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apj home > destinations > Rapa Nui / Easter Island > Thoughts on the history of Rapa Nui.

Thoughts on the history of Rapa Nui

Enveloping myself in the texts others have written, spending time with the artifacts of Rapa Nui, spending time exploring the island, I came to many conclusions based on what I saw. I came away with more questions than I arrived with and some opinions that may not be popular.

A history revised

We are also told that the moai were carved from the volcano Rano Raraku. Most, in fact were, but some, like Hoa Hakanani’a, were not. This is an example of revisionism by exclusion. The story and myth of Rapa Nui is easier to tell with only one birthplace of the moai.

The first moai

I first started to believe in this revisionism when I was filming a scene about the "first moai" on Rano Raraku. Even though the story of the first moai is certainly fable, there is probably an element of truth to it; that being this was an early attempt at carving a statue.

Casting your eyes over this reclined moai, you can just about make out the classical moai shape, though it is somewhat confused. Ears sort of melt into arms, the face is too big and not quite right, everything is eroded away so you just see the smooth and indistinct outline of the all the features. Legend has is that the sculptor responsible asked a friend for advice. Sleeping on it, the friend said "make the stature in my image". In other words; "make the statue in the shape of man".

It is to be noted that I have paraphrased the account of this story as written by Katherine Routledge and she wrote it from an account given to her at the turn of the 20th Century.

True or not, I believe this account important as it illustrates that the moai didn't just appear in a flash of inspiration, they were created over time.

Whilst I was having a personal revelation with this lump of volcanic tuff, a nearby tour group was being told about the moai with the carving of a boat upon its belly. I listened, interested in what the tour guide had to say. Apparently, this very rough and simplistic etching was a representation of the boats that the first settlers used to reach the island.

I was astonished at this explanation. Not only had I never read a single account suggesting this to be the case, just one look at the drawing should convince anybody of two things. Firstly, the boat looks like a European ship from the 1700s. Secondly, we know that whilst the people of Easter Island were creating moai, they were artistically talented. If boat etching on this moai were originally intended, then the quality would have been much higher and probably on the back. The etching is simple and crude, a sign, in my opinion, that it was not added for any significant purpose and that it could even be simple graffiti. Could it, for instance, have been drawn by an early European visitor to the island?


I also think that the distinction between the monolithic statue building era and the birdman cult are not as separate from each other as we are usually led to believe. The moai taken from the island by H.M.S Topaz was a ceremonial statue and was up in the village of Orongo which was inhabited for only a few months when the customs of choosing the birdman for the year were conducted. This implies either that the moai were still important in some way during the birdman cult (probable) or that the birdman cult was around in some form during the moai building era (less probable). Perhaps the birdman cult grew steadily over a period of time and brought with it aspects, such as the incredible stonemasonry, of the previous monolithic building era.

What were they thinking?

"What were they thinking?” a question that continually haunted me during my visit to Rapa Nui in the autumn of 2001. The obvious application of this question is to the building of the moai, but consider the construction of an ahu.

The core of the structure is filled with rubble, not roughly hewn lumps of rock dug out of the ground, but large rocks that are generally rounded and smooth.

Okay, the first thought is they must have got the rocks from the shore. The problem with this is that there did not appear to be what I would call vast amounts of worn stones around the coast. Of course, this could simply be because they were either used in the construction of ahu, or have been washed away for some reason. The shear quantity of rock needed to build an ahu is staggering. There is the main platform itself and the burial vaults which form part or the structure tapering away from the main platform. In cross-section, the ahu looks like a door wedge with the thin end pointing away from the sea. How did they move such a vast quantity of stone? Probably through sheer brute force and time. My host, Maria Manutomatoma, grew up in the area around Rano Raraku where the majestic Ahu Tongariki stands. This ahu, according to Maria, was 20 meters in height and would have had 25 giant moai standing upon it before they were pulled down. I interpret this as 20 meters in height of the platform and the moai. In the 1960s the entire structure was literally flattened by a tsunami. Some of the fallen moai were sucked out to sea and probably rest close to shore to this day.

Then you have the question of the incredibly well worked cladding that many of the southerly ahu had. Ahu Vinapu is a fantastic example of the "Inca like" precision of the stonemasonry. Closer inspections of other nearby Ahu show that they too had been built with similar precision, though the elements have been unkind to these ahu. In their own right, the ahu are incredible structures and should cause archeologists sleepless nights working out how they were created.

Much has been written about the carving of the Moai and how they could have been erected upon an ahu. In short, the Moai were carved out of Rano Raraku, lowered down the mountainside using ropes secured to the top of the mountain through huge islets carved into the rock. At least one of these is so big a child or a slim adult could snake into it and out the other side.

The first resting place of the Moai would have been a pit from which the fine detail of the Moai could be easily added.

This is where things get a bit hazy. Folklore tells us that the Moai then "walked" to the ahu. How could this be possible? Well, it is possible and has been shown to be possible. However, showing something is possible does not prove that it was done that way. To make the Moai "walk" you place a tree trunk either side of the Moai. Now, get a few hefty wooden poles and go to one side. Use the tree trunk as a fulcrum and stick one end of your pole under the Moai and push down on the other end until the Moai starts to rise off the ground on one side. Now, pull back slightly on the pole in the same way as a rower might and the Moai will shift slightly forward. Repeat on the other side of the staure and you will create a "walking" or more accurately put, "waddling" Moai. This shows that the Moai could be moved in an upright manner, though how you get the thing safely up and down inclines and then finally onto the ahu, all the while standing, I don't know.

A more practical method of transportation would be to create a wooden sled and drag the whole thing horizontally to its ahu or standing place. Raising the Moai is remarkably easy. Stick your poles under one side of the moai and fill the gap with stones, Repeat on the other side. The moai is now slightly higher. Repeat until the Moai is raised. This has been shown to be straightforward and effective.

I would also like to point out that not all moai were created to stand upon ahu. Some were never, ever meant to leave Rano Raraku. These moai are either decoratively carved onto appropriate outcroppings of rock or have small bases. Moai can be found inland, apparently scattered. It is possibly that these Moai once stood sentinel along three ancient roads that fanned out from Rano Raraku. I also believe that the majority of Moai left in Rano Raraku were never seriously intended to stand upon ahu. I believe that as the Rapa Nui society spiraled into decline a rapid increase in the production and size of Moai happened. This was an attempt to appease the Gods in some way. Build ever-larger Moai and the Gods or ancestors would look favorably upon you. I do not think that the 65’ giant Moai still in the side of Rano Raraku is unfinished. There is just no way society at that time could have got that Moai standing anywhere, let alone upon an Ahu.

{ question which came first. ahu or dead body? did the platform get extended and then the moai raised upon it, with body finally entombed OR was platform extended for dead body(ies) and at a later date a moai erected. if this is the case then how did the moai get on top and how did the people extend the ahu to make a coherent and sound structure. }

Now, what about the pulling down of the Moai? Warring factions or planned destruction? Most of the fallen Moai seem to have been pulled down in the same direction (forward) and to have been left lying next to each other. I would have expected warring destruction to allow for a more disorderly aftermath or perhaps there was even at time of war, a ritualistic method for pulling the Moai down. Symbolically, did you pull them down forwards so that you quite literally rubbed your enemies ancestors noses in the dirt? Is it possible that an earlier tidal wave, though less brutal than the one in the 1960s, could have knocked down many of the Moai and is it possible this was the triggering of a shift to the birdman cult? I can't prove any of this, it is just the putting thoughts into words.

Finally, what of the writing of Rapa Nui? Is it real and just incredibly difficult to decipher due to the few number of rongorongo boards that have been preserved. Or, is it possible that the writing is just a random stream of glyphs that were created after seeing the writing of the first Europeans? I'm not sure about this one, I think both have good arguments behind them, but my quirky sense of fun would like to think that the writing is a fake and that somebody once thought, "this'll fox 'em!"

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