Pukao, the headdresses of the moai

Pukao on the moai statues of the Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena beach Easter Island

The pukao were large cylinders made of volcanic red scoria that adorned the heads of the Easter Island statues. Discover its history.


What is a pukao?

Pukao with petroglyphs at Ahu Akahanga
Pukao with petroglyphs at Ahu Akahanga

The pukao is an ornament, made of red scoria from the crater of Puna Pau, which was placed on the head of the statues of the most important ceremonial platforms of Easter Island.

Several archaeological studies indicate that the pukao’s manufacturing occurred in times after the elaboration of the large statues, some even suggest that the extraction works in Puna Pau began when the Rano Raraku quarries had already been abandoned.

Read more about Rano Raraku, the quarry of moai statues

In comparison with the almost 1,000 counted statues , only about 100 pukao have been located, 70 of them shot down in the vicinity of the ahu and another 30 still lying in the Puna Pau quarry. It is possible that there are more pieces buried below the roads or incorporated as recycled construction material to the ceremonial platforms themselves, so it is difficult to define the total number of pukao that were carved.


This mismatch between the number of pukao and statues is explained because pukao were added only to the moai that rose on certain selected ceremonial altars. In fact, these places already stood out above the others for a very elaborate architecture, as can still be apreciated in the Ahu Nau Nau on the beach of Anakena, the Ahu Hanga Te’e in Vaihu, the Ahu Akahanga or the impressive Ahu Tongariki.

After their incorporation to these ceremonial centers, pukao enhanced even more the images of the ancestors, since they gained in height and were more imposing. This increase in monumentality is consistent with the hypothesis that the development of pukao would be associated with the growing competition among tribal groups, which manifested their rivalry, making increasingly large moai on more elaborate altars.

Puna Pau, the factory of pukao

Detail of some pukao and red scoria outcrops in the crater of Puna Pau
Detail of some pukao and red scoria outcrops in the crater of Puna Pau

Puna Pau is a small extinct volcano, located about 7 kilometers northeast of Hanga Roa, whose name refers to a source or well of water that should have existed in its surroundings. This crater is part of a set of parasitic cones that emerged during the eruptions of Ma’unga Terevaka, the youngest and highest volcano on Easter Island.

Inside the Puna Pau crater there is a quarry of red scoria that was once an important source of raw material for the islanders. The red scum or hani hani, as it is known in the Rapanui language, is a type of volcanic ash of great porosity and scarce hardness, which shows a reddish color due to the iron oxide found in its composition.

The characteristics of this soft and easy-to-cut material, which made it unusable for construction, were valid enough to manufacture various types of objects, some very special. Among them there are about twenty statues of small size, containers for water, called taheta, blocks of ornamental type, and moai eyes.


Although there are other deposits of red scum on the island, the Puna Pau quarry was the most important of all, and is believed to be the origin of most of the known objects carved in hani hani. This relevance may possibly be due to the strong reddish color of its material, since in Rapanui culture color red is a symbolic color associated with sacred rites and mana or spiritual strength.

Read more about Religion and believes on Easter Island

Like the southern slope of the Rano Raraku volcano was the origin of most of the statues of the island, it is thought that a third of the crater of Puna Pau was used to manufacture all pukao. It is also believed that different work teams were formed that competed to have their own production areas in the quarry.

However, unlike Rano Raraku, it seems that Puna Pau was considered a secret and sacred place. Its hidden location from other parts of the island, an almost silent production, to be made inside the crater, and a red color especially valued contributed to its isolation and mysticism.

Shape and dimensions of pukao

The reconstructed moai of the Ahu Ko Te Riku at Tahai is the only image that has eyes and pukao on the whole island
The reconstructed moai of the Ahu Ko Te Riku at Tahai is the only image that has eyes and pukao on the whole island

The first step to manufacturing of pukao was to select and extract a block of red scoria from the Puna Pau quarry. Later it was carved until obtaining the form of a great smooth cylinder whose measurement was adjusted to the one of the moai that was going to receive it. Several of these giant cylinders are currently half-buried in the quarry, with dimensions that reach 3 meters in diameter and 2.6 meters in height.

Once this phase was finished, pukao were moved to the ceremonial platforms where the last details were carved and polished to obtain their definitive shape and size. The lower base, whose diameter is larger than the head on which it rests, was carved slightly hollowed to facilitate the adjustment with it. This concavity is not in the center, but left more margin in front, so that the pukao protruded over the eyes of the figures as a visor.

Finally, in the upper part of some headdresses another small protruding cylinder or protuberance was carved whose length varies between 15 and 60 cm, and which according to some interpretations symbolizes a topknot. The finished pukao measure between 1.2 to 2 meters high and 1.6 to 2.7 meters in diameter, and weigh an average of 5 tons although there are some that reach up to 11 tons.

Transfer and placement of pukao

Several abandoned pukao in the quarry of Puna Pau
Several abandoned pukao in the quarry of Puna Pau

Considering the enormous weight and size of pukao, the question arises of how they managed to move them to the ceremonial altars located on the coast. We must remember that platforms such as Ahu Nau Nau or Ahu Tongariki are more than 10 km away from the quarry of Puna Pau, and that to get there it is necessary to cross an irregular terrain dotted with volcanic hills.

The most shared hypothesis by the researchers is that ancient islanders took advantage of the cylindrical shape of pukao to transport them rolling on roads prepared for this purpose. In 2010, a team of British archaeologists, who were carrying out the first excavations in Puna Pau, discovered the original path one meter deep. In this way they confirmed that pukao came rolling down a road built with a powder cement of compressed red scoria, and that they were most likely to be pushed by hand or helped with wooden logs.

The manner in which pukao are aligned on one side of the road suggests that the road was a ceremonial avenue that led to the quarry itself; a sacred place for the ancient inhabitants because they believed that the spiritual force of nature was transferred to the carved rocks.

View of the huge pukao and the moai Paro of the Ahu Te Pito Kura
View of the huge pukao and the pukao Paro of the Ahu Te Pito Kura

Another question, which has not yet been cleared, is how pukao were installed on the heads of moai, once they were moved from the quarry to the ceremonial altars.

The most widespread and shared hypothesis suggests that ramps would have been used to elevate the pukao by rolling to the top of the statues, a fact that assumes that pukao were added to the moai after they were raised over the ahu.

Another theory states that the moai were raised with the pukao at the same time, joined together by ropes and logs. The two ideas could be compatible, since both techniques could be used depending on whether the statue was already standing on the platform or if it had not yet been lifted.

In any case, any of these jobs would have involved considerable expertise and the effort of many people. An example of this monumental task can be imagined in the Ahu Te Pito Kura, where one of the largest pukao ever carved was installed on the Paro moai, a huge statue of 10 meters considered the highest moai standing on an ahu.

Meaning of pukao

Possible similarity between the pukao and the old hats recreated during the Tapati Festival
Possible similarity between the pukao and the old hats recreated during the Tapati Festival

The meaning of pukao is not known with certainty and is another one of the many mysteries that the island encloses. The oral tradition of the Rapanui people has not preserved the reason for its elaboration, so modern researchers study different hypotheses, based on linguistic and historical issues, which try to explain why the ancient islanders created this unusual volcanic ornament.

It is known that the first European navigators who spotted Easter Island confused the pukao with red baskets, since then some showed heaps of white stones on its surface. Other visitors thought they could represent a warrior’s helmet or a crown.


It seems that the full name by which the ancient natives knew them was Hau hiterau moai, that means, “the red stone hat of the moai“, being hau the word for hat and hiterau the term given to the red scum. So that some think that pukao are schematic representations of the feather hats worn by the warriors. These hats, which according to some were called hau korakora, were reddish in color, both conical and cylindrical, and were used until the 19th century.

A variant of this hypothesis is that the cylinders symbolize some type of turban made with a vegetal fabric called tapa made with the bark of the mahute, a shrub that grows on the island.

Comparison between a pukao and a young rapanui with a topknot during the Tapati Festival
Comparison between a pukao and a young rapanui with a topknot during the Tapati Festival

The most widespread interpretation is that pukao represent topknots, in fact, that is its literal meaning in the Rapanui language. Maybe they tried to simulate the long hair of the ancient islanders, who used to dye it with kie’a, a natural pigment of reddish color, and pick it up in a high bun. Some believe that cutting hair may have been banned (taboo) for some social classes, since long hair could be associated with mana or magical power. An interesting argument that recalls the Biblical myth of Samson that based his extraordinary strength on the length of his hair.

It is possible that this idea has remained in time because even today, many young locals tend to wear long hair and pick it up in a high bun, a sign of male rapanui identity.


A last more mystical hypothesis argues that according to some Rapanui elders, the word pukao was used to mark the lips of the vulva, the female sexual organ. Considering that according to an ancient legend, the image of the first moai was inspired by the male sex, it turns out that the moai with the pukao would represent the union of the masculine and the feminine, a symbol of the procreation necessary for the mana or the spiritual energy can be transmitted from generation to generation.

In any case, there is no way of knowing if they wanted to represent or symbolize something specific in the pukao, since there are details that vary as seen in the different forms of the headdresses of the Ahu Nau Nau. Most likely they were just a striking decorative object with which to enhance the aesthetic appearance of already impressive statues.

The petroglyphs of pukao

Petroglyphs on the surface of one of the pukao of Puna Pau
Petroglyphs on the surface of one of the pukao of Puna Pau

After the year 1500 AD, a period of decline of Rapanui culture began that reached its peak at the end of the seventeenth century. During this dark period of Easter Island history, violent confrontations took place between the different clans of the island that modified forever the political and religious order that had existed until then.

Read more about the history of Easter Island

One of the most visible consequences of this great crisis was the demolition of the moai statues from their platforms. All the statues were shot down, some fell flat on their faces, others on their backs and almost all of them ended up broken and forgotten. The pukao that adorned some images were thrown away on impact with the ground and many rolled to stop several meters from the ahu.


Likewise, the pukao that were ready for transport never made their way to the platforms from the quarry of Puna Pau, where they remained half-buried to this day. However, it seems that they were not completely forgotten and, although they lost their original function, some pukao were later reused to record a great variety of symbols on them, most of which are still to be deciphered.

Today it is difficult to appreciate clearly the petroglyphs carved on the pukao, due to the erosion suffered by the porous and rough surface of the scoria. It is believed that these prints could show familiar or tribal markings, perhaps even memories of the battles that won the enemy during the wars between clans.

A pukao with petroglyphs that rolled to the shore at Vaihu Easter Island
A pukao with petroglyphs that rolled to the shore at Vaihu

Most of the petroglyphs are schematic representations of canoes (vaka), very common in the rock art of the island, and which were also recorded on statues, altars and flat outcrops of basaltic rock (see Papa Vaka). In other petroglyphs there are designs of birds, tangata manu, and other diverse signs difficult to identify.

A detailed study of the petroglyphs that decorate the pukao of Vinapu, Vaihu, Ahu Akahanga, Ahu Te Pito Kura and Puna Pau proved that one of the most represented motifs is a stylized boat with a curved stern and a prow. This fact is very interesting, since it has been contrasted that the pukao with the largest number of carved ships are in the places visited by the first European expeditions, such as Vinapu, or from where there was a direct view of the anchored ships, such as the case of Puna Pau.

If this analysis is correct, it would be an evident proof of the impact that the first European visitors had on Rapanui culture since the 18th century. A first western influence that was “literally” engraved on the stone and that would forever change the island’s way of life.


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