The mystery surrounding Easter Island’s massive Moai statues is what brings most visitors. There are many theories, but it is still unknown today exactly why they were carved or how these massive stones were transported around the island.
Legend has it that the Polynesian people who built the Moai – the Rapa Nui – believed that they were the only people in the whole world, and that any invaders would have to come from within the island, not by sea. So the Moai statues face inwards toward the center of the island, to protect the island. Another theory is that families of Rapa Nui chiefs commissioned the Moai, who represented their deceased ancestors and positioned them to face their communities and watch over them.
Many broken down and fallen Moai are blind. In the various quarries where they carved the Moai, there are many left there in various states of completion, some fallen over, some waiting for transport to a site, and some partially carved in the cliffs. But none have eyes. The islanders believed when the coral eyes were inserted, their spirit was activated and they projected energy to their people.
Some say the huge Moai were put on logs and rolled, some say they were brought by sea (the quarry is near the ocean – but not that close), some say they were ‘walked’ by the Rapa Nui people using ropes and flipped end over end, and some even believe that they flew around the island (this is what Julian thinks happened)! In recent years, the most popular theory is that the builders used wooden sleds and log rollers to move the Moai from the quarry to their final standing place.
There’s a superstition that the fallen Moai have fallen for a reason, so there should be no attempt to bring them back to their feet.
The largest Moai ever carved on Easter Island is ‘El Gigante‘, which is still part of the rock cliff quarry. If it were finished and erected, it would be the largest statue today, measuring over 21 meters and would weigh between 160-180 tons.
A number of the Moai statues found on Rapa Nui also have Pukao, the name given to the hats or topknots placed on top of the heads, which may have represented dressed hair or headdresses of red feathers worn by chiefs throughout Polynesia. Some theories consider the hats to be an expression of power, and others think they represent hair. Others think they were just part of formal dress at the time, and the statues were carved to show their ‘Sunday Best’.
Not all the Moai had their eyes filled with coral eyes. It is believed that only the most prominent statues representing the most important ancestors had their eyes custom fitted during special ceremonies.
All the Moai on Easter Island all feature the same characteristics of an oversized head, broad nose, and a mysterious, indecipherable facial expression. Some think its a frown, others think they are all very serious. This expression might have kept the local kids in check!
At first it may appear that the statue heads make up the whole of the Moai statues, but archeologists decided to dig and found full bodies were supporting many of the heads. Most end at the top of the thigh, while some are complete kneeling figures. As most of the statues are now buried, it was quite a surprise find.
Although it is believed that all the Moai were standing when they were at their final place of display, none of the Moai statues were standing when scientists first arrived. The statues that can be seen upright today have been re-erected by teams with cranes, which is a time consuming and costly effort.
Visiting Easter Island and the mystery of the Moai statues was an incredible experience for our family. Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is definitely kid-friendly and a wonderful place to travel and explore with your whole clan.
I’m a travel and health writer, digital and brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two active boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising teenage boys, family life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.