like a modern quarry). It appears as if most of them were carved lying on their backs. After the carving was completed, the moai were detached from the rock, moved down-slope and erected vertically, where their backs were dressed. Then the Easter Islanders moved the moai into places around the island, sometimes setting them onto platforms arranged in groups.

More than 300 unfinished moai are still in place at Rano Raruku--the largest statue on the island is an unfinished one over 18 m (60 ft) tall.

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The Statue Road Network on Easter Island

Scholars believe these moai were deliberately set up along the road to be visited by travelers. gregpoo

Research indicates that about 500 Easter Island moai were moved out of the Rano Raruku quarry along a network of roads to prepared platforms (called ahu) all over the island. The largest of the moved moai is over 10 m (33 ft) tall, weighs approximately 74 metric tons, and was moved over 5 km (3 mi) from its source at Rano Raruku.

The road network along which the moai moved was first identified as such in the early 20th century by researcher Katherine Routledge, although no one believed her at first. It consists of a branching network of pathways approximately 4.5 meters (~14.7 feet) wide radiating out from the quarry at Rano Raraku. Approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of these roads are still visible on the landscape and in satellite images: many are them are used as pathways for tourists visiting the statues. Road gradients average about 2.8 degrees, with some segments as steep as 13-16 degrees.

At least some sections of the roads were bounded by curb-stones, and the floor of the road was originally concave, or more precisely, U-shaped. Some early scholars argued that the 60 or so moai found along the roads today had fallen during transit. However, based on weathering patterns and the presence of partial platforms, Richards et al. argue that the moai were deliberately installed along the road, perhaps making the road a pilgrimage to visit ancestors; much as tourists do today.

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How to Move a Moai

These moai stand at the base of the Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island. Anoldent

Between 1200 and 1550, about 500 moai were moved out of the Rano Raraku quarry by the islanders for distances of up to 16-18 kilometers (or about ten miles), a truly massive undertaking. Theories about how the moai were moved have been addressed by a number of scholars over the decades of research on Easter Island.

Several experiments moving moai replicas have been attempted since the 1950s, by various methods including the use of wooden sledges to drag them around. Some of those scholars argued that the use of palm trees for this process resulted in the deforestation of the island: that theory has been debunked for a number of reasons.

The most recent, and the most successful, of the moai moving experiments is that of archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who were able to move the moai standing erect, by using a team of people wielding ropes to rock a replica statue down the road. That method echoes what the oral traditions on Rapa Nui tell us: local legend say the moai walked from the quarry. If you want to see the walking in action, I recommend Lipo and Hunt's 2013 Nova video demonstrating this action called The Mystery of Easter Island, or the 2011 book on the same subject.

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Crafting a Grouping of Moai

This platform group of moai is called Ahu Akivi, thought by some to represent an astronomical observatory. anoldent

In some cases, the Easter Island moai were placed in arranged groups on ahu--platforms painstakingly constructed from small water-rolled beach boulders (called poro) and dressed flow lava stone walling. In front of some of the platforms are ramps and pavements which may have been built to facilitate the placement of the statues, and then veneered once the statue was in place.

The poro are found only on beaches, and their primary use not associated with the statues was as pavement for sea slipways and external pavements used with boat-shaped houses. Hamilton has argued that using a combination of beach and inland resources to construct the moai had great cultural significance to the islanders.

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The Perfect Hat to Go With Your Moai

This moai on Easter Island stands on a platform with a ramp made of small rounded stones collected on the beach. Arian Zwegers

Many of the moai on Easter Island wear hats or topknots, called pukao. All of the raw material for the red hats came from a second quarry, the Puna Pau cinder cone. The raw material is a red scoria which formed in the volcano and was ejected out it during an ancient eruption (long before the original settlers arrived). The color of the pukao ranges from a deep plum color to a nearly blood red. The red scoria was occasionally also used for facing stones on the platforms.

More than 100 pukao have been found atop or near moai, or in the Puna Pau quarry. They are typically large squat cylinders up to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) in all dimensions.

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Making Your Moai See (and be Seen)

This close up of an Easter Island moai illustrates the technique of eye construction. David Berkowitz

The shell and coral eyes of the moai are a rare phenomenon on the island today. The whites of the eyes were made of pieces of sea shell, the irises of inlaid coral. The eye sockets were not carved and filled until after the moai were set in place on the platforms: many examples have since been removed or fallen out.

All of the moai statues are set to look inland, away from the sea, which must have had great significance to the people on Rapa Nui.

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Decorating Your Moai

This moai at the British Museum has been intensively studied using photogrammetry by the University College London. Yann Caradec

Probably the least known aspect of the Easter Island moai is that some of them were elaborately decorated and quite likely many more than we know about today. Similar petroglyphs are known from carvings in the volcanic bedrock around Rapa Nui, but exposure of the volcanic tuff on the statues has weathered the surfaces, perhaps destroying many carvings.

Photogrammetry modeling of an example in the British Museum--which was carved out of hard grey flow lava (rather than the soft volcanic tuff)-revealed detailed carvings on the statue's back and shoulders. See the Easter Island RTI animation at the University of Southampton's Archaeological Computing Research Group for a more detailed look at the carvings.

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Moai on the Coast at Sunset, Easter Island. Matt Riggott
  • Hamilton S. 2013. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)'s Stone Worlds. Archaeology International 16:96-109.
  • Hamilton S, Seager Thomas M, and Whitehouse R. 2011. Say it with stone: constructing with stones on Easter Island. World Archaeology 43(2):167-190. doi: 10.1080/00438243.2011.586273
  • Lipo CP, Hunt TL, and Haoa SR. 2013. The 'walking' megalithic statues (moai) of Easter Island. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(6):2859-2866. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.029
  • Miles J, Pitts M, Pagi H, and Earl G. 2014. New applications of photogrammetry and reflectance transformation imaging to an Easter Island statue. Antiquity 88(340):596-605.
  • Richards C, Croucher K, Paoa T, Parish T, Tucki E, and Welham K. 2011. Road my body goes: re-creating ancestors from stone at the great moai quarry of Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). World Archaeology 43(2):191-210. doi: 10.1080/00438243.2011.579483
  • Seager Thomas M. 2014. Stone use and avoidance on Easter Island: Red scoria from the topknot quarry at Puna Pau and other sources. Archaeology in Oceania 49(2):95-109