In one of the most remote spots on Earth, separated by more than two thousand miles of ocean from the nearest centers of civilization, is a lone, triangular-shaped island that occupies about 64 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, which spans 70 million square miles. On the island’s southeast coast stand nearly a hundred huge, megalithic monuments carved in a stylized manner to resemble male human heads with elongated facial features. Some 800 additional statues remain in a quarry or scattered about the island.
The statues average about 13 feet in height, 5 feet in width, and weigh an average of 14 tons; they stand on stone platforms averaging
4 feet in height. Islanders call the statues “moai,” and the platforms are called “ahus,” but the megaliths abound in mystery: who carved them and what is their significance?
Inhabitants call the island Rapa Nui. Europeans have known it as Easter Island since the first recorded contact in 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen (1659– 1729). The island is also known as Isla de Pascua in Spanish, the language of Chile, the South American country that annexed the island in 1888. But Chile, on the closest continent to Easter Island, lies 2,300 miles to the east. Tahiti, the nearest large island to the west, is 2,500 miles away from Easter Island. It is 1,500 miles to the nearest area of human habitation, Pitcairn Island. Another mystery, then, is how the island came to be populated, and how the isolated island people managed to make and move the immense moai.
The island inhabitants could tell little about the moai to European visitors. Evidence of a once-thriving culture existed on the island, but when Roggeveen named the island on Easter Sunday, 1722 the several thousand Polynesian inhabitants were struggling for survival. At the time of this first contact with Europeans, islanders called their home Te Pito O Te Henua, which has been variously translated as “naval of the world,” “end of the world,” and “lands’ end.” The population and land were even more impoverished 50 years later when British explorer James Cook (1728–1779) arrived there. Islanders were readily willing to trade old, elaborate wood carvings for food and cloth. Noting that the statues were not part of the inhabitants’ sacred rituals, Cook called them “monuments of antiquity” in his notes.
The engineering feat of moving moai from the quarry to their sites remains unexplained, particularly since there is no evidence of wheels or a pully system through which such massive blocks could be transported. No evidence of advanced engineering skills exists on the island. Islanders told Captain Cook and more modern visitors that the moai walked from the quarry to their sites on the ahus.
Some theorists have speculated that the monuments are remnants of the lost continent of Mu. According to that account, Lemurians, an intellectually advanced race of people, were responsible for crafting, moving, and erecting the monuments. The stones were moved from quarry to ahu using ancient secrets known to the Lemurians, perhaps involving levitation or the secret for liquifying stone.
The two most prominent theories with some scientific evidence have the island becoming inhabited by seafarers, moving east to west from South America or west to east from Polynesia, who settled on the island, established a thriving community, and erected the monuments. The east to west theory was popularized in the late 1940s by anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (1911–2002) who made a daring journey across the Pacific in a primitive balsa wood craft called the Kon Tiki. By doing so, Heyerdahl successfully overturned the notion that prehistoric South Americans could not have made the ocean journey to Polynesian islands in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean. Heyerdahl’s voyage with a crew of five took 101 days and covered 4,300 miles and proved that such a journey could be made. Favorable winds blow east to west across the south Pacific Ocean. Those winds cross Easter Island and keep it warm year round.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, anthropologist Jo Ann Von Tilburg made important contributions to the study of the Easter Island megaliths. Her research has been featured in documentaries on Easter Island broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System’s Nova series, as well as The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, The History Channel (appearing with Thor Heyerdahl), and the syndicated Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. In 1998 she completed an experimental archaeology project using a computer to simulate the crafting and transporting of an average-sized moai. Her project showed that an average moia could be moved about six miles in under five days by a team of 70 people. In the simulation, the statues were laid on two long poles that form a track and were rolled forward over smaller logs within the track. Polynesians had long been adept with hinges and levers to help lift and prop large objects through their construction of large canoes. Such devices could be used to place the moai on the ahus.
The megaliths on Easter Island stand with their backs to the sea. Many archaeologists believe that signifies the edge of the Polynesian’s world. The statues are believed to be the spirits of ancestors and high-ranking chiefs. That the faces are standardized perhaps indicates an archetype of a powerful individual. Van Tilburg suggests that the moai are positioned on platforms to indicate they are links between heavenly gods and the material earth. Polynesians erect such statues as “sky props” that help hold up the heavens, and their leaders are considered the props that hold up the community.
The monuments on Easter Island were believed to have been erected between 1400 and 1550, until radiocarbon dating in the 1990s pushed that date back some 700 years. A history can be sketched beginning around 400, with the arrival of Polynesians. The community on Easter Island fell into decline after 1550, and resources were nearly exhausted at the time of first contact with Europeans in the eighteenth century.
Geology professor Charlie Love, of Western Wyoming Community College, with a crew of 17 students, archaeologists, and islanders, spent much of the summer of 2000 attempting to solve the mystery of how the great stone heads, some weighing as much as 90 tons, had been moved from the quarry to the ceremonial centers on the coast of Easter Island. Although the roadways have not been firmly dated, Love agreed with previous estimates that the statue-moving activity ended about 1500. After several months of on-site investigation, Love readily conceded that the mysteries of Easter Island had not been solved.