The mystery of Easter Island: What archaeologists know about the giant statues
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The mystery of Easter Island has been stirring the minds of historians and enthusiasts for centuries. To explain the origin of the giant stone statues set on the most remote inhabited island, has not yet succeeded. Scientists are puzzling over how the multi-ton statues were moved around the island and what the drawings on their bases found during excavations mean.
Scientists speculate that the indigenous peoples who lived on the island created stone statues of moai in memory of their ancestors. A new sculpture appeared in honor of each deceased tribal leader or other important person.
The islanders carved the statues out of volcanic rock. The sculptors developed a special technique to make it happen. They started by moistening the rock until it softened and then worked on it. A team of five or six sculptors usually worked on one statue, and it took about a year to create moai. The production process took place in the quarry, located in the center of the island in the crater of an extinct volcano. Many statues still remain there. The main mystery is related to those moai, which are installed on the coast. To understand how the islanders delivered the stone giants to the right place, is not yet possible. Weight of one statue is about 20 tons, but there are some that reach 75-90 tons, the work was done enormously.
Europeans first visited the island in 1722, the expedition of Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeven landed here. The traveler’s notes indicate that the statues boggled his imagination, and he could not understand how the natives had managed to build and erect such sculptures. Over the past three hundred years, scientists have not given up hope of solving the mystery of Easter Island.
During one of the first serious research expeditions in 1914, it was found that the statues, which looked like giant heads, are actually attached to the torso. This was discovered during the excavations. The fact that the sculptures had gone partially underground was provoked by natural processes of erosion.
Despite the fact that this archaeological discovery was made in the early twentieth century, the information was not widely publicized, and for decades people continued to believe in the mysterious heads from a distant Pacific island.
Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg dedicated her life to the study of statues, she initiated the project, in which with the help of the latest technology all the statues of the island (more than 1000 in total) were described.
When the archaeologist published photos of the statues on her website, she was shocked by the number of responses. Users were surprised that in fact most of the statues are hidden underground. For most people in the world this information was unknown, because usually knowledge about Easter Island is limited to advertising brochures.
During excavations, scientists were able to find basalt stones with crescent-shaped images on them. Presumably, this could be a canoe. The motif is repetitive, perhaps the way the islanders wanted to perpetuate the memory of their own culture. The drawings and statues could have been a way of self-identification, as the community was gradually losing this information.
The main question that keeps scholars busy is: how did the statues move around the island? According to legends, the giants walked on their own. Scientists have put forward various theories, the most plausible looks like the assumption about the use of rope-ropes and Y-shaped wooden sled. In 1998, under the direction of Anna Tilburg was conducted an experiment: using wooden sleds tried to move one of the statues. It took a team of 60 people. By joint efforts the block has been moved on 100 meters.
Judging by the preserved quarry, the islanders did not finish the process of making the statues. Where did an entire civilization disappear from the desert land of Easter Island – another question to which historians have an answer.
The mystery of the mysterious sculptures of Easter Island
Easter Island, belonging to the Republic of Chile, is located in the southeast Pacific. Its area is 165 sq. km, the distance to the nearest continent – more than 3500 km.
The island got its name from the fact that it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday in 1722. But the natives call it Rapanui, which means “Big Rapa” in Polynesian.
The main treasure of Rapanui, which attracts tourists from all over the world, are huge giants scattered along the coastline with large heads and shapeless body – moai.
The inhabitants of Rapanui believe that the moai sculptures contain the island’s spiritual power – mana, which helps achieve success in love, victory in war and recovery from illness; the concentration of mana contributes to good weather and a rich harvest.
In addition, this supernatural power animated the moai statues in ancient times, so they came to the place of installation themselves – this is what the Rapa Nui confidently declare even today.
The first researchers on the moai statues
Jacob Roggeven, a Dutch explorer, considered the discoverer of the island, having been there only one day, said the following about the Rapa Nui: they live in small huts of reeds, in the evenings they pray to huge statues, they use mats instead of mattresses, and the role of pillows is assigned to the stones. Roggeven could not believe that the natives with their primitive way of life built huge sculptures of stone, so he decided that the figures are made of clay and sprinkled on top of stones.
In 1774, James Cook visited the island. The explorer was amazed: how did the ancient Rapa Nui, devoid of all kinds of modern technology, installed the giant statues on stone pedestals? He also noted that some of the sculptures during his stay on Rapanui were fallen down.
What are the icons made of?
The vast majority of the moai (95%) are made of large-block, well-processed volcanic tuff. The remaining 5% are made of trachite, red basalt volcanic pumice or basalt. One of the statues, Hoa-Haca-Nana-Ia, especially revered by the Rapanui, is carved from the mujerite of the Rano Kao volcano.
Many moai were made in a quarry located on the territory of Rano Raraku volcano. Researchers admit that some of the statues were cut from the deposits of other volcanoes closer to the site of their subsequent installation.
Size and weight of the giants
The average weight of most of the statues is about 5 tons with a height of 3-5 meters and a base width of just over 1.5 meters. Statues taller (about 10-12 meters) and weighing more than 10 tons are less common on the island. They are mostly placed on the outer slope of the Rano Raraku volcano.
The largest statue, over 20 meters in size and weighing about 145 tons, is not separated from the base and is still in the quarry.
Location on the island
The most ancient moai were placed on ahu – long (10 to 160 meters) stone ceremonial platforms of rectangular shape. On such pedestals were placed from one small statue to a number of giant giants. Some of the idols on such platforms are equipped with red pukao cylinders.
The largest of the platforms, ahu Tongariki, holds 15 moai of various sizes. Half of the sculptures remain in Rano Raraku for unknown reasons. Some of them are not cut out completely, at least they look unfinished, as if the sculptors had to suddenly leave their workplaces. But maybe that was the intention of the authors.
The mystery of Moai
Europeans have long been unable to understand who the author of Moai, what kind of manufacturing tools were used, how to move the giant giants of the island from the quarry to the destination, located 18 kilometers away, by what means huge sculptures were installed on stone platforms? Researchers have been arguing with each other for the past decades, trying to find answers to these questions.
In the 1950s, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian traveler who organized an archaeological expedition to Rapanui to experiment with carving, moving and then installing moai, landed on the island.
In preparation for the experiment, it turned out that the creator of the huge heads was a tribe, outwardly different from the main population of the island, elongated under the weight of jewelry earlobes – hence they got their name: “long-eared”.
This extinct tribe kept a secret from all the other “short-eared” islanders for many centuries, surrounding Moai with various superstitions and misleading European explorers for a long time.
Thor Heyerdahl asked the leader of the Long Ears to reproduce the entire process of carving, moving around the island, and installing one statue. The clan leader Pedro Atan answered that the last generations of the extinct tribe did not make the statues any more, but in theory they know how to do it, because this knowledge was passed on to them by heredity.
During the experiment, the tribe carved moai with stone hammers by hitting the volcanic rock frequently; the hammers were constantly destroyed, so the “long ears” often had to replace them with new ones.
A large group of people moved the hewn 12-ton statue to the place of installation in the prone position, dragging it. The statue was placed on its “feet” by placing stones under its base and using logs as levers.
Only one question remained: why, according to legend, did the moai come to the place of installation themselves in an upright position? Thirty years later, the Czech experimental archaeologist Pavel Pavel and Heyerdahl conducted another test in which 17 natives, armed with ropes, moved a 10-ton moai statue in a standing position in a short time.
Did the moai cause the island to collapse?
The popular American evolutionary biologist and biogeographer Jared Diamond, based on data obtained by British researcher John Flanley, expressed his belief in his book Collapse that the stone giants led the island to deforestation, which provoked a food crisis, famine and population decline.
Scientist suggested that the stone giants were made by two rival tribes, which seem to have competed to see who could install the giant of greater size. For the chiefs of these tribes moai statues were the only way to demonstrate their neighbor’s power, an opportunity to satisfy their thirst for superiority.
According to Diamond, the statues were moved around the island to their destination by means of wooden sledges moving on log rails (this method of moving the moai was also successfully tested).
This required a lot of wood, which over time led to the depletion of its reserves. Angry with the moai, the islanders began to throw them off the platforms, so by the beginning of the 19th century almost all the statues were fallen.
By the way, the vegetation on the island is indeed quite sparse: grass, sedge, and ferns. The area looks devastated: no trees or bushes can be seen. But scientists disagree on what caused the island area to become deforested.
Mistakenly blamed moai?
Archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo strongly disagree with Diamond. They believe that the ancient Rapa Nui were peace-loving sculptors and skilled farmers, not ambitious, feuding forest slayers.
After excavations at Anakena Beach, they stated: the first inhabitants on the island did not appear until 1200, they simply could not have completely decimated the forest in 500 years. According to Kant and Lipo, the reason for the death of the forest were Polynesian rats eating seeds of trees – this is confirmed by the archaeologists found the fruit of an extinct giant palm, which can be seen small dents from the teeth.
The same researchers hypothesized that the moai statues moved vertically around the island with the help of a small group of people who did not need the wood devices. Most scientists agreed with this theory, it is also supported by oral folklore and a large number of ancient drawings.
A former governor of Rapanui Island once told archaeologists that the very shape of the statues made them “upright”: the convex bellies of the statues slanted the figure forward, and the shape of the base made it possible to sway them from side to side.
Hunt and Lipo decided to test this way of movement. The experiment proved that with three strong ropes, 18 people can move a 5-ton statue hundreds of meters with ease.
Certainly, some sculptures moved by the ancient Rapa Nui were much larger than the one participating in the experiment, and the way was more difficult: dozens of kilometers through the hilly terrain. Apparently, because of all these difficulties, dozens of statues never reached their destination and remained lying along the road leading from the quarry.
Moai statues nowadays
As mentioned above, during his visit to the island, James Cook noticed that some moai were tilted face down – no one before him had ever noticed such a thing.
Many scholars attribute the fall of the statues in the early 1970s of the 18th century (i.e. shortly before Cook’s visit) to the beginning of the civil war between the “long-eared” and “short-eared” inhabitants of the island. Other researchers claim that earthquakes and tsunamis were to blame.
The last time the standing statues were caught by the French squadron, which came to Easter Island in 1830. Since then, no Europeans have seen the moai statues installed directly by the ancient Rapa Nui. All existing sculptures on the island today were restored in the 20th century. Not so long ago – in the 90’s of last century – the last restoration took place.
By the way, to see the moai, do not necessarily go to far away (and the distance from Moscow to Easter Island is almost 16 thousand kilometers): the sculpture of Hoa Haq-Nana-Ia, for example, you can see in the British Museum, where it was delivered in 1868.
But it is better to visit the island, especially since the accommodation and entertainment for tourists on Rapanui today has all the conditions: organized tours, theaters, museums, stores, restaurants and clubs.
But most importantly, there is an opportunity to plunge into history, experience a range of emotions at the sight of powerful giants, imbued with the spirit of the ancient Rapa Nui people, and maybe even charge the sacred power of the island – mana – for many years to come. Easter Island is always waiting for its travelers!