In February 2023, a new moai was discovered inside the dry lagoon of the Rano Raraku volcano. An unprecedented finding that will raise new questions for the scientific community that studies the enigmatic history of Easter Island.
A surprising find at Rano Raraku
A recent forest fire and the lack of rain on Easter Island have allowed a small moai statue 1.60 meters high and 90 centimeters wide to be discovered in the interior lagoon of the crater of the Rano Raraku volcano. This finding surprised the Rapanui community, since they had never found a sculpture in that place before. In addition, other artifacts and pieces of stone were found that could belong to another sculpture.
The discovery of this archaeological piece took place accidentally on February 20, when a group of scientists, from different universities in Chile who collaborate with the Ma’u Henua indigenous community and the National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), was analyzing the consequences of the terrible fire that occurred in October 2022 and the lack of rain on the island.
Rano Raraku, the moai quarry
Rano Raraku is one of the most interesting volcanic centers on Easter Island from a geological point of view. This volcanic cone, now extinct, was formed more than 300,000 years ago as a result of the eruptive activity of the Maunga Terevaka and Pua Katiki volcanoes.
Unlike most of the island’s volcanic cones, Rano Raraku is composed of a type of rock unique to the island, known as lapilli tuff. The tuff is a porous rock formed by the accumulation of volcanic ash expelled during an eruption, which when cooled, in contact with the atmosphere, compacts and hardens.
The main feature of this volcanic tuff is its low surface hardness, compared to basalt, which encouraged ancient sculptors to use it as a raw material to carve the huge statues. Rapanui ancestors built almost 1,000 statues of this volcanic stone by excavating the slopes and interior of the volcano.
Read more about Moai, the gigantic statues of Easter Island
The crater of the volcano housed a freshwater lagoon inside, where horses used to go to graze and drink, being one of the main wetlands of Rapa Nui. On an island where there are no rivers or streams, the interior lagoons of the craters where rain accumulated, constituted the largest reserves of fresh water available to the ancient inhabitants.
Unfortunately, the interior lagoon began to disappear about five years ago due to the constant decrease in rainfall. This, too, was the reason why the celebration of the famous Tau’a Rapa Nui, a unique triathlon that took place during the Tapati Festival, had to be moved to the town of Hanga Roa.
A treasure between reeds and mud
The person in charge of breaking the news of the discovery was Salvador Atan Hito, the vice president of the Ma’u Henua community, to ABC News’ Good Morning America. He told them that the moai found is smaller than the average of the statues.
The average height of the moai is about 4.5 meters, but the ancient Rapanui were able to carve and move 10-meter-high statues, such as the famous Paro moai that they placed in the Ahu Te Pito Kura located on the north coast, about six kilometers away from the quarry. Although the record is held by the Te Tokanga moai, nicknamed “the giant”, which with a length of almost 22 meters and an estimated weight of 250 tons, could not have a more appropriate name.
The new moai discovered in the lagoon is much smaller and its size is closer to that of the Hoa Hakananai’a, the controversial moai exhibited in the British Museum in London, which reaches 2.4 meters in height. The figure of the new moai, which is shown face up, preserves its entire body and although it still has recognizable features, these have suffered a lot due to the erosion of the water on its soft surface.
How did the moai get inside the lagoon?
There is no record of other statues found in the Rano Raraku wetland. The question everyone is asking is how it got here. There are records that the lagoon had water for at least the last two hundred years, but it is not ruled out that during that time and in previous periods it suffered, as now, periods of drought.
With this in mind, then, was the figure deposited in the lake in a premeditated way or was it left abandoned like other statues in the quarry? Some think that the moai could have served as a marker of the territory. But given the importance of the wetland as a water resource, the statue could also have been used as a water level indicator or perhaps it was a tribute to a particular ancestor associated with the lake.
Some experts on Easter Island, such as the American archaeologist Terry Hunt or the Chilean archaeologist José Miguel Ramirez, do not rule out the possibility that other moai could appear hidden among the mud and reeds that grow in the volcano’s lake. Furthermore, it would be time to take advantage of the current dry conditions to explore the subsoil of the lagoon and verify this hypothesis.
What to do with the new moai?
The discovery has sparked a debate on the island about what to do with the new moai. There are those who believe that the moai should be left in that place so that the ancestors can rest in peace and those who want it to be moved so that they can investigate it. The last word rests with the Rapanui families, the council of elders and the Ma’u Henua community that administers the Rapa Nui National Park.
The vice president of the Ma’u Henua indigenous community, Salvador Atan Hito, believes that traditions and sentiments must be separated from the scientific. This finding is an opportunity to learn more about the Rapa Nui culture and the history of Easter Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for which help and resources will be requested from both the Chilean and international authorities to be able to investigate the new moai.
The researchers plan to carry out a radiocarbon dating of the statue to be able to specify more exactly when it was carved and to know if it is a 100% original object. The results of these analyzes could offer another perspective of the history we know and how the ancient inhabitants used this cultural settlement and the available resources depending on the environmental changes in Rapa Nui.