The Moai of Rapa Nui - the spirit of the people

by zteve

Rapa Nui is an island of mystery and lost secrets. It is most famous for the giant stone statues called moai that stand in silent sentinel over the island and its people.

Rapa Nui, is also known as Easter Island and is one of the world's most mysterious places. The Rapanui created a civilisation on one of the remotest places on earth, a tiny speck of an island that lies in the vast emptiness of the South Pacific Ocean.

The island is roughly triangular shaped and is situated 2,300 miles to the west of the South American coast and is southeast of Tahiti 2,500 miles away with the nearest place of human habitation being Pitcairn Island which is 1,260 miles distant.

Rapa Nui is under the auspices of Chile who in 1935 made the island a national park. In 1996 UNESCO made it a World heritage Site.

Early Polynesian colonists of Rapa Nui


How the original settlers found their way to the island and why they came is shrouded in mystery.    The people are believed to be descended from Polynesians who had great physical endurance, and remarkable seamanship and navigational abilities.   They colonised many isolated and distant south Pacific islands using nothing more than ocean going canoes to voyage across vast stretches of empty ocean.  

Although the exact date is not known it is believed that a group of around fifty Polynesians led by a king called Hotu Matu’a arrived on the Rapa Nui in a double-hulled canoe between 600 AD and 800 AD.  Some experts give earlier dates while others say later and the debate still continues.

Rapa Nui Traditional Dance

Rapa Nui traditional dance
Rapa Nui traditional dance

Te Pito o TeHenua - 'the navel of the world.'

Their original homeland is not known but it is believed that when they set off they sailed southwest for a number of weeks.  Hotu Matu’a had sent a party of seven scouts to explore the island and plant crops to prepare for the arrival of the main party.


The scouts found an island that was uninhabited by humans with few if any land mammals and mostly forested. Colonies of sea birds used the island and nearby islets as a seasonal breeding ground.


They called their new home Te Pito o TeHenua - 'the navel of the world.'  In their new homeland they quickly settled and cultivated the land and increased in numbers over time.  They may also have been joined by other Polynesian adventures as well though it cannot be certain.  


They were a Stone-Age society but they were an industrious and ingenious people who learned quickly how to adapt themselves and the environment to their needs.  In their new homeland they flourished and the population steadily increased with new settlements spreading around the coastline.


In the splendid isolation of their Pacific island home they developed a unique and remarkably sophisticated civilisation with nothing more than Stone-Age tools and implements.  The most visible and best know product of this civilisation was the huge and unworldly looking stone statues the islanders called ‘moai.’ Many of these are set on stone platforms called ‘ahu’. 


They also produced many petroglyphs painted or carved on to rocks and slabs of wood.  Uniquely for Polynesians they also developed a pictographic form of writing called Rongorono which remains undeciphered.

Moai size

The moai are carved from volcanic tuff and vary in size.  The average height is 13 feet and weighs in at around 14 tons.  There are around 900 positioned around the island. 


Smaller versions exist as well as much larger ones though they all tend to share common features of design there are some differences.  Some are placed on stone platforms called ‘ahu’ which were believed to be ceremonial sites,


In the language of the Rapanui ‘ahu’ has two meanings.   An ahu can be a flat stone platform, or it may be a sacred ceremonial site. 

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The Ahu Akiva

The Ahu Akivi is an inland site where seven moai are situated looking across the land and out across the sea.  This is unusual because most of the other moai on Rapa Nui are situated around the coast with their back to the sea looking inland. In island folklore they are said to represent the seven scouts sent by Hotu Matu’a to explore the island.   Like most of the other statues on Rapa Nui these were found lying face down on the ground as if they had been toppled over.


The Ahu Akiva moai and site were restored by a team led by William Mulloy, in 1960.  During the work excavations revealed cremation pits situated to the rear of the ahu containing many fragments of bone, fishing implements, shells and flakes of obsidian.  While work at other ahus revealed human skeletons interred within the ahu structure possibly placed there after the moai were toppled.


Away from the ahus there statues that are buried up to their necks with their bodies imbedded in the ground.   There are also moai that are found lying horizontally, either on their backs or face down in various positions on the ground surface having been toppled or fallen in transit. 


Still, others can be seen carved into the cliff of the quarries from which they were made.  Some of these are unfinished though others are finished.

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Rano Raraku

Ever since 1722, when the a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen became the first European and the first documented outsider to visit the island. The world has held a strong fascination with the statues and the Rapanui people ever since.


Europeans could not understand how they had got to the island and why they spent so much of their time and resources on creating such labour intensive objects. 


Oral history is unreliable and scarce and the only writing on the island was in a form known as Rongorongo which has never been successfully translated and specimens of this are rare, so there is no reliable written records that can be used to enlighten us.


The moai and the ahus can be found all around the coast though the greatest numbers of moai are found on the southeast coast.    These moai are more uniform in style and thought to have been created, transported and placed in situ from AD 1100 to AD 1600 so in historical and archaeological terms they are fairly recent. 


In Rapanui tradition the moai transmitted spiritual energy from their ancestors called ‘mana.’   It is believed that each clan competed for this ‘mana’ creating bigger and better moai, which also increased their power, prosperity and status.  The moai are thought to represent the holiest or most powerful members of each clan’s ancestors who bestowed their mana on living tribal leaders as well as the land.


The volcanic crater of Rano Raraku was the largest moai production centre which still contains finished works and works in various stages of carving.  It is believed that each moai was created by a team of specialist stone sculptors under the supervision of a master sculptor.  The team and the master were highly regarded in Rapa Nui society.


A team may have as many as 15 members who would begin the task using basalt picks to carve out a rectangular block of volcanic tuff.  When they had a rough outline of the figure the master sculptor and his most trusted assistants would then carve in the details such as the face and head.


The statues all have elongated features such as heads, nose, and ears and despite their uniformity of characteristics they are thought to represent specific individuals.  They all have male features and are thought to represent great chiefs or other important men such as priest or warriors.  According to Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Archaeologist, their purpose may have been to act as a communication channel and mediators between the spirit world and the world of humans.


On the heads of some of the moai were topped with huge solid cylinders of red stone like a hat though they could have bee representing a headdress or hairstyle.  Some of the moai also had eyes that were fitted after they were placed in situ.


The eyes of the moai

In 1979, while collecting and piecing together broken fragments of white coral found at some sites Sergio Rapa Haoa and a team realised that the moai once had eyes.   The moai have deep cut elliptical or hemispherical sockets carved in their heads which were designed to contain eyes made of white coral with either red scoria or black obsidian for pupils.  It could be that the eyes were intended to give the moai a vision of the human world and to bring them to life.


The current thinking is that the moai that were given eyes were designated to the ahus or ceremonial sites which some experts see as being a sign that there was a social hierarchy on Rapa Nui and that these moai represented  members of that elite who were responsible for the design.   This social hierarchy was overthrown with the throwing down of the stautes giving way to a new system or religion known as Tangata Manu. or the cult of the Birdman.

Moving the moai

It is uncertain how these huge and heavy figures were moved to their designated positions but local tradition says they ‘walked’ by the power of mana.  This is not as far-fetched as it seems as experiments have been done that prove that it is possible to ‘walk’ the moai over flat and even ground in as similar way one would ‘walk’ a refrigerator, or wardrobe across the floor.   However problems arise when going up or down hill and may account for why some moai have been found on their faces or on their backs.


It seems more likely that they were moved using a combination of ropes, levers, rollers and rails and manpower, coupled with ingenuity.  Some estimates say that it would take 40 people to transport an average sized moai from its place of creation to its final destination.  To find the wood for the rollers, levers and rails and feed the worked placed and enormous strain on the naturals resources of the island. The islanders seemed to have managed by adapting their agricultural practices and economy around the production of the moai.

The legend of the long-ears and the short-ears

In some legends there were two groups of people on the island the long-ears, or hanau eepe and the short-ears, the hanau momoko.   The long-ears extended their earlobes by inserting objects such as stones in them.  The short-ears did not carry out this practice.  Some scholars think the long-ears were a ruling class distinguished by the length of their earlobes.  Many of the moai have elongated ears and features.  It was the long-ears who commissioned the moai and the short-ears who did the labouring.  Eventually the short-ears rebelled and overthrew the long-ears killing all but one of them.  However there are many variations of this legend which give different accounts so nothing is certain.


This is believed by many to have resulted in social and political upheaval in the 16th century with the inhabitants splitting into at least two warring factions.  The old system and religion appears to have been overthrown and a new order and religion adopted based on what was known as the Birdman cult.  The centre of this was believed to have been Orongo and was centred around an annual competition to find and bring back the first egg of the Sooty tern from a neighbouring islet.  The rights to harvesting the birds and their eggs went to the winner


The reason why there was conflict is not known but it seemed to have happened from when Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 visited the island and Captain Cook’s arrival in 1774.   Roggeveen reported that the island was dotted with many moai still standing whereas according to Cook many had been toppled. Before the arrival of the Europeans the Rapanui had oral traditions of a previous homeland nut no real notion that other people existed out side of their island. 

The rise of the Birdman cult

It may be that the arrival of the Europeans on what must have seemed like huge and strange vessels may have inflicted a deep shock to their belief system.


Along with this their society may well have been under growing stress as they cleared the forests for agriculture and used the wood for moving moai, building boats, for fires to cooks with and many other uses.   Rats also possibly played a part in the destruction of the forests and food and resources were possibly becoming scarcer.   The rats came with the original settlers possibly as stowaways or deliberately as a source of food.


Despite the growing problems they did adapt themselves and the land to their needs but the coming of the Europeans and the diminishing island resources may have brought about a conflict in their belief system.  Some among them may have seen the old beliefs as failing as the world changed around them splitting their society into warring factions with some trying to cling to the old ways while others wanting a new system.  The time was ripe for a change and the old ways were swept aside and the moai pulled down and the cult of the Birdman took its place.


This social hierarchy was overthrown with the throwing down of the statues giving way to a new system or religion known as Tangata Manu, or the cult of the Birdman.   This did at least bring an end to the warring giving the clans a less destructive way to decide who should have the valuable rights to harvest the bird colonies.


Spirit of their ancestors

Sadly for the Rapanui with growing European marine traffic on the oceans Rapa Nui was visited more often by the outside world resulting in disease epidemics and worse still raids by slave traders that carried off most of its people.


Today the island population has increased to a more healthy state and the island is now an increasingly popular destination for tourists eager to see the mysterious moai.   This does bring in much needed income to the people and can perhaps be seen as a way that the moai are now transmitting their mana upon the Rapanui, so that in a way the spirit of their ancestors are looking after the Rapanui people today.


Marvelous and mysterious though the moai are they are still only the creations of a most marvelous and mysterious people.  Therefore it is more than right that the last word shoud go to one of the the Rapanui, Petero Edmunds, former mayor of Hanga Roa, speaking on said,

  “The moai are not silent.  They speak. They’re an example our ancestors created in stone, of something that is within us, which we call spirit. The world must know this spirit is alive,” 

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Updated: 01/25/2016, zteve
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


zteve on 09/09/2013

They were pretty clever people! Thanks for commenting.

jptanabe on 09/09/2013

Great article about the Moai, such fascinating creations. I love the way people keep trying figure out how they "walked" them from Rano Raraku to their ahus.

zteve on 08/25/2012

Sheri, thanks so much your comments are greatly appreciated!

Sheri_Oz on 08/25/2012

What an amazing article!!! So much here.

zteve on 08/15/2012

Thank You!

Ragtimelil on 08/15/2012

Fascinating article! I love a good mystery!

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