Rano Raraku - The Volcanic Source for the Moai Statues of Easter Island

Rock Quarry for the Moai of Rapa Nui

Rano Raraku Quarry on Easter Island
Rano Raraku Quarry on Easter Island. Anoldent

Rano Raraku is one of two major quarry sites on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), where the Easter Islanders found the distinctive yellow-brown volcanic tuff from which which to carve the large statues called moai. Both Rano Raraku on the east and Puna Pau on the west are quarries made of geologically dormant volcanic cones.

Easter Island is best known for its moai: tall (up to 11 meters high), massive intricately carved human-shaped statues, set on carefully constructed platforms and decorated with shell-inlaid eyes and red scoria hats called pukao.

The statues, all carved between about 1000 and 1600 AD, have been blamed for the ecological disaster that befell the Easter Islanders: and, more recently, as described in a 2011 book by excavators Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, credited with the survival of the Rapanui, despite the ecological disaster that was none of their making.

Quarries for Easter Island Heads

The earliest moai on Rapa Nui were small, varied in style and form, and carved out of a variety of raw material stone types. Over time, the moai became more formalized, and two quarries became the main sources of stone for the moai construction. Located the west side of Rapa Nui island, Puna Pau was a small quarry based on a small volcanic cone. On the east side was Rano Raraku, much larger, and the source of most of the moai on all parts of the island.

Rano Raraku is a volcanic cone with a steep exterior slope and a hollow interior. Several quarry areas are carved into the exterior and interior of the cone, and approximately 160 moai still lie within the quarries, at least partly shaped.

The quarry itself is not a massive excavation, but rather numerous separate quarry areas, cut and carved into the cone separately, and perhaps by separate villages or groups.

Radially extending out from Rano Raraku are several dressed roads, some with kerbstones. Although the roads were first identified in the 1910s by Katherine Routledge, at first few scholars accepted the interpretations of Routledge's features as roads.

The roads were first excavated by Charles Love nearly a hundred years later. Love found that the roads appear to be U-shaped in cross-section, rather than flat, supporting Routledge's assertion that the purpose of these roads was to move moai from Rano Raraku to their final place of erection. A ritual function of the shape of these roads, and of course, of everything associated with moai carving, is certain to have been important.

Carving the Moai

Based on the evidence from the quarries, much of the moai form was carved while the rock was in place, and generally they were carved out as if they were lying in on their backs. Then the moai were detached from the parent rock, moved to the lower slopes and pushed erect, where the carving on the backs of the moai was completed. Finally, the moai were moved from the quarry along one of several roads to the places where they were to be erected permanently.

Whether the 160 or so moai left in place at the quarry were "unfinished" or not has been a point of contention among scholars as yet today. At least some of the statues at Rano Raraku were cut completely out of the quarry rock and erected onto platforms.

They look unfinished, because they were buried by later quarry debris, sometimes up to their necks, but in fact, argue Richards and colleagues (2011), are not.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Easter Island, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Hunt T and Lipo C. 2011. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Free Press: New York.

Richards C, Croucher K, Paoa T, Parish T, Tucki E, and Welham K. 2011. Road my body goes: re-creating ancestors from stone at the great moai quarry of Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). World Archaeology 43(2):191-210.

Van Tilburg JA. 1995. Moving the Moai--Transporting the megaliths of Easter Island: How did they do it? Archaeology 48(1):34-43.