Located 1300 miles away from land in the midst of the Pacific Ocean there lies the famous Easter Island with its massive green hills and picturesque monoliths. Statues from the Eastern Island (also known as Moai) have been capturing the minds of scientists since they were first discovered. It used to be a bit of an inside joke that if you dig deeper underground, there will be shoulders, torso, and the rest of the bodies of stone giants. Well, you know what? It turned out to be quite true!
Like so many mysterious things, the statues of the Easter Island turned out to be not what everyone expected. In fact, it’s become clear in 2012 that the famous Moai heads are actually heads of statues with torsos hidden deep in the ground!
Built around 1250-1500 B.C.E by the Rapa Nui people who used to live there, the Moai statues appear to be remnants of the civilization long gone. As precious as it may sound, hundreds of Moai heads were toppled and sent away to the British Museum after Christianity was adopted in 1860s. Only heads buried in the earth remained!
The first expedition with an excavation occurred in 1919, but was so poorly documented that we have close to no info as to what happened during those days. Year 2012 was more fruitful as numerous pieces of rock art along with two full Moai statues were uncovered during a new excavation performed by The Easter Island Statue Project (EISP).
The main goals of EISP are conservation and research of the Moai statues. The organization has spent years cataloguing about 1,000 statues of the Eastern Island. No one really paid attention to their peculiar finds, until fresh photos of two Moai ‘bodies’ were posted on the EISP homepage. The Internet finally acknowledged the stunning results of their work!
Among the photos there were depictions of some really peculiar ‘tattoos’ on the backs of the statues. They were preserved due to being hidden deep underground, safe from the destructive powers of the elements. Intricate designs and unusual symbols, known as petroglyphs, covered the backs of the statues.
What baffled archaeologists the most were the special engineering techniques used by Rapa Nui to erect and install the statues that could weigh up to 4 tons or more! Each statue was erected on a stone pavement which had numerous holes for tree trunks to support the construction. The statues were raised upright with the help of posts, ropes, stones, and various stone tools.
Another theory suggests that these gigantic statues could actually be moved around – with the help of ropes and a huge amount of people. With enough manpower the statue could be moved back and forth, creating the so-called ‘walking effect’. A Hawaiian anthropologist and an archaeologist from California decided to put this theory to test – they built a statue, attached ropes to it, got some people, and tried moving the statue around. It worked!
The Moai statues met a sad end when around 1600 BCE the fragile ecosystem of the island began to crush, leaving the people with close to no resources. That’s when they began to topple the statues and transition from the Rapa Nui religion to the new birdman religion as with time only sea birds remained on the island, finding shelter on remote offshore rocks. The European intervention of 1838 along with a social collapse resulted in the last standing Moai statues getting toppled as well.