Moai are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island in eastern Polynesia between the years 1250 and 1500.

Nearly half are still at Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry, but hundreds were transported from there and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island’s perimeter.

Almost all moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue. The moai are chiefly the living faces of deified ancestors.

The statues still gazed inland across their clan lands when Europeans first visited the island in 1722, but all of them had fallen by the latter part of the 19th century.

The production and transportation of the more than 900 statues are considered a remarkable creative and physical feat. The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 meters (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tonnes (90.4 short tons).

The heaviest moai erected was a shorter but squatter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 86 tonnes. One unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been approximately 21 m (69 ft) tall, with a weight of about 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons).

The moai were toppled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, possibly as a result of European contact or internecine tribal wars.

Characteristics

Easter Island statues are known for their large, broad noses and strong chins, along with rectangle-shaped ears and deep eye slits.

Their bodies are normally squatting, with their arms resting in different positions and are without legs. The majority of the ahu are found along the coast and face inland towards the community.

There is some inland ahu such as Ahu Akivi. These moai face the community but given the small size of the island, they also appear to face the coast.

Eyes

In 1979, Sergio Rapu Haoa and a team of archaeologists discovered that the hemispherical or deep elliptical eye sockets were designed to hold coral eyes with either black obsidian or red scoria pupils.

The discovery was made by collecting and reassembling broken fragments of white coral that were found at the various sites. Subsequently, previously uncategorized finds in the Easter Island museum were re-examined and recategorized as eye fragments.

It is thought that the moai with carved eye sockets were probably allocated to the ahu and ceremonial sites, suggesting that a selective Rapa Nui hierarchy was attributed to the moai design until its demise with the advent of the Birdman religion, Tangata Manu.

Symbolism

Many archaeologists suggest that:

” statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana.”

Archaeologists believe that the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians’ ancestors. The moai statues face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island.

There is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive.

History

The statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island, mostly between circa 1250 A.D. and 1500 A.D. In addition to representing deceased ancestors, the moai, once they were erected on ahu, may also have been regarded as the embodiment of powerful living or former chiefs and important lineage status symbols.

Each moai presented a status:

“The larger the statue placed upon an ahu, the more mana the chief who commissioned it had.”

The competition for the grandest statue was ever prevalent in the culture of the Easter Islanders. The proof stems from the varying sizes of moai.

Completed statues were moved to ahu mostly on the coast, then erected, sometimes with red stone cylinders (pukao) on their heads. Moai must have been extremely expensive to craft and transport; 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.

The quarries in Rano Raraku appear to have been abandoned abruptly, with a litter of stone tools and many completed moai outside the quarry awaiting transport and almost as many incomplete statues still in situ as were installed on ahu.

In the nineteenth century, this led to conjecture that the island was the remnant of a sunken continent and that most completed moai were under the sea. That idea has long been debunked, and now it is understood that:

  • Some statues were rock carvings and never intended to be completed.
  • Some were incomplete because, when inclusions were encountered, the carvers would abandon a partial statue and start a new one (tuff is a soft rock with occasional lumps of much harder rock included in it).
  • Some completed statues at Rano Raraku were placed there permanently and not parked temporarily awaiting removal.
  • Some were indeed incomplete when the statue-building era came to an end.

Craftsmen

It is not known exactly which group in the communities were responsible for carving statues. Oral traditions suggest that the moai were carved either by a distinguished class of professional carvers who were comparable in status to high-ranking members of other Polynesian craft guilds, or, alternatively, by members of each clan.

The oral histories show that the Rano Raraku quarry was subdivided into different territories for each clan.

Birdman cult

Originally, Easter Islanders had a paramount chief or single leader. Through the years the power levels veered from sole chiefs to a warrior class, known as “matatoa“.

The therianthropic figure of a half-bird and the half-man was the symbol of the matatoa; the distinct character connected the sacred site of Orongo.

The new cult prompted battles of tribes over the worship of ancestry. Creating the moai was one way the islanders would honor their ancestors; during the height of the birdman cult, there is evidence that suggests that the construction of moai stopped.

“One of the most fascinating sights at Orongo is the hundreds of petroglyphs carved with birdman and Makemake images. Carved into solid basalt, they have resisted ages of harsh weather. It has been suggested that the images represent birdman competition winners. Over 480 birdman petroglyphs have been found on the island, mostly around Orongo.”

Orongo, the site of the cult’s festivities, was a dangerous landscape that consisted of a “narrow ridge between a 1,000-foot (300 m) drop into the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other“.

Considered the sacred spot of Orongo, Mata Ngarau was the location where birdman priests prayed and chanted for a successful egg hunt.

“The purpose of the birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and presented it to his sponsor, who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position.”

Moai Kavakava

These figures are much smaller than the better-known stone moai. They are made of wood and have a small, slender aspect, giving them a sad appearance.

These figures are believed to have been made after the civilization on Rapa Nui began to collapse, which is why they seem to have a more emaciated appearance to them.

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