Moai: A History of Rapa Nui's Most Famous Figures

Situated over 2,000kms from anywhere, in the middle of the Pacific ocean, Rapa Nui (Easter Island in English, Isla de Pascia in Spanish) is famous for the many moai that spot the landscape. As Rapa Nui’s most famous characteristic, the moai have resonated loudly in the history of the island and its inhabitants (Rapa Nui refers to both the island and the islanders).

Outside Rano Raraku (photo by Jill Miller)
Outside Rano Raraku (photo by Jill Miller)

According to oral tradition, Rapa Nui’s first inhabitants arrived to the island from French Polynesia in around 480 A.D. on large wooden catamarans. The Polynesians were known for their great ocean seafaring skills by using star navigation. The palm trees that dot the island are believed to have aided the transport of the moai and their raising onto ahus (platforms). It is widely believed that the moai were moved across tree trunks used as rollers. Later, the deforestation of these palms led to famine across the island. While the island today is covered with palms, they are not to be confused with the indigenous ones that originally grew there, and which are long since extinct.

The moai were made in a quarry found close to the Rano Raraku crater on the island's eastern side. They were then brought down the mountain and placed upright in a hole upright while polishing and detailing took place. Next, they were transported to their platforms, typically near the coast. At sites such as Akahanga, rocks were piled underneath the moai to gradually raise it to a standing position. Finally, the pukao (red top hat that represents hair) and eyes were added. The face and body of the moai are made from volcanic rock, while the pukao is made from red scoria and the eyes from white coral.

The moai signified the new soul, or life after death. The statues were not considered alive until after their eyes were added, when the name would be changed to aringa ora (living face). The eyes produced an energy called mana which was said to protect the family that it was watching over. People who lived closer to a moai were of higher social class than those who lived further away. About 400 moai were completed and raised, whereas around another 400 were either on their way to platforms or still being forged in the quarry.

A divided society developed within the island culture. The Rapa Nui elongated their ear lobes throughout their lifetime as a sign of wisdom and class. The long-eared Rapa Nui were considered higher class while the short-eared were the working class. When a moai was in the process of being raised, those from the lower echelons tended to work on the statue and live further from it.

In around 1600, a civil war broke out between the long and short-eared Rapa Nui due to insufficient resources. During this time, tribes would knock over other tribe’s moai. The statues were also sometimes targeted because the tribes were frustrated that their god was not protecting them. The last standing moai was seen in 1838. Today the only moai found in their original standing positions are near the Rano Raraku crater. These moai were left standing because they were incomplete and did not have eyes, so it is possible the Rapa Nui did not find it worth the effort to topple them. The majority of the moai that are standing today have been resurrected and restored.

Nowadays the moai play an important role in island tourism, and a law exists which states that if historical artifacts are to be removed from the island, the Rapa Nui population must have a majority vote result. The moai are not only an important tourist attraction, but an intrinsic aspect of Rapa Nui history and identity.

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