11 Cool Facts About Easter Island’s Moai Statues

The mystery surrounding Easter Island’s massive Moai statues is what brings most visitors.  There are many theories, but the real facts about the Moai are only known by Rapa Nui locals. It’s still unknown today exactly why these giant heads were carved, or how these massive stones were transported around the island. Here are some really interesting Moai facts we learned from our very knowledgeable Rapa Nui guide when we visited Easter Island (the island is called Rapa Nui by its residents).

1. The Moai Statues on Rapa Nui All Face Inward

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 inward 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.

Moai statues with kids

2. Moai Eyes Did Not Get Added Right Away

Each Moai didn’t get eyes until it was placed in its final resting spot. 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 onto their people.

Moai on their way from the quarry

3. Nobody Really Knows How Moai Were Transported Around Easter Island

Although there are many theories, nobody really knows. 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.

Kids loved their visit with the Moai on Rapa Nui

A Moai who didn't quite get to his final spot

4. The Fallen Moai Have Fallen for a Reason

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 tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 meters (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tons. The heaviest Moai was shorter but a bit fatter and stood at Ahu Tongariki. It weighed 86 tons. That’s a lot of weight, and with shifting earth and storms and a smaller base, it’s easy to see why most Moai fell.

El Gigante is a very large Moai statue

The ceremonies and rituals conducted during the placement of the Moai statues were deeply symbolic, reflecting the Rapa Nui people’s spiritual beliefs and their ancestors’ reverence. It is understood from various sources that these ceremonies would have involved the entire community, including priests, chiefs, and common people, and might have included offerings, chants, and dances to honor the ancestors and the gods.

5. The Largest Moai is Named ‘El Gigante’

The largest Moai ever carved on Easter Island is called El Gigante, which is still part of the rock cliff quarry.  If it were finished and erected, it would be the largest statue on the island.

The title The Giant is fitting for this largest Moai statue ever carved on Easter Island. Towering at nearly 22 meters (72 feet) tall and weighing an estimated 160 tons, El Gigante lies unfinished in the Rano Raraku quarry, the birthplace of almost all Moai. This colossal figure, had it been completed and erected, would have dwarfed the island’s already impressive array of monumental statues, which are believed to represent the ancestors of the Rapa Nui civilization, playing a critical role in their religious and societal practices.

The sheer size of El Gigante speaks volumes about the ambition, engineering prowess, and spiritual fervor of its creators, offering a fascinating glimpse into a culture that managed to carve, transport, and erect these giant sentinels with nothing more than primitive tools and an indomitable collective will. Check out El Gigante here.

The Moai have fancy rock hats - El Gigante

6. Why Do Some Moai Statues Wear Hats?

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’.

Moai in the distance with kids

7.  Not All the Moai Had Their Eyes Filled

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. The insertion of the eyes, marking the statue’s spiritual awakening, was a significant moment, likely accompanied by rituals intended to imbue the Moai with mana (spiritual energy) and to establish a connection between the living community and their ancestors.

How were the coral eyes made and sourced?

The coral eyes of the Moai statues, an essential aspect of their spiritual activation, were intricately crafted. The process likely involved the careful selection and shaping of coral found in the surrounding waters of Easter Island. This practice underscores the deep connection between the islanders and their natural environment, using materials that were locally available to them. The precise techniques used to carve these eyes, however, are not well-documented in historical records, leaving much to archaeological interpretation and a bit of speculation.

Travel to Easter Island with Kids to see the Amazing Moai statutes

8. Moai Statues All Have the Same Characteristics

While they share similar features, each Moai statue has unique characteristics. Differences in facial features, size, and headdresses (pukao) suggest individual statues were customized to more accurately represent the specific ancestors they were meant to depict. 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 it’s a frown. Others think they are all very serious. This expression might have kept the local kids in check!

All Moai are the same, but all very different

9. Moai All Have Bodies

While commonly called Moai heads,’ or Easter Island faces, most of these statues actually have full bodies, often buried up to their necks in soil, which adds to their mysterious allure. At first, it may appear that just a head makes up the whole of each Moai. But archeologists decided to dig down a bit and found that full bodies were supporting many of the heads.  Most Moai statues 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!

Family on Easter Island

The discovery of the Moai’s bodies has sparked numerous theories and debates among archaeologists and historians. Some speculate that the burial of the statues was a deliberate act, possibly to protect them from natural disasters or to preserve their sacredness. Others suggest that the burial was a result of societal changes or conflicts that led to the abandonment of the statues.

Regardless of the reasons behind their burial, the revelation of the Moai’s full bodies has added a new layer of intrigue.  We now know that Moai faces and heads are actually complete body sculptures, and we’re even more curious about the Rapa Nui civilization that created them.

10.  Moai Statues Weren’t Always Standing

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.

The Moai Statues of Easter Island
The Moai Statues of Easter Island

11. There Are Hundreds of Moai Statues on Rapa Nui

Moai Fact: There are approximately 887 known Moai statues scattered across Easter Island. They vary in size and state of completion, with many still found at the Rano Raraku quarry. They have different eyes, different hats, and were carved at different times over hundreds of years.

FAQ: More Moai Secrets & Facts

What are the Moai of Rapa Nui?

The Polynesian statues on Easter Island are called Moal. Moai are large monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500 CE, and are located on Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Moai are primarily carved from volcanic tuff (hardened lava rock) and are renowned for their oversized heads, which are about 3/8ths the size of the entire statue. Sometimes Moai are called Easter Island faces, or the faces of Polynesia.

What do the Moai statues represent?

The Moai statues represent the deified ancestors of the Rapa Nui people. Carved by the island’s inhabitants between the years 1400 and 1650 CE, these towering figures are believed to embody the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other high-ranking males who had passed away. They were placed on stone platforms called ahu, facing inward towards the island’s villages, perhaps to watch over and protect the living community, while their backs faced the sea.

The Moai are not just remarkable for their size and for the mystery of how they were transported and erected, but also for what they signify about the island’s social and religious structure. They are a tangible connection to the ancestors, suggesting a strong belief in the importance of lineage and the presence of the past in everyday life. The construction and placement of these statues are thought to have been a form of ancestor worship, where the Moai served as conduits between the physical and spiritual worlds, ensuring protection, fertility, and prosperity for the communities they oversaw.

Why were the Moai statues sculpted by the Rapa Nui?

While nobody is 100% sure, the prevailing wisdom is that Moai statues were created to represent the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people. They were believed to hold mana, a spiritual force that protected the community. The Moai were placed on stone platforms called ahu, facing inland to watch over the living descendants.

How were the Moai statues transported and erected?

The biggest question of them all! The exact method remains a subject of debate among researchers, archeologists, and Rapa Nui folklore. Some theories suggest they were transported using a combination of logs, ropes, and a walking motion facilitated by groups of people. Others propose they were dragged on sleds or rolled over logs. Both methods would have been incredibly difficult.

Do all Moai have bodies?

Yes, many Moai have complete bodies, although they are often not visible because some are buried up to their necks in soil. Excavations have revealed that many of these statues have torsos, hands, and intricate carvings that extend down their bodies.

What happened to the Moai statues? Why are some toppled?

Many Moai were toppled during internal conflicts between the island’s clans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Additionally, natural erosion and European contact contributed to the damage and displacement of some statues. The clans were each trying to get enough resources to live, and sometimes they would knock down each other’s statues to show they were stronger and to take away the other group’s spiritual power. When Europeans arrived in the 1700s, they brought diseases and took many people away as slaves, which made life even harder for the island’s people and led to more statues being knocked over. Natural disasters like earthquakes and big waves might have also caused some statues to fall.

How difficult is it to re-erect a Moai?

Putting a fallen Moai statue back up today is both very hard and costs a lot of money. These statues are massive and heavy, which means big hydraulic machines and lots of people to lift them. Workers need to be really careful not to damage the statues or the land around them because they’re so important the Rapa Nui history and culture. Experts, like archaeologists and engineers, have to plan out every step to make sure everything goes smoothly. They use cranes and other tools, but they have to use them in a way that’s safe for the Moai and the environment. The expense comes with paying for the machines to get to this remote island in the middle of the Pacific. Additionally, the experts’ time, their living expenses, and sometimes special materials to fix any cracks or damage in the Moai before they’re put back up.

Have any Moai been removed from the island?

Yes, several Moai have been removed from Easter Island for research or exhibition purposes. Some are housed in museums around the world, like the Moai at the British Museum, which has been in a legal batter for its return for years. There have been discussions and efforts to return them to their native land as cultural icons, but none have made it back to their homeland.

What is being done to preserve the Moai statues?

Preservation efforts are ongoing and include stabilizing the statues and platforms, preventing erosion, and managing tourism to mitigate damage. International collaborations with scientists and conservators also help in the preservation and study of these magnificent structures, ensuring they endure for future generations to study and admire.

Why is Moai preservation so difficult?

Today, taking care of the Moai statues is pretty hard because of problems like wind and rain wearing them down, mosses and lichen growing on them, and tourists accidentally touching and degrading them. To help protect the Moai, people are using lots of different methods. This includes studying how the Moai were originally built and placed, fixing any damage, and finding ways to keep them safe from weather damage. UNESCO, an important group that helps protect world treasures, has marked Easter Island as a special place that needs to be preserved. Also, it’s becoming more important to work with the local Rapa Nui people. They’re getting involved in looking after the Moai statues, which are a big part of their culture. This way, the plans to keep the Moai safe respect local traditions and will help make sure the statues can be enjoyed for a long time.

Is Easter Island one of the 7 Wonders of the World?

Unfortunately, no. While Easter Island isn’t one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, the mysterious and gigantic Moai themselves made the list of 21 Wonders of the World finalists.

Is ‘Moai’ singular and ‘Moais’ plural?

It depends on who you ask. On Easter Island (not to be confused with Christmas Island!) the term ‘Moai’ is both singular and plural. I’ve seen multiple Moai be referred to as Moais (mo-eyes) but I don’t believe that’s the proper syntax. Our Rapa Nui guide was a Moai expert and he also referred to one or more of these carved statues as simply Moai.

Bonus: What does the Moai emoji 🗿 mean? 

The Moai emoji has a few meanings, but it primarily means strength and determination. The giant statues of Easter Island are immovable, making the 🗿 a perfect representation of determination. Standing at the edge of an island for hundreds of years through storms and wars is a tough job, and the moai emoji is a fitting symbol for spiritual strength.

The Mysteries of the Moai

The Moai statues of Easter Island represent the ingenuity and spiritual depth of the Rapa Nui people. Through these stone giants, we can get a glimpse of a civilization that developed a rich cultural heritage even though they were completely isolated. Moai always remind me of the importance of preserving historical wonders for future generations. Visiting Easter Island with kids may be a journey to a remote dot in the Pacific, but this trip offers a really profound connection to humanity’s shared past — and a reminder of the complexities and wonders of human history. I hope these Moai facts made you even more curious about Polynesian mysteries.

What other facts would you like to know about Moai statues?

Let me know in the comments below!

About The Author

Samantha

I’m a travel and health writer, digital brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising an active 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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. George | 10th Apr 24

    This is amazing help and very cool facts thank you so much

    • Samantha | 10th Apr 24

      So glad you found it helpful! Have a great trip!

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