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

Moai Hoa Hakananai'a, the stolen friend of Rapa Nui
The moai Hoa Hakananai’a | Photo: Bristish Museum

The moai Hoa Hakananai’a, which means the stolen friend, is considered a masterpiece and has become an icon and symbol of Easter Island. Discover its fascinating history.


Hoa Hakanani’a, a very special moai statue

Front view of moai Hoa Hakananai'a
Front view of moai Hoa Hakananai’a | Photo: British Museum

On Easter Island more than 900 moai have been cataloged, the famous statues by which this tiny and isolated island is known throughout the world. At first glance they may all look the same, but you can find a wide variety of sizes, shapes and materials among these enigmatic stone giants.

Among that large number of statues there are a few that stand out because of their size, like the moai Paro that lies knocked down in the Ahu Te Pito Kura or the Te Tokanga (the giant) considered the largest moai that has been carved and still remains on the slope of the Rano Raraku volcano.


Other figures stand out because their shape is outside the standard profile of a moai. This happens for example with the Tukuturi moai or kneeling moai that has a rounded head and defined legs in kneeling position that is in Rano Raraku. Or the female moai one of the few carvings that represents a woman’s body and that can be seen in the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum next to the Ahu Tahai.

But if there is a statue that stands out above all others and that has become an icon and symbol of Easter Island, that is Hoa Hakananai’a. It is the most visited, most photographed and most studied moai of the island, although paradoxically it is outside of Rapa Nui like so many other valuable pieces that are scattered in different cities of the world.

Characteristics of the statue

Front and side view of the moai Hoa Hakananai'a Bristish Museum Easter Island
Front and side view of the moai Hoa Hakananai’a | Photo: Bristish Museum

The name by which this moai is known is Hoa Hakananai’a although sometimes it is written as Hoa Haka Nana Ia or Hoa Haka Nama Ia. This expression of Rapanui origin could be translated as “the stolen or hidden friend” and is the most widespread version, although there is also another interpretation that suggests the terms of “breakwater” or even “surfer or the one who mounts the waves”.

The statue, which measures 2.42 m high, 96 cm wide and weighs about four tons, was not extracted from the quarries of the Rano Raraku volcano like most other statues, but was carved in basalt, a extremely resistant and difficult to work material, which is in the vicinity of the Rano Kau where it seems that it was built around 1200 AD.

The moai Hoa Hakananai’a, which is relatively small for the average height (around 4.5 meters), represents the archetypal image of a moai and is considered a masterpiece and one of the most beautiful and fine examples of Rapanui sculptural art.


Its frontal face shows the typical head in the form of a rectangular block with a narrow forehead, long stylized ears, thin and tight lips, a powerful nose and a prominent chin.

The eye sockets are carved, which is a unique feature of the moai statues that were placed on the ahus or platforms. They were finished with eyes made of coral and volcanic red stone, like the one that can be seen in the Museum Sebastian Englert, to grant them mana or supernatural power.

The upper surface of the head is smooth and flat and could have supported a “pukao” or cylindrical red stone headdress, which were manufactured in the quarry of Puna Pau.

The unusual features among the rest of the moai, are the sign in the form of “Y” under the lower lip in the center of the chin and a circular line around the base of the neck that can be an ornament, although it is often interpreted as a stylized design that represents the clavicles and the sternum. Under this engraving is a well-polished torso with defined nipples and narrow arms attached to the body that end in hands that rest on the stomach.

On the back side of the moai there are two types of engravings. At the bottom, there is a “maro” or a kind of belt formed by three lines in the form of an arc, accompanied by a circle above and a sign similar to a letter “M” below. Almost at the base of the statue there are slight protuberances that indicate the buttocks. All these signs have been found in other moai of the island and represent the universe with the symbols of the gods Ra’a (the sun), Mahina (the moon), Hiro (the rain) and Hanua Nua Me’a (the rainbow).

Unique engravings and their interpretation

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Reliefs on the upper part of the back of the moai | Photo: Bristish Museum

The surprise appears in the engravings that appear between the previous drawings and the top of the head on the back side. These symbols have not been found in any other moai of Easter Island and that give it a unique archaeological and historical importance.

These reliefs were executed in a later phase to the construction of the statue and resemble the petroglyphs found in the rocks of Orongo. On the back of the head there are three “Ao” or ceremonial oars representing male prestige and power, one on the left ear (seen from behind) and two on both sides. In the right ear (seen from behind) there are four symbols of “Komari or female vulva that symbolize fertility. At the height of the nape, in the central part the figure of a bird appears, possibly it is the manutara or tern. A little lower, coinciding with the shoulders, there are two figures that show two Tangata Manu or bird-man facing each other.

This statue is an extraordinary example of the historical moment in which the ancient inhabitants lost confidence in the ancient cult of the ancestors, represented by the moai and the new cult of the birdman.

In the sixteenth century the practice of the construction of the moai reached its peak but by the year 1600, the statues were only erected sporadically. Years later, a period of great political, religious and social changes began, caused by massive deforestation and the consequent ecological collapse. This led to internal conflicts among clans, famines and shortages that led the population to the brink of collapse.

Disappointed and angry about their sad situation, the people of Easter Island stopped believing in the power of the statues, and began to tear them down and destroy them. The fragile ecosystem of the island had been taken beyond the sustainable. Inspired, perhaps, in the seabirds that nested in the nearby islets, known as motu, located in front of Orongo, is when the bird man cult arises to replace the old beliefs in the moai.

The moai Hoa Hakananai’a is a unique example of the religious syncretism of that time. It is believed that the statue could express ideas of leadership and authority, as the new engravings show, under the representation of an ancient ancestral figure.

Original location of the Hoa Hakananai’a

Stone houses of the ceremonial village of Orongo in Rano Kau Easter Island Rapa Nui
Stone houses of the ceremonial village of Orongo in Rano Kau

The moai Hoa Hakananai’a was inside one of the stone houses, known as Taura Renga, belonging to the central area of the ceremonial village of Orongo, located on the rim of the crater of the Rano Kau volcano. The moai was upright and half-buried in the ground. His face looked into the crater and his back to the sea. Its surface was decorated with natural pigments (kie’a in Rapanui language). The figures in relief were painted in red highlighting on a white background that covered the rest of the figure.

It is not known if it was carved to place it directly in that location or it was first erected in a nearby ahu and then moved to that location. The house was later built around the statue, using stone slabs like those that can be seen in the rest of Orongo’s houses. The fact of being the only moai found inside a building tells us about the importance it must have had.

Transfer to England

In 1868, the Royal Geographical Society of London commissioned the English ship HSM Topaze, under the command of Captain Richard Ashmore Powell, to conduct a research mission to the South Pacific. During the voyage, the ship landed on Easter Island to perform topographical work, but it seems that the crew not only engaged in that task.

According to the testimony of the missionaries resident on the island at that time, on November 5th of 1869, the house that sheltered the moai was disarmed and it took the effort of more than 300 sailors and the collaboration of 200 islanders to carry the statue to Hanga Roa.

For this work they used a wooden platform built like a sled with material from the boat to be able to slide the four tons of basalt down the hill to the shore. Then they put him in a boat and put him aboard the Topaze. On the way from Orongo the statue suffered several damages on its surface, and with the use of the ropes that were used to move it and to get wet with the sea water, most of the painting with which it was decorated was lost forever.

The moai Hoa Hakananai'a on the deck of HMS Topaze Easter Island Rapa Nui
The moai Hoa Hakananai’a on the deck of HMS Topaze

The image above shows the moai on the Topaze’s deck, while she was moored in Valparaíso, with a sign that indicates the name with which the Rapanui people identified the statue and for which it has gone down in history. You can still see the white pigment on his face. This image has a great documentary value because it is probably the first photograph taken of a Easter Island moai.

After finishing the expedition, the ship HSM Topaze returned to England, docking in the port of Plymouth on August 16th of 1869. The moai Hoa Hakananai’a was landed along with another smaller figure, known as moai Hava, also carved in basalt and that is now exhibited at the Manchester Museum. Both were presented to Queen Victoria by the Lords of the Admiralty, who had received them as a gift from Captain Powell, and later donated to the British Museum.

The moai Hoa Hakananai’a was cataloged with the inventory number 1869, 10-5.1, mounted on a base and exposed outside the main entrance of the museum, under the portico. During the Second World War, he was taken to the interior where he remained until 1966. That year he was transferred to the Department of Ethnography located in a separate building located in Burlington Gardens. He returned to the main building of the British Museum in the year 2000 and exhibited on a new pedestal in the great central courtyard (Great Court). Currently the moai Hoa Hakananai’a is exhibited in Room No. 24, called Living and Dying at the Wellcome Trust Gallery, one of the largest salons of the British Museum in London.

A popular icon of Rapanui culture

Google Doodle used in the celebration of the 255th anniversary of the British Museum
Google Doodle used in the celebration of the 255th anniversary of the British Museum | Image: Google

Since its arrival at the British Museum in London, the Hoa Hakananai’a moai became one of the most important and admired objects, not only among archaeologists and historians, but also among artists, writers, and the general public, becoming a popular icon of Rapanui culture for the world.

Among the artists who have been inspired by the statue are the sculptors Henry Moore, who observed his “tremendous presence”, or Ron Mueck who exhibited his huge hyper-realistic head “Mask II” in front of the moai in 2008.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska carving the bust of writer Ezra Pound
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska carving the bust of writer Ezra Pound

The French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a bust of the writer Ezra Pound in 1914 that is undoubtedly inspired by Hoa Hakananai’a as it is seen in the fundamental features of the statue completed with the wild hair and goatee characteristic of the American poet.

Continuing with the American poets, Robert Frost wrote a poem about the moai called “The Bad Island – Easter“. Frost makes a play on words with the name of the poem that deals with the fall and transformation of the island since the arrival of the first inhabitants, historical facts that the author sees reflected in the frown and worried expression of the face of the moai.

Collection of stamps edited by the Royal Mail that includes the moai Hao Hakananai'a
Collection of stamps edited by the Royal Mail that includes the moai Hao Hakananai’a | Image: British Museum

In the year 2003, the image of the moai is selected by the Royal Mail (British postal company) to be part of a collection of stamps commemorating the 250th anniversary of the British Museum. The face of Hoa Hakananai’a appears next to other faces of different cultures of the world that were chosen to summarize the history of the museum.

In 2010 he was selected by channel 4 of the BBC and the British Museum for a radio program called “A History of the World in 100 Objects“, a list of 100 objects selected by Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, to tell the story of the world.

One of his last public appearances was on January 15th of 2014 when the image of the moai and the central courtyard of the British Museum were part of the Google Doodle (header image of the Internet search engine), to celebrate the 255th anniversary of the Museum.

The spirit of the ancestors

Recently, the Rapanui filmmaker Leonardo Pakarati has filmed the documentary “Te Kuhane o te tupuna” or “The spirit of the ancestors”, in which the moai Hoa Hakananai’a appears as one of the symbols stolen from Rapa Nui, whose spirit or mana must be recovered to restore welfare to the island. According to Pakarati: “It is the portrait of a journey in search of lost magic, but it is also the record of part of a movement that seeks to vindicate the value of its own, which reclaims its lands and the objects that give meaning to one of the world’s most complex and extraordinary cosmovisions. ”

Where to see the Moai Hoa Hakananai’a?

Room No. 24, Living and Dying
Wellcome Trust Gallery
British Museum of London

Location map in the British Museum