History Mysteries

Views on the origin and purpose of the Easter Island statues

Nick Ford's image for:
"Views on the origin and purpose of the Easter Island statues"
Image by: 

Easter Island is a small volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is said to be the most isolated settlement on Earth. Easter Island is over 2000 miles from the coast of South America in Chile. The island is barren. It is currently covered with short grass, rough ground and low bushes. It is world famous for the 887 carved figures that adorn its small surface of 63 square miles.

The origin and purpose of these statues has fascinated Western minds since they were first spotted by Jacob Roggeveen and his Dutch expedition on Easter Sunday April 5, 1722. Rogeeveen reported that he saw standing statues, or moai as they are called in the local language. When Captain Cook passed by in 1774, many of the stones had fallen, as if thrown over by an act of war. By 1868, all the moai were thrown to the ground. First Victorian missionaries, then visiting scholars, heard rumours that the moai were cast aside in an internal feud between the local clans.

The Victorians had a bizarre theory that the island was the relic of the lost continent of Mu. They thought that there were more statues under the sea.

Physically the moai are striking figures. The tallest is 10 metres tall. The heaviest weighs 86 tons. The statues depict human, legless figures. Their heads are disproportionately long, stretching three fifths of the body length, to the extent that the statues are sometimes called the Easter Island heads. The figures are manly, well built with fingers pointing to their loin, thumbs towards their navel. Their faces have large, broad noses, strong chins and deep eye slits. In 1979, Sergio Rapu Haoa discovered that the slits once housed coral eyes with black obsidian or red scoria pupils. One or two have red topknots. Some were painted in maroon and white.

In places, the maoi are concentrated, clustering along the island tracks, and in greater concentration towards the summit of the central mountain. Some stand on plinths. Some stand alone.

Historians believe that the statues were carved from local stone between 1250 and 1500 AD. Most were constructed at Rano Raraku, the main quarry on the central mountain, a dormant volcano. Most are carved from a soft volcanic rock called tuff. At Rano Raraku many are left abandoned, or half completed, giving the impression that the quarry was left in a hurry.

Although the maois were once polished smooth using pumice stone, in sheltered places where the soft rock has not eroded carved markings can be seen on the back of the maois. In 1914 Katherine Routledge led an expedition which showed that the markings were identical to those used in traditional tattooing, a practice stamped out by missionaries in the nineteenth century.

These are the facts. Now we must turn to the theories. How were they built, why were they built, and why were they destroyed?

The how question is enigmatic. When Roggeveen arrived he found a primitive people and a treeless landscape. It was hard to believe that these people had the wit or resources, particularly rope twine from the forest, to produce and transport such large edifices. Scholars used to think that the people and resources that built the maois came from across the Pacific.

Part of the public fascination in the statues of Easter Island comes from the theories of Thor Heyerdal. In 1947, Thor Heyerdal completed a 4300 mile voyage across the Pacific on a small reed and balsa raft called the Kon-Tiki. In 1949, the daring voyage captured the world in a best selling film. Heyerdal showed that American native people could have colonised Polynesia. Later in his career, he established that colonists could have also come to Polynesia from East Asia. He reconciled the two views in a famous book "Easter Island: the Mystery Solved" (Random House, 1989). In the book Heyerdal argues that there are two ethnic groups depicted in the statues. The Long Eared people came from South America. The Short Eared people came from South East Asia. Heyerdal speculated that the Long Eared people arrived first with the Short Ears not arriving until the 16th century. He thought that the Short Ears were submissive until they launched a rebellion against the Long Ears at a time between the voyages of Roggeveen and Cook. The statue toppling was part of the feuding. In the end the rebellion culminated with the massacre of the Long Ears.

Modern DNA analysis has disproved Heyerdal’s theory. The human remains on Easter Island are genetically related to the Polynesians of the east Pacific. There is no association with the people of Peru.

In the 1960s, Erich von Däniken popularised a far more extreme theory. He proposed that the statues of Easter Island, along with other famous ancient monuments, were produced by visiting extra terrestrials. Although discredited, his literature popularised the mystery of the statues.

In 1986, Thor Heyerdal showed that the moais could be “marched” into position using guidance ropes, while a rival, Charles Love, showed that the moais could be moved using ropes and rollers. In 2003, archaeologists found post holes that seemed to support Love’s theory. Love thought that vertical poles were used to winch the moais and their cradle across rough ground.

When scientists published a report in 1989 which concluded, on the basis of pollen analysis, that Easter Island was heavily forested into the 17th century, scholars began to associate Easter Island with an environmental disaster. Scholars began to think that the building and transport of moais consumed forest resources and the deforestation were related. The building stopped in about 1650 when deforestation was complete. As the island became deforested it became less fertile, because it was more exposed to Pacific gales. Jared Diamond, in his book "Collapse," argues that the Easter Islanders became involved in a frenzy of building statues to their gods to counter declining fertility while consuming the forest and making their plight even worse.

Some clues into the purpose of the statues come from oral history. The last statues fell in comparatively recent history. When erect the statues faced inwards towards the fields. When felled they were lain on their backs often with their necks broken. From the oral tradition scientists have discovered that the island society was broken into 20 or more clans. The statues looked out over the fields of each clan. The statues are thought to represent the gods of their ancestors and look down to bless the crops. The main quarry has separate areas that were allocated to each clan.

Some theorists think that an environmental collapse might have been associated with the cult of the Bird Man which is still remembered in an annual festival. Before western missionaries arrived on Easter Island each clan would nominate an athlete to take part in an annual race. The race involved swimming to an offshore islet, collecting a bird’s egg, swimming back to Easter Island and climbing up the steep cliffs to the village. The victor was considered the embodiment of the Bird Man god for the next year. He gained the right to allocate resources for the year and gave his clan an annual right to wild eggs. Environmentalists believe that the cult encouraged a culture of short termism and environmental degradation.

The modern view is that the statues were intended to bless the crops. Deforestation and environmental degradation led to a culture of building more and more statues to sustain the dwindling agriculture. Ultimately, the islanders lost faith in their guardians, engaged in fierce inter-clan warfare and threw their trophies to the ground. Contact with Europeans may have hastened this process. Europeans in the nineteenth century conducted slaving raids on the island and are thought to have brought rats and disease to the island.

Even though scholars have solved some of the mysteries of Easter Island, it remains an evocative place for an intrepid traveller. Many of the fine details of the theory have yet to be unravelled.


Jared Diamond (2005) "Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" New York. Viking ISBN 0-14-303655-6

Thor Heyerdahl (1989)   "Easter Island The Mystery Solved"  Random House New York

Katherine Routledge (1919) ''The Mystery of Easter Island'' ISBN 0-932813-48-8

More about this author: Nick Ford

From Around the Web