Moai i//, or mo‘ai, are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people from rock on the Chilean Polynesian island of Easter Island 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 (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna). The statues still gazed inland across their clan lands when Europeans first visited the island, but most were cast down during later conflicts between clans.
The production and transportation of the 887 statues are considered remarkable creative and physical feats. The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 metres (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tons; the heaviest erected was a shorter but squatter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 86 tons; and one unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been approximately 21 metres (69 ft) tall with a weight of about 270 tons. After civilization collapsed on Rapa Nui, the islanders themselves tore down the standing moai after their civilization broke down.
The moai are monolithic statues, their minimalist style related to forms found throughout Polynesia. Moai are carved in relatively flat planes, the faces bearing proud but enigmatic expressions. The over-large heads (a three-to-five ratio between the head and the trunk, a sculptural trait that demonstrates the Polynesian belief in the sanctity of the chiefly head) have heavy brows and elongated noses with a distinctive fish-hook-shaped curl of the nostrils. The lips protrude in a thin pout. Like the nose, the ears are elongated and oblong in form. The jaw lines stand out against the truncated neck. The torsos are heavy, and, sometimes, the clavicles are subtly outlined in stone. The arms are carved in bas relief and rest against the body in various positions, hands and long slender fingers resting along the crests of the hips, meeting at the hami (loincloth), with the thumbs sometimes pointing towards the navel. Generally, the anatomical features of the backs are not detailed, but sometimes bear a ring and girdle motif on the buttocks and lower back. Except for one kneeling moai, the statues do not have clearly visible legs.
Though moai are whole-body statues, they are commonly referred to as "Easter Island heads". This is partly because of the disproportionate size of most moai heads and partly because, from the invention of photography until the 1950s, the only moai standing on the island were the statues on the slopes of Rano Raraku, many of which are buried to their shoulders. Some of the "heads" at Rano Raraku have been excavated and their bodies seen, and observed to have markings that had been protected from erosion by their burial.
The average height of the Moai is about 4 m (13 ft 1 in) high, with the average width at the base around 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) across. These massive creations usually weigh in at around 12.5 tonnes (13.8 tons) a piece.
All but 53 of the 887 moai known to date were carved from tuff (a compressed volcanic ash) from Rano Raraku, where 394 moai and incomplete moai are still visible today. There are also 13 moai carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from fragile red scoria. At the end of carving, the builders would rub the statue with pumice.
Easter Island statues are known for their large, broad noses and strong chins, along with rectangle-shaped ears and deep eye slits. In reference to their bodies, they are normally squatting with their arms resting in different positions and are without legs.
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.
Pukao topknots and headdresses
Markings (post stone working)
When first carved, the surface of the moai was polished smooth by rubbing with pumice. Unfortunately, the easily worked tuff from which most moai were carved is also easily eroded, and, today, the best place to see the surface detail is on the few moai carved from basalt or in photographs and other archaeological records of moai surfaces protected by burial.
Those moai that are less eroded typically have designs carved on their backs and posteriors. The Routledge expedition of 1914 established a cultural link between these designs and the island's traditional tattooing, which had been repressed by missionaries a half-century earlier. Until modern DNA analysis of the islanders and their ancestors, this was key scientific evidence that the moai had been carved by the Rapa Nui and not by a separate group from South America.
Additional medical explanation
Dr. Anneliese Pontius suggested that the characteristics of the moai represent essential signs of leprosy in reversed, over-corrected form. According to this hypothesis, the existential shock ensued when viewing such deformations of those body parts most important in social interaction (face, hand, fingers, arms) may have provided the impetus to ritually undo such bodily ravages by carving unblemished moai.
The symptoms of leprosy thought to be reflected in the statues were:
- Leprosy's destruction of the cartilaginous portion of the nose is pronounced in moai with stylized nostrils
- Downward placement of the mouth due to facial nerve paralysis with lower hanging lip, baring teeth (due to paralysis of facial nerve) vs. moai upward placement of the lips, especially in the midportion. No teeth visible
- Lips retracted and swollen,reversed into being pursed upward and thin.
- "Claw hand" (due to ulnar paralysis with 4th and 5th fingers bent and slightly adducted) show moais' extended fingers in a straight fashion and adducted to about 100 degrees to the axis of the arms, which are alongside the body stem. The elongated fingers lie in a horizontal line across the abdomen.
- Trophic disturbances of fingers and nails vs. moais' well delineated finger tips and nails.
Such a reversal of leprosy's signs is hypothesized to answer two inter-related essential questions: 1) why were the moai created: attempting to ritually undo leprosy's ravages through active carving of unblemished, beautiful moai. 2) why in that world-wide specific way in many-fold repetitions: because leprosy's frightful destruction of the socially essential body parts had been observed on Easter Island, where leprosy persons could not be ostracized to other islands, as they had been e.g. in Hawaii to Molokai.
The statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island, mostly between circa 1250 CE and 1500 CE. 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.
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, 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.
The moai were either carved 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.
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Since the island was treeless by the time the Europeans first visited, the movement of the statues was a mystery for a long time; pollen analysis has now established that the island was almost totally forested until 1200 CE. The tree pollen disappeared from the record by 1650, and the statues stopped being made around that time.
It is not known exactly how the moai were moved across the island, but the process almost certainly required human energy, ropes, and possibly wooden sledges (sleds) and/or rollers, as well as leveled tracks across the island (the Easter Island roads). A recent study suggests the statues might have been harnessed with ropes from two sides and made to "walk" by tilting them from side to side while pulling forward.
Oral histories recount how various people used divine power to command the statues to walk. The earliest accounts say a king named Tuu Ku Ihu moved them with the help of the god Makemake, while later stories tell of a woman who lived alone on the mountain ordering them about at her will. Scholars currently support the theory that the main method was that the moai were "walked" upright (some assume by a rocking process), as laying it prone on a sledge (the method used by the Easter Islanders to move stone in the 1860s) would have required an estimated 1500 people to move the largest moai that had been successfully erected. In 1998, Jo Anne Van Tilburg suggested fewer than half that number could do it by placing the sledge on lubricated rollers. In 1999, she supervised an experiment to move a nine-ton moai. They attempted to load a replica on a sledge built in the shape of an A frame that was placed on rollers. A total of 60 people pulled on several ropes in two attempts to tow the moai. The first attempt failed when the rollers jammed up. The second attempt succeeded when they embedded tracks in the ground. This was on flat ground and used Eucalyptus wood rather than the native palm trees that would have lived on the island.
In 1986, Pavel Pavel, Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki Museum experimented with a five-ton moai and a nine-ton moai. With a rope around the head of the statue and another around the base, using eight workers for the smaller statue and 16 for the larger, they "walked" the moai forward by swiveling and rocking it from side to side; however, the experiment was ended early due to damage to the statue bases from chipping. Despite the early end to the experiment, Thor Heyerdahl estimated that this method for a 20-ton statue over Easter Island terrain would allow 320 feet (100 m) per day. Other scholars concluded that it was probably not the way the moai were moved due to the reported damage to the base caused by the "shuffling" motion.
Around the same time, archaeologist Charles Love experimented with a 10-ton replica. His first experiment found rocking the statue to walk it was too unstable over more than a few hundred yards. He then found that placing the statue upright on two sled runners atop log rollers, 25 men were able to move the statue 150 feet (46 m) in two minutes. In 2003, further research indicated this method could explain supposedly regularly spaced post holes (his research on this claim has not yet been published) where the statues were moved over rough ground. He suggested the holes contained upright posts on either side of the path so that as the statue passed between them, they were used as cantilevers for poles to help push the statue up a slope without the requirement of extra people pulling on the ropes and similarly to slow it on the downward slope. The poles could also act as a brake when needed.
Based on detailed studies of the statues found along prehistoric roads, archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo have shown that the pattern of breakage, form and position of statues is consistent with an "upright" hypothesis for transportation. Hunt and Lipo argue that the statues found along the road have a center of mass that causes the statue to fall forward. As the statue tilts forward it rocks on its front edge and takes a "step." Archaeologically, large flakes are seen broken off of the sides of the bases. This pattern is consistent with immense forces being applied to the edges of the statue. On the landscape, road statues are found on their backs when the road is going uphill and on their front when going downhill. All of this evidence points to an upright transportation practice.
Recent experimental recreations have proven that it is fully possible that the moai were literally walked from their quarries to their final positions by ingenious use of ropes. Teams of workers would have worked to rock the moai back and forth, creating the walking motion and holding the moai upright. If correct, it can be inferred that the fallen road moai were the result of the teams of balancers being unable to keep the statue upright, and it was presumably not possible to lift the statues again once knocked over.
1722–1868 toppling of the moai
After the 1722 Roggeveen visit, all of the moai that had been erected on ahus were toppled, with the last standing statues reported in 1838 by Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars, and no upright statues by 1868, apart from the partially buried ones on the outer slopes of Rano Raraku.
Oral histories include one account of a clan pushing down a single moai in the night but others refer to the "earth shaking" and other indications that at least some of them fell down through earthquakes. Some of the moai toppled forward such that their faces were hidden and often fell in such a way that their necks broke; others fell off of the back of their platforms. Today, about 50 moai have been re-erected on their ahus or at museums elsewhere.
Eleven or more moai have been removed from the island and transported to locations around the world, including six out of the thirteen moai that were carved from basalt.
Preservation and restoration
From 1955 through 1978, an American archaeologist, William Mulloy, undertook extensive investigation of the production, transportation and erection of Easter Island's monumental statuary. Mulloy's Rapa Nui projects include the investigation of the Akivi-Vaiteka Complex and the physical restoration of Ahu Akivi (1960); the investigation and restoration of Ahu Ko Te Riku and Ahu Vai Uri and the Tahai Ceremonial Complex (1970); the investigation and restoration of two ahu at Hanga Kio'e (1972); the investigation and restoration of the ceremonial village at Orongo (1974) and numerous other archaeological surveys throughout the island.
The Rapa Nui National Park and the moai are included on the 1994 list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and consequently the 1972 UN convention concerning the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage.
The moai have been mapped by a number of groups over the years including efforts by Father Sebastian Englert and Chilean researchers. The EISP (Easter Island Statue Project) conducted research and documentation on many of the moai on Rapa Nui and the artifacts held in museums overseas. The purpose of the project is to understand the figures' original use, context, and meaning, with the results being provided to the Rapa Nui families and the island's public agencies that are responsible for conservation and preservation of the moai. Other studies include work by Britton Shephardson and Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo.
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