The magnificent moai – facts about the statues of Rapa Nui
Cat Jarman answers key questions about the enigmatic statues of Rapa Nui – from how they were constructed to what they represent...
How many statues are there?
The Rapanui are believed to have carved more than 950 statues, ranging in size from 2–10 metres tall and weighing up to 74 metric tons each.
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When were the moai constructed?
There are no written records of when the statues were carved, and it is impossible to date the stone moai directly. We believe they were carved soon after the island was settled in around AD 1200, and that statue carving continued at least until AD 1650.
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How were they made?
Most of the moai were carved from volcanic tuff, a porous stone found in the quarry of Rano Raraku, one of the island’s volcanic craters. The stone is relatively easy to carve. At least 10 moai were carved from basalt, a much harder stone.
It’s believed that the statues were carved in the quarry then moved to their final locations, where their bases were flattened to make them stable. Some of the statues have a stone cylinder resembling a hat on top of their heads: these are called pukao and are made of a red stone called scoria. Many moai originally had inlaid eyes of white coral.
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Where are they located?
Around 400 moai remain at the stone quarry at Rano Raraku, while others are dotted around the island’s landscape: some of these were likely abandoned on their journey down from the quarries, perhaps because they fell during transport. Hundreds of moai were placed, often several next to each other, on large, ceremonial platforms called ahu (pictured in the main image). Some researchers believe statues were sited at locations that marked territorial boundaries, while others have proposed that the ahu were placed near freshwater sources. The moai stand with their backs towards the sea, facing inwards.
How were they moved?
Some statues were moved up to 11 miles over rugged terrain. But how? This has been one of Rapa Nui’s great mysteries. It was once thought that they must have been transported on timber sledges or rolled down the hills from the quarries on logs. It was even believed that the decline of the forests denied the islanders the sledges they needed to move the statues, leading to extensive competition and warfare.
Now, experiments have shown that the statues were actually moved by tying ropes around their heads that were pulled alternately from opposite sides. This caused the statues to rock from side to side, meaning that they could be “walked” to their final destinations. This was possible because of their carefully designed centre of gravity. There is even a local word for this motion: neke-neke, which translates as “inching forward by moving the body with disabled legs”.
What do they represent?
The moai represent the islanders’ ancestors and have been described as the “living faces” of the past. They may have been created to represent specific individuals and held a sacred role in Rapa Nui society, serving as a way to communicate with the gods.
Cat Jarman is an archaeologist who specialises in Rapa Nui and the Viking age
This content first appeared in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine