This article is about the monolithic statues of Easter Island. For other uses, see Moai (disambiguation).
For the music group, see The Easter Island Statues.
Moai facing inland at Ahu Tongariki, restored by Chilean archaeologist Claudio Cristino in the 1990s

Moai i/ˈm./, or Mo‘ai, are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island in eastern Polynesia between the years 1250 and 1500 A.D.[1][2] 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).[3] The statues still gazed inland across their clan lands when Europeans first visited the island in 1722, but all of them had fallen by the latter part of the 19th century.[4]

The production and transportation of the more than 900 statues[5][6] are considered remarkable creative and physical feats.[7] The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 metres (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tons;[8] 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. The moai toppled after European contact when islander traditions radically changed.[4]


Moai set in the hillside at Rano Raraku

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 human figures would be outlined in the rock wall first, then chipped away until only the image was left.[9] 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.

Moais quarry at Rano Raraku
All fifteen standing moai at Ahu Tongariki.

Though moai are whole-body statues, they are erroneously referred to as "Easter Island heads" in some popular literature. This is partly because of the disproportionate size of most moai heads and partly because, many of the iconic images for the island showing upright moai on the island are 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) each.

All but 53 of the more than 900 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.[10] At the end of carving, the builders would rub the statue with pumice.


Re-erected tuff moai at Ahu Tahai with restored pukao and replica eyes

Easter Island statues are known for their large, broad noses and strong chins, along with rectangle-shaped ears and deep eye slits. Their bodies are normally squatting, with their arms resting in different positions and are without legs. The major of the ahu are found along the coast and face inland towards the community. There are some inland ahu such as Ahu Akivi. These moai face the community but given the small size of the island, also appear to face the coast.[11]


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.[12] 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.


Many archaeologists suggest that "[the] statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana." Archaeologists believe that the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians' ancestors. The moai statues face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island. There is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive.[13]

Pukao topknots and headdresses

Main article: Pukao

The more recent moai had pukao on their heads, which represent the topknot of the chieftains. According to local tradition, the mana was preserved in the hair. The pukao were carved out of red scoria, a very light rock from a quarry at Puna Pau. Red itself is considered a sacred color in Polynesia. The added pukao suggest a further status to the moai.[14]

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[15] 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.

At least some of the moai were painted; Hoa Hakananai'a was decorated with maroon and white paint until 1868, when it was removed from the island. It is now housed in the British Museum, London.

Additional medical explanation

Dr. Anneliese Pontius suggested that the characteristics of the moai represent the opposite of the outward manifestation of leprosy.[16] According to this hypothesis, the shock of viewing such deformations may have provided the impetus to ritually undo such bodily ravages by carving unblemished moai. However, the hypothesis is utterly flawed, based on a misconception. Leprosy is an Old World disease, and as such was unknown on the island until the arrival of Europeans in the 1800s.[17][18][19][20]


Map of Easter Island using moai to show locations of various ahu

The statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island, mostly between circa 1250 A.D. and 1500 A.D.[1] 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. Each moai presented a status: “The larger the statue placed upon an ahu, the more mana the chief who commissioned it had."[14] The competition for grandest statue was ever prevalent in the culture of the Easter Islanders. The proof stems from the varying sizes of moai.[14]

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 and 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:


It is not known exactly which group in the communities were responsible for carving statues. Oral traditions suggest that 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.


Ahu Akivi, the furthest inland of all the ahus

Since the island was largely 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 A.D. The tree pollen disappeared from the record by 1650.

It is not known exactly how the moai were moved across the island. Earlier researchers assumed that 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). Another theory suggests that the moai were placed on top of logs and were rolled to their destinations.[23] If that theory is correct it would take 50-150 people to move the moai. The most recent study demonstrates from the evidence in the archaeological record that the statues were harnessed with ropes from two sides and made to "walk" by tilting them from side to side while pulling forward.[4][6][24][25] They would also use a chant, whilst 'walking' the moai. Coordination and cohesion was essential, so they developed a chant in which the rhythm helped them pull at the precise moment necessary.[26]

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.[27]

Sign indicating the protected status of the moai

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.[27][28]

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.[29]

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.[4] 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.[24][30] 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.[31] However, the debate continues.[32]

Birdman cult

Main article: Tangata manu

Originally, Easter Islanders had a paramount chief or single leader. Through the years the power levels veered from sole chiefs to a warrior class, known as “matatoa”. The therianthropic figure of a half bird and half man was the symbol of the matatoa; the distinct character connected the sacred site of Orongo. The new cult prompted battles of tribes over worship of ancestry. Creating the moai was one way the islanders would honor their ancestors; during the height of the birdman cult there is evidence which suggests that the construction of moai stopped.

“One of the most fascinating sights at Orongo are the hundreds of petroglyphs carved with birdman and Makemake images. Carved into solid basalt, they have resisted ages of harsh weather. It has been suggested that the images represent birdman competition winners. Over 480 birdman petroglyphs have been found on the island, mostly around Orongo."[33] Orongo, the site of the cult’s festivities, was a dangerous landscape which consisted of a “narrow ridge between a 1,000 foot drop into the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other”. Considered the sacred spot of Orongo, Mata Ngarau was the location where birdman priests prayed and chanted for a successful egg hunt. “The purpose of the birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and presented it to his sponsor, who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position."[34]

Moai Kavakava

These figures are much smaller than the better-known stone moai. They are made of wood and have a small, slender aspect, giving them a sad appearance. These figures are believed to have been made after the civilization on Rapa Nui began to collapse, which is why they seem to have a more emaciated appearance to them.[35]

1722–1868 Toppling of the Moai

Toppled moai

At some point 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,[36] 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.[37] 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.[37] Today, about 50 moai have been re-erected on their ahus or at museums elsewhere.[38]

The Rapa Nui people were then devastated by the slave trade that began at the island in 1862. Within only a time span of one year the individuals that remained on the island were sick, injured, and lacking leadership. The survivors of the slave raids had new company from landing missionaries. The society was vulnerable and the converting process of Christianity did not take long. Native Easter Islanders lost their identity as first their style of clothing and soon their tattoos and body paint were banned by the new Christian proscriptions. The history of their ancestors was destroyed: artwork, buildings, sacred objects; leaving little record of the islanders' former lives. They were then subjected to forceful removal from their native lands and made to reside on a much smaller portion of the island while the rest was used for farming.[33] “Eventually all pure Rapa Nui blood died out. Annexation with Chile brought new influences, and today there are only a few individuals left with ties to the original population."[33]


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.

Ahu Tahai

Preservation and restoration

It is forbidden for visitors to climb on the moai.

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 in the 1972 UN convention concerning the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage and consequently on the 1994 list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The moai have been mapped by a number of groups over the years including efforts by Father Sebastian Englert and Chilean researchers.[39][40] 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 Shepardson[41] and Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo.[42]

In 2008, a Finnish tourist chipped a piece off the ear of one moai. The tourist was fined $17,000 in damages and was banned from the island for three years.[43][44]

Moais in culture

The distinct visuals of the moais have made an impression well outside the local culture and are frequently seen in visual mainstream media. Notably, the moais are found in several video games and television series.

See also


  1. 1 2 Steven R Fischer. The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN 1-86189-282-9
  2. The island at the end of the world. Reaktion Books 2005 ISBN 1-86189-282-9
  3. Jo Anne Van Tilburg. "Easter Island Statue Project". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Hunt, Terry; Lipo, Carl (2012). The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Free Press. ISBN 1-4391-5031-1.
  5. "Easter Island Statue Project". 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  6. 1 2 Carl P. Lipo, Terry L. Hunt, Sergio Rapu Hao; Hunt; Haoa (2013). "The 'Walking' Megalithic Statues (Moai) of Easter Island". J. Archaeol. Sci. 40 (6): 2859. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.029.
  7. UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2009-05-29). "Rapa Nui National Park". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  8. "New Scientist, 29 July, 2006, pp. 30-34". Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  9. . N.p.. Web. 29 Oct 2013. <>.
  10. Van Tilburg, Jo Anne (1994). Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology and Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 24.
  11. "NOVA Online | Secrets of Easter Island | Stone Giants". Retrieved 2013-06-09.
  12. Ford, Nick (15 December 2013). "Views on the origin and purpose of the Easter Island statues".
  13. "Mystery of the Easter Island Statues." Red Ice Creations. N.p., 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
  14. 1 2 3 "The Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture." Sentinels in Stone. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
  15. Katherine Routledge (1919) The Mystery of Easter Island ISBN 0-932813-48-8 page 220
  16. Pontius, Anneliese A. (1969). "Easter Island's stone giants: A neuro-psychiatric view". Perceptual and Motor Skills. 28: 207–212. doi:10.2466/pms.1969.28.1.207.
  17. Rodgers, Paul (24 April 2011). "Has the mystery of Easter Island finally been solved?". London: Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  18. Bangs, Richard (18 February 2011). "Skullduggery on Easter Island (Part II of II)". New York: Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  19. Seward, Pablo (2014). "Between "Easter Island" and "Rapa Nui": The Making and Unmaking of an Uncanny Lifeworld: II. CHAPTER 2: THE STRANGE "Easter Island": The Making of the Uncanny". Berkely: Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, 27(2). Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  20. Charola, A. Elena (1994). "Easter Island The Heritage and its Conservation" (PDF). New York: WORLD MONUMENTS FUND. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
  21. Katherine Routledge (1919) The Mystery of Easter Island ISBN 0-932813-48-8 page 181
  22. Katherine Routledge (1919) The Mystery of Easter Island ISBN 0-932813-48-8 page 186
  23. The human figures would be outlined in the rock wall first, then chipped away until only the image was left.[6]
  24. 1 2 Bloch, Hannah (July 2012). "Easter Island: The riddle of the moving statues". National Geographic. National Geographic Society. 222 (1): 30–49. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  25. Unsolved Mysteries: The Secret of Easter Island a test of walking the statues
  26. Bernstein, Josh. "Digging For the Truth: Giants of Easter Island". Retrieved October 29, 2013.
  27. 1 2 History channel "Mega Movers: Ancient Mystery Moves"
  28. Easter Island--the mystery solved / Thor Heyerdahl 1989
  29. Flenley, John (2003). The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280340-9.
  30. Mystery of Easter Island (TV Documentary). NOVA and National Geographic Television. Retrieved 2012-11-10.
  31. "Easter Island Statues Could Have 'Walked' Into Position". Wired.
  32. Ghose, Tia (June 7, 2013). "Easter Island's 'Walking' Stone Heads Stir Debate". LiveScience.
  33. 1 2 3 "Mysterious Places: Explore Sacred Sites and Ancient Civilizations." Mysterious Places: Explore Sacred Sites and Ancient Civilizations. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
  34. "Easter Island - Moai Statues and Rock Art of Rapa Nui." The Birdman Motif of Easter Island. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
  35. F. Forment; D. Huyge; H. Valladas. "AMS 14C age determinations of Rapanui (Easter Island) wood sculpture: moai kavakava ET 48.63 from Brussels". Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  36. J. Linton Palmer (1870). A visit to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in 1868. Journal of the Royal Geographic Society. 40. pp. 167–181. doi:10.2307/1798641.
  37. 1 2 Edmundo Edwards, Raul Marchetti, Leopoldo Dominichetti and Oscar Gonzales-Ferran (1996). "When the Earth Trembled, the Statues Fell". Rapa Nui Journal. 10 (1). pp. 1–15.
  38. Terry L. Hunt & Carl P. Lipo (2011). The Statues That Walked:Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Free Press.
  39. Cristino, F., C., P. Vargas C., and R. Izaurieta S., (1981). Atlas Arqueológico de Isla de Pascua. Santiago: Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo,Instituto de Estudios, Universidad de Chile.
  40. Riquelme, S., F., R. I. San Juan, I. R. Kussner, L. G. Nualart, and P. V. Casanova (1991). Teoria de las Proporciones. Generación de la Forma y procesos de Realización en la Escultura Megalítica de Isla de Pascua Sistema de Medidas en el Diseño Pascuense.
  41. Britton Shepardson (2010). "Moai Database - Rapa Nui".
  42. Carl Lipo & Terry Hunt (2011). "Rapa Nui Database".
  43. "Easter Island fines ear chipper". BBC News. 2008-04-09. Retrieved 2008-09-21.
  44. "Tourist chips earlobe off ancient statue on Easter Island". Globe and Mail. 2008-04-09. Retrieved 2008-09-21.
  45. Rex Roberts (21 December 2006). "NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM". Film Journal.


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