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Easter Island

Easter Island

Easter Island is one of the most remotely inhabited islands on earth. It is part of the Polynesian Islands, a group found in the Pacific Ocean. Easter Island lies more than 1.770 kilometers from its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island, and 3.701 kilometers from the western coast of South America. Although some still call it Easter Island, those who live there prefer the island’s Polynesian name, Rapa Nui.

The eruptions of three undersea volcanoes created Rapa Nui. The volcanoes erupted at different times, but the lava from them joined together to form the island. Rapa Nui is shaped like a triangle, with a volcano at each point. However, the volcanoes have not erupted for thousands of years, and freshwater lakes fill some of the volcanic craters and cones.

Easter Island.

Easter Island.

Easter Island is named after the day on which it was discovered. It was in the evening on the eve of Easter, 1722, that the Dutch Admiral Jakob Roggeveen anchored off this unknown island. The enormous statues that dotted the island mystified Roggeveen. The statues, called moai by the natives, were so large that they could be seen from his ships. Roggeveen writes: “What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle a fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they set up; and, thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them.”

Sixteen centuries ago, in about AD 400, a small group of seafarers and their families sailed east across the Pacific from their home island in central Polynesia. Their large double canoes were filled with food, water, tools, and other things they needed to survive.

Moai in slumber, Easter Island, circa 1914.

Moai in slumber, Easter Island, circa 1914.

After many weeks they reached the rocky shores of a small island, later known as Easter Island. There they established homes, planted gardens, and started a new life. They developed a rich and complex culture that lasted for more than a thousand years. Perhaps their most remarkable and unique accomplishment was the carving of giant stone statues called “Moai.” They created nearly a thousand of these stone figures, some more than three stories high, and erected hundreds of them on huge stone altars called “Ahu.” What even more amazing is that all this was accomplished by people whose only tools were stone, bone, and coral. The moai were venerated and believed to possess powers, but they were not representations of deities. According to the tradition, each moai represents an ancestor of the family or clan. They are known generally as “Aringa Ora,” which means “living faces.”

Although Easter Islanders carved some stone images during their early years on the island, the creation of monumental figures did not begin until they had been there for several hundred years.

Stone heads on Easter Island

Stone heads on Easter Island, Rapa Nui, undated photo by Ramon Osuna.

The earliest-known statue mounted on an ahu is the sixteen-foot-tall moai located just in the north of Tahai. It was made in the twelfth century. The last moai to be mounted on a platform was at Hanga Kioe and was placed there about 1650. The sizes of moai vary greatly.

Easter Island

Easter Island, 1983. The colossal stone sculptures of Easter Island (known as moai) predate the arrival of Europeans in Oceania by several centuries.

The moai were carved from a type of volcanic rock called tuff. Tuff is formed when volcanic ash hardens and compresses. Tuff is a fairly soft stone, but when it is exposed to weather, it becomes very hard. Some are as short as 2 meters, but the usual size is between 5.5 and 7 meters tall. In general, the smaller moai represent early periods of carving, while the bigger moai is the most recent. The largest moai ever placed on an ahu was the 10 meters giant at Ahu Te Pito Kura. It is estimated to weigh 82 tons. The tallest moai ever carved remains in the quarry, still attached to its base. That statue is 20 meters long and may weigh up to 270 tons. The body shapes of the moai vary as well. Some are short and compact. The medium-size moai either have straight cylindrical bodies or triangular-shaped bodies with wide shoulders and narrow hips. The largest moai, including those still in the quarry, all have straight, slender bodies.

The statue carving on Rapa Nui ended hundreds of years ago. However, by studying the moai, the other structures on the island, and the islanders’ stories, scholars have pieced together a picture of the island’s ancient culture.

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