Easter Island heads, myth and reality of the buried moai statues

Easter Island heads in Rano Raraku volcano

The image of the famous Easter Island heads has become an icon of popular culture and the best-known symbol of Rapa Nui. However, many seem to ignore the fact that these giant heads also have bodies and that they are only the most visible face of the moai, statues that represent ancient ancestors.


The myth of the Easter Island heads

Where does the idea that moai are just giant stone heads come from? It is not easy to find the origin of this confusion, but the influence of impressive photographs, exhibits in important museums and designs from popular culture can give us the key.

Engravings, books and photographs

Easter Island heads on the Cover of Thor Heyerdahl's Aku Aku Book
Cover of the book Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl

The first European navigators who visited Rapa Nui in the 18th century made drawings and engravings showing complete statues on the ahu, the ceremonial platforms. However, by the middle of the 19th century there were no longer any moai standing, because they had been knocked down during the tribal fights that took place between the ancient settlers.

When the first explorers arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, eager to photograph the archaeological sites of Easter Island with their cameras, most of the island’s statues lay on the ground, broken and forgotten. The only ones that remained upright were the figures that are buried on the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano.

These colossal stone heads, emerging from the grass in an unusual way, attracted the attention of the visitors’ lenses. The images captured by the Mana expedition of 1914 recounted by Katherine Routledge in her book “The mystery of Easter Island” and even more so the full-color snapshots that showed the discoveries of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on his first visit to the island in 1955, collected in his book “Aku Aku” had special relevance.

Those impressive photographs, which represented visitors as Lilliputians next to giant buried heads, went around the world and were forever associated with the mythical and enigmatic concept that we all have of Easter Island.


Easter Island heads in museums

Moai head in the Louvre Museum in Paris
Moai head in the Louvre Museum in Paris

On the other hand, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, several expeditions from Europe and the USA stole hundreds of historical objects and archaeological pieces of great value for “scientific reasons”. Among the loot transported on the ships were several complete statues and some moai heads, which are now scattered in the main museums of the world.

Those Easter Island heads that are exhibited as a trophy in museums in Paris, Washington or London are sought by thousands of visitors to get a souvenir photo.

The exhibition of these pieces, claimed like so many others by their countries of origin, has at least allowed a greater knowledge of the Rapanui culture among the general public.


Easter Island heads in pop culture 🗿

Easter Island heads on the cover of the comic "La isla de Rapa Nui" by Capitan Trueno
Cover of the comic “La isla de Rapa Nui” by Capitan Trueno

The figure of the moai and more specifically the representation of its head has long been incorporated into the general catalog of popular iconography.

Thus, for example, we can find Rano Raraku’s moai heads on the covers of youth comics such as “The Island of Rapa Nui” by Capitan Trueno or in “Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi” by Ogú and Mampato.

A multitude of objects have also been created, some of dubious taste, representing endless variations of Easter Island heads. Decorative figures, garden statues, aquarium accessories, lamps, liquor bottles or toys are just some of them.

Finally, the leading role of the ancient Rapanui heads in modern digital and audiovisual productions never ceases to amaze. Video games like Arkanoid, Gradius or Fortnite include moai heads in their adventures; The character Squidward from the SpongeBob series lives in a house shaped like a moai head and there is even an emoji or emoticon of a moai 🗿 that is used on social networks.

This incessant media influx continues to reinforce the image of the giant stone heads as an allegory of Easter Island. Next we will see what secrets they hide.


Rano Raraku heads

Easter Island heads on the slope of the Rano Raraku volcano
Moai heads on the slope of the Rano Raraku volcano

Apart from the statues that remain unextracted in the tuff quarries of the Rano Raraku volcano, further down, in the lower area of the slope, dozens of figures appear.

A few are found lying down, fallen on their faces and several have fractures. But the vast majority still stand in the same place where they were installed hundreds of years ago.

Rano Raraku was the only place on the island to keep standing statues, after all the others were knocked off their platforms, during inter-clan conflicts nearly 300 years ago.

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Rano Raraku, the quarry of the Moai statues

Along the base of the outer slope, between the entrance to the crater and the end facing the sea, there are some seventy statues that are practically finished. Inside the crater, there are also more than 40 images that are concentrated on the southern slope that surrounds the lagoon.

The disorder in which the statues appear, randomly scattered in groups, is striking. Only a few are found on the plain near the foot of the mountain and all without exception have their backs to the volcano.

Before Routledge’s discovery, these statues were considered to consist of only a head, neck, and upper chest. And it is that many of them are buried up to the elbows or the neck; of some only the upper part of the head is visible and surely a good number remain hidden underground.

It was thought that over the centuries, large amounts of rocks, earth and remains from the upper quarries had been washed away by the rains, burying the statues to a greater or lesser extent.


Moais unearthed, clarifying the mystery

Moais unearthed by Katherine Routledge during the 1914 Mana expedition
Moais unearthed by Katherine Routledge during the 1914 Mana expedition

The first excavations of the moai buried on the slopes of Rano Raraku were carried out by Katherine Routledge in 1914. The British archaeologist decided to unearth up to 30 statues to shed some light on the mysterious giant heads.

The expeditions led by Thor Heyerdahl in 1955 and 1986, and more recently the work carried out by the American archaeologist Jo Ann Van Tilburg through her Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) completed Routledge’s investigations.

Easter Island heads have bodies!

Archaeologist Arne Skjølsvold next to a moai unearthed at Rano Raraku in 1955
Archaeologist Arne Skjølsvold next to a moai unearthed at Rano Raraku in 1955

After removing several layers of sediment, archaeologists discovered that the figures hid a complete torso without legs, with arms close to the body and long-fingered hands resting on a slightly bulging belly. Different measurements revealed that in some statues the length of the head corresponded to almost a third of the total height.

The buried part of the moai statues, protected from the effects of the weather, had been much better preserved than the exposed part. The surface had a polished appearance and had the original yellowish color of the volcanic tuff.

Huge amounts of carving chisels, called toki in the Rapanui language, pieces of pumice stone (punga) and beach boulders (maea poro) used to polish the surface have been found in most of the unearthed figures. Some human bones were also found next to the statues and in the vicinity of them, so it is not ruled out that they were sacred burial places.

After looking closely at the bases of the statues, both Routledge and Van Tilburg concluded that most of the buried figures were intended to remain in place permanently and not to be transported to the platforms.

On the other hand, although the natural effect is evident in the accumulation of material from the upper quarries, there is no doubt that the statues were filled in on purpose by the ancient Rapanui. The reason for such an effort is still uncertain. Perhaps they wanted to hide the site of a funerary rite, protect the figures from possible desecration, or simply ensure their vertical position on the ground.


Engravings and petroglyphs with curious designs

Different petroglyphs on the back of an unearthed moai
Different petroglyphs on the back of an unearthed moai | Image: EISP

Experts think that after separating the statues from the volcano quarries, they were moved down the slope and stood upright to be finished. Once the figures were placed in a vertical position, the sculptors worked on the back to touch up the remaining keel and give it a flat shape.

Some statues are crudely carved with hands, ears, or necks still unfinished. Others are carefully modeled with clearly outlined ears, a neck distinct from the back, and an incised line indicating the spine.

Some very interesting carvings on the back have been discovered on several of the unearthed statues. These designs are similar to those found in the figures of the Ahu Nau Nau, in the famous moai Hoa Hakananai’a that is exhibited in the British Museum in London and in small wood carvings (moai tangata).

Read more about
Moai Hoa Hakananai’a, the stolen friend of Rapa Nui

At waist height in these more elaborate images, a kind of belt or girdle is shown, represented by three bands in relief. This belt is topped at the top by one or two rings and below it is an embossed pattern in the shape of an M. This adornment known as maro is believed to be a representation of the hami or loincloth, the most basic garment and common among the ancient Rapanui.

In addition to this unique ornament, many bodies are decorated with a series of cruder petroglyphs or engravings that were probably not made by the original artists but at a later time.

The most frequent motifs are crescent-shaped engravings reminiscent of the reimiro, a symbol of authority, although they can also represent a type of canoe called a vaka.

The necks of some statues are covered by undulating vertical bands. This layout was part of the ancient Rapa Nui tattoo designs and can still be seen in current takona performances.

Finally, other unique engravings have also been found, such as a petroglyph of Make Make, the creator god of Rapa Nui, symbolized by a mask with large eyes or a ship with three masts, a possible reminder of visits by European navigators.


Some Easter Island heads with their own name

All Easter Island heads turn their backs on the mountain
All buried moai statues turn their backs on the mountain

The physical appearance of the moai that came out of the Rano Raraku quarries follows a clearly defined pattern. This fairly similar aesthetic makes them all look the same, but they are not. Precisely here, with so many figures to be able to compare, it is observed that each moai has unique features that give it its own personality and that differentiate it from the others.

Those unique details linked to its particular history meant that in the past each statue had its own name. Some were related to the authors of the work, but others referred to some peculiarity of the image or the place where it was. Unfortunately, the passage of time has erased the memory of almost everyone, but that of a select few is still preserved. We are going to know the names of some Easter Island heads.

Moai Piro Piro

The huge head of the Piro Piro moai
The huge head of the Piro Piro moai

The Moai Piro Piro is one of the most famous and widespread images of the island. It is located in the first meters of the main path that runs through the quarry, as if wanting to welcome the visitor. Its name means “bad smell”, but not because the statue smells bad, but because its prominent nose seems to wince at a strong aroma.

This unique statue is also distinguished by the fact that its enormous 4-meter head projects forward from the shoulders, showing a “bad posture” as if it were slightly stooped. And if you pay attention to the right part of his neck, you can still read some letters of the word “Baquedano”. This desecration, in the form of old graffiti, was carried out by sailors from the General Baquedano School Ship on one of the 20 trips it made to Easter Island at the beginning of the 20th century. This inscription made the Piro Piro moai also known by the name of Baquedano moai.

But in addition to these peculiar details, Piro Piro stands out among the other statues for its enormous dimensions. The explorer Thor Heyerdahl dug into the floor of the moai and discovered that the buried part of the body was almost twice the height of the visible head. Adding both parts, the total length reached 11 meters, which made Piro Piro the largest moai ever extracted from the quarry and put on foot.

This discovery relegated the Paro moai of the ahu Te Pito Kura to second place, which, with its almost 10 meters in height, still holds the record for the tallest moai ever raised on a ceremonial platform.


Moai Hinariru

Moai Hinariru on the right, one of the most classic images of Rapa Nui
Moai Hinariru on the right, one of the most classic images of Rapa Nui

Another of the stars of Rano Raraku is the moai Hinariru or Hina Riru. His fame competes with that of Piro Piro, and the fact is that Hinariru’s image, together with that of his anonymous companion, has been widely reproduced in travel guides, books and tourist promotions, becoming one of the most recognizable icons of Rapa Nui.

Hinariru remains buried up to the chest and its visible part reaches a height of 4 meters. The archetypal figure of him, very well preserved, features delicate carving and a highly polished surface. Hinariru’s main trait is that his head tilts slightly to his left. A rather unusual pose, as his face usually remains straight and aligned with the central axis of the figures. This is the reason that Hinariru is also known as the “crooked neck” moai, although in the opinion of many this posture gives it a more elegant and natural appearance than the others.

Moai Ko Kona He Roa

On the right, the Ko Kona He Roa moai with a boat engraved on its torso
On the right, the Ko Kona He Roa moai with a boat engraved on its torso

The Ko Kona He Roa moai is a statue that was sunk up to its shoulders but was unearthed during Thor Heyerdahl’s Norwegian expedition. When they dug up the earth they discovered a petroglyph engraved on his chest depicting an ancient three-masted European ship with square sails. In the lower part, in what appears to be the ship’s anchor, the figure of a turtle can be seen.

This peculiar engraving that seems out of place, is related to other figures of boats found in Orongo houses and in the paintings of the Ana Kai Tangata cave. The researchers suggest that during a certain period of history the islanders regarded European visitors as messengers from beyond, arriving and disappearing in the ocean like the migratory birds they worshipped.

At Rano Raraku, many moai feature carvings that were made in a period after the construction phase of the statues. Some are related to the bird-man ceremony, but there are also hierarchical symbols such as the reimiro, Polynesian canoes, and divinities such as Make Make.


Differences between the buried moais and those of the ahu

Several Easter Island heads emerge on the slopes of Rano Raraku
Several moai heads emerge on the slopes of Rano Raraku

Upon close examination, several differences have been noted between the moai buried at Rano Raraku and those found on the ceremonial platforms (ahu).

First of all, it seems that the average size of those found in the volcano is about 6 meters, exceeding the average height of 4 meters of the moved moai.

They also have a finer and more careful profile and finish, with more prominent and pointed noses, and none of them ever wore a pukao on their heads, the red scoria headdresses from Puna Pau with which the moai on the platforms were topped.

Read more about
Pukao, the headdresses of the moai statues

The quarry figures do not have their eye socket carved, instead a continuous smooth plane appears that descends from the eyebrow to the cheek. It seems that the carving of the orbits was reserved for the moai that rose above the platforms, finishing with the installation of a coral eye that transmitted to the statue the mystical power of the ancestors called mana.

One last important detail lies in the base of the buried moai. On some occasions, statues have been found whose bases have the shape of a stake, as if they had been carved that way to facilitate their penetration into the ground. This demonstrates Routledge and Van Tilburg’s thesis that they were intended to be “planted” there permanently, rather than transported to the platforms.


Rano Raraku, a sacred and fertile quarry

General view of the Rano Raraku volcano
General view of the Rano Raraku volcano

The reason for leaving installed on the slopes of the quarry so many statues in a vertical position is really unknown. Perhaps it was a simpler and cheaper alternative for some groups than moving the statues to the ahu, or it is possible that there were no longer enough material resources in the form of ropes and wood to be able to move them. Even so, families continued to honor the memory of their deceased by erecting statues in their honor.

The latest studies carried out by Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s team have confirmed the existence of banana, taro and sweet potato crops from the 14th to the 19th century on the slopes of Rano Raraku. In his opinion, in addition to serving as a quarry for extracting and carving the statues, the volcano was also a productive agricultural area. The ancient inhabitants believed that the statues could increase the fertility of the land, so the ruling classes ordered the master carvers to erect them.

The American archaeologist opines that: “ The upright moai at Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The moai were central to the idea of fertility and, in Rapanui belief, their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”

This study considers the volcano as a more complex place that brings together soil fertility, agriculture, quarrying and the sacred nature of the moai.