How the Moai of Easter Island Were Made and Moved

A row of moai sculptures against a cloudy Easter Island sky

Located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is famous for immense, carved stone statues called moai. A completed moai is made of three parts: a large yellow body, a red hat or topknot (called pukao), and white inset eyes with a coral iris.

Approximately 1,000 of these sculptures, shaped with humanoid faces and torsos, were created, most of which range between 6 and 33 feet tall and weighing several tons. Carving of the moai is thought to have begun shortly after people arrived on the island ca. 1200, and ended ca. 1650. Take a look at some of what science has learned about the Easter Island moai, how they were made, and the methods used to move them into place.

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Rano Raraku, the Main Quarry

Two 5-meter long moai on their backs at Rano Raraku Quarry

 Phil Whitehouse / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The main bodies of most of the moai statues at Easter Island were sculpted out of the volcanic tuff from the Rano Raraku quarry, the remains of an extinct volcano. The Rano Raraku tuff is a sedimentary rock made from layers of air-lain, partially fused and partially cemented volcanic ash, fairly easy to carve but very heavy to transport. More than 300 unfinished moai are in place at Rano Raraku, the largest of which is unfinished and over 60 feet tall.

The moai were individually carved out of single bays of the rock rather than a big open area like a modern quarry. It appears that most were carved lying on their backs. After the carving was completed, the moai were detached from the rock, moved down-slope, and erected vertically, when their backs were dressed. Then the Easter Islanders moved the moai into places around the island, sometimes setting them onto platforms arranged in groups.

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Moai Headgear

A moai with inset eyes and pukao headgear on an ahu platform with a ramp made of poro, round beach stones

Arian Zwegers / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

Many of the moai on Easter Island wear pukao. They are typically large, squat cylinders up to 8.2 feet in all dimensions. Raw materials for the red hats came from a second quarry, the Puna Pau cinder cone. More than 100 have been found atop or near moai, or in the Puna Pau quarry. The raw material is red scoria formed in the volcano and ejected during an ancient eruption long before the original settlers arrived. The colors of the pukao range from deep plum to nearly blood red. The red scoria was also occasionally used for facing stones on the platforms.

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Statue Road Network

Moai along a road on Easter Island

Greg Poulos / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Research indicates that about 500 Easter Island moai were moved out of the Rano Raraku quarry along a network of roads to prepared platforms (called ahu) all over the island. The largest of the moved moai is over 33 feet tall, weighs approximately 81.5 tons, and was moved over 3 miles from its source at Rano Raraku.

The road network the moai moved along was first identified as such in the early 20th century by researcher Katherine Routledge, though no one believed her at first. It consists of a branching network of pathways approximately 15 feet wide radiating out from Rano Raraku. Approximately 15.5 miles of these roads remain visible on the landscape and in satellite images, with many used as pathways for tourists visiting the statues. Road gradients average about 2.8 degrees, with some segments as steep as 16 degrees.

At least some sections of road were bound by curbstones, and the floor of the road was originally concave or U-shaped. Some early scholars argued that the 60 or so moai found along the roads today had fallen during transit. However, based on weathering patterns and the presence of partial platforms, others argue that the moai were deliberately installed along the road. Perhaps they signified a pilgrimage on the road to visit ancestors, just as tourists today journey to the past.

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Decorating the Moai

The smooth, weather-worn backs of the moai at Ahu Akivi

Gustavo_Asciutti / Getty Images

Probably the least known aspect of the Easter Island moai is that some of them were decorated with elaborate carvings, and quite likely many more were than we know about today. Similar petroglyphs are known from carvings in the volcanic bedrock around Rapa Nui, but exposure of the volcanic tuff on the statues has weathered the surfaces and perhaps destroying many carvings.

Photogrammetry modeling of an example in the British Museum—which was carved out of hard grey flow lava rather than the soft volcanic tuff—reveal detailed carvings on the statue's back and shoulders.

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How to Move a Moai

The overgrown quarry at Raro Rakaru, Easter Island, features many submerged moai

Robin Atherton / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Between 1200 and 1550, about 500 moai were moved out of the Rano Raraku quarry by the islanders for distances of up to 11 miles, a truly massive undertaking. Theories about moving the moai have been addressed by several scholars over the decades of research on Easter Island. 

Since the 1950s, various experiments moving moai replicas have been attempted by methods like using wooden sleds to drag them around. Some scholars argued that using palm trees for this process deforested the island, however, that theory has been debunked for many reasons.

The most recent and successful moai moving experiment, in 2013, involved a team of archaeologists wielding ropes to rock a replica statue down the road as it stood erect. Such a method echoes what the oral traditions on Rapa Nui tell us; local legends say the moai walked from the quarry.

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Crafting a Group

Ahu Tongariki, the largest group of moai on Easter Island

Ben Robinson / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

In some cases, the Easter Island moai were placed in arranged groups on ahu platforms painstakingly constructed from small, water-rolled beach boulders (called poro) and walls of dressed flow lava stone. In front of some of the platforms are ramps and pavements which may have been built to facilitate the placement of the statues, and then veneered once the statue was in place.

Poro are found only on beaches, and aside from the statues, their primary use was as pavement for sea slipways or boat-shaped houses. It's possible that using a combination of beach and inland resources to construct the moai had great cultural significance to the islanders.

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See and Be Seen

One of the few moai with intact eyes

David Berkowitz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

All of the moai statues are oriented to look inland, away from the sea, which must have had great significance to the people on Rapa Nui. The shell and coral eyes of the moai are a rare phenomenon on the island today, as many examples have fallen out or been removed. The whites of the eyes are pieces of seashell, and the irises are inlaid coral. The eye sockets were not carved and filled until after the moai were set in place on the platforms.

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