On average, they stand 13 feet high and weigh 14 tons, human
heads-on-torsos carved in the male form from rough hardened volcanic ash. The
islanders call them "moai," and they have puzzled ethnographers,
archaeologists, and visitors to the island since the
first European explorers
arrived here in 1722. In their isolation, why did
the early Easter Islanders undertake this colossal statue-building effort?
Unfortunately, there is no written record (and the oral history is scant) to
help tell the story of this remote land, its people, and the significance of
the nearly 900 giant moai that punctuate Easter Island's barren landscape.
What do they mean?
The moai and ceremonial sites are along the coast, with
a concentration on Easter Island's southeast coast. Here, the moai are more
'standardized' in design, and are believed to have been carved, transported,
and erected between AD 1400 and 1600. They stand with their backs to the sea and are
believed by most archaeologists to represent the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other
high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Easter Island,
or Rapa Nui, the name given by the indigenous people to their island in the 1860s.
Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg,
who has studied the
moai for many years, believes the statues may have been created in the image of
various paramount chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but
standardized representations of powerful individuals. The moai may also hold a
sacred role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for communication with
the gods. According to Van Tilburg, their physical position between earth and
sky puts them on both secular and sacred ground; secular in their
representation of chief and their ability to physically prop up the sky, and
sacred in their proximity to the heavenly gods. Van Tilburg concludes, "The
moai thus mediates between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and
What is an ahu?
The word "ahu" has two meanings in Easter Island culture. First, an ahu is the
flat mound or stone pedestal upon which the moai stand. The ahus are, on
average, about four feet high. The word 'ahu' also signifies a sacred ceremonial
site where several moai stand. Ahu Akivi,
for example, is an ahu site
with seven standing moai.
The following statistics on Easter Island's moai are the results of Van
Tilburg's survey in 1989. She reported, "A total of 887 monolithic statues has
been located by the survey to date on Easter Island...397 are still in situ in
quarries at the Rano Raraku central production center.....Fully 288 statues
(32% of 887) were successfully transported to a variety of image ahu
locations....Another 92 are recorded as "in transport," 47 of these lying in
various positions on prepared roads or tracks outside the Rano Raraku zone."
Number of Moai
Total number of moai on Easter Island: 887
Total number of maoi that were successfully transported to their final ahu
locations: 288 (32% of 887)
Total number of moai still in the Rano Raraku quarry: 397 (45%)
Total number of moai lying 'in transit' outside of the Rano Raraku quarry:
Less than one third of all carved moai actually made it to a final ceremonial
ahu site. Was this due to the inherent difficulties in transporting them? Were
the ones that remain in the quarry (45%) deemed culturally unworthy of
transport? Were they originally intended to remain in place on the quarry
slopes? Or had the islanders run out of the resources necessary to complete
the Herculean task of carving and moving the moai?
Size and weight of moai
Measuring the size, weight, and shape of the 887 moai on Easter Island has been
a 15-year process for Van Tilburg. The most notable statues are listed below:
Location: Rano Raraku Quarry, named "El Gigante"
Height: 71.93 feet, (21.60 meters)
Weight: approximately 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons)
Largest moai once erect:
Location: Ahu Te Pito Kura, Named "Paro"
Height: 32.63 feet (9.80 meters)
Weight: approximately 82 tons (74.39 metric tons)
Largest moai fallen while being erected:
Location: Ahu Hanga Te Tenga
Height: 33.10 feet (9.94 meters)
Van Tilburg's painstaking effort to inventory and carefully measure the nearly
900 moai statues on Easter Island has enabled her to construct a digital
version of an average moai. This digital statue has informed her hypothesis for
a potential transport method for moving the moai; the
statue which Van Tilburg's team will attempt to move and erect for the NOVA
program has been made to the exact dimensions of this digital moai. The
dimensions are as follows:
Statistically average moai:
Height: 13.29 feet (4.05 meters)
Width at Base: 5.25 feet (1.6 meters)
Width at Head: 4.86 feet (1.48 meters)
Depth through body at midpoint: 3.02 feet (92 cm.)
Total volume: 210.48 cubic feet (5.96 cubic meters)
Center of gravity: 4.46 feet (1.36 meters)
Total weight: 13.78 tons (12.5 metric tons)