The enduring symbol of Easter Island always has been the moai. A Neolithic statue cult on this scale would impress in any location, but the fact that it developed in total isolation on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific almost defies belief. There are some four hundred finished statues scattered around the island, and almost as many in the quarry, in varying stages of completion. The moai range in height from 2m to about 20m, and though styles evolved over time, all are carved in a highly stylized manner. Their bellies are gently rounded, and their arms are held tightly by their sides, with their strange, long-fingered hands placed across their abdomens. Their heads are long and rectangular, with pointed chins; prominent, angular noses; and thin, tight lips.

Function and form

According to the islanders’ assertions, which are consistent with widespread Polynesian tradition, these figures represented important ancestors, and were erected on the ancestral land of their kin-groups, which they would watch over and protect with their mana (almost all the moai face inland). Archeologists have proposed tentative dates of around 1000 AD for the carving of the early statues, and around the fifteenth century for the bulk of the statues, when production peaked. Rano Raraku’s unfinished statues demonstrate how their forms were chiselled out of the rock face until they were attached to it by just a thin keel running down their spine. When all was completed but their eye sockets, they were freed from their keel and slid down the quarry’s slope, then temporarily erected in a pit until they were transported to their ahus.

Transportation

The island’s oral histories offer no clues as to how the 20 to 25-tonne statues were moved, claiming the statues’ mana enabled them to walk short distances each day until they reached their platforms. Modern theories have included horizontal and vertical swivelling, but since it was established in the 1980s that the island was once densely covered by trees, it’s been assumed that they were dragged on wooden sledges or on top of rollers.

Raising the moai

How the statues were erected onto their platforms in the absence of any type of machinery is another enigma, though in 1955, Thor Heyerdahl challenged the island’s mayor to raise a fallen, 25-tonne statue at Anakena Beach and, under the mayor’s supervision, twelve islanders raised the statue in eighteen days, using two levers and slipping layer after layer of stones underneath the horizontal statue. Little by little, it was raised on the bed of stones until it was level with its platform; at this point, the layers of pebbles were placed only under its head, until the statue was nearly vertical and could be slipped into place. Archeologists agree this method is highly likely to have been used to raise the statues. In contrast, no one has been able to demonstrate how the large, heavy “topknots” were placed on the raised statues’ heads – a monumental feat, achieved only with a crane in modern times.

The statue-carvers

Easter Island society was based around independent clans, or kin-groups, each with its own high-ranking members. The statue-carvers were highly revered members of a privileged class who were exempt from food production and were supported by farmers and fishermen. Such a system must have involved a great deal of economic cooperation, which appears to have been successfully maintained for hundreds of years.

The beginning of the end

Then, in the later stages of the island’s prehistory, the system collapsed, and the island became engulfed by warfare. Archeological records reveal a sudden, dramatic proliferation of obsidian weapons during the eighteenth century, as well as the remains of violently beaten skulls, and evidence of the widespread use of caves as refuges. Archeologists have also found possible evidence of cannibalism – something featured prominently in the island’s oral traditions. The most dramatic testimony of this period, however, is provided by the hundreds of fallen statues littering the island, deliberately toppled as enemy groups set out to desecrate each other’s sacred sites.

So what went wrong on Easter Island?

It seems likely the seeds of social collapse lay in the extremes the statue cult was taken to by the islanders. As the impulse to produce moai required more and more hands, the delicate balance between food distribution and statue-carving was destroyed. This situation was profoundly aggravated by the growing scarcity of food brought about by overpopulation, and deforestation, following centuries of logging for boat-building, fuel consumption and statue-transportation. This must have had a catastrophic effect on the islanders’ ability to feed themselves: deep-sea fishing became increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, owing to the lack of wood available for new canoes, and even land cultivation was affected, as the deforestation caused soil erosion. In this climate of encroaching deprivation, the Easter Island civilization descended into anarchy, dragging its majestic monuments with it.