NOVA Online (click here for NOVA home)
Secrets of Easter Island
menu (see bottom of page for text links)

Photo of Moai Stone Giants

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.

Photo of Moai 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 gods."

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.

Moai Stats
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: 92 (10%)

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:
  • Largest moai:
    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)

  • Smallest standing moai:
    Location: Poike
    Height: 3.76 feet (1.13 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)

First Inhabitants | Ancient Navigation | Stone Giants | First Contact

Photos: Liesl Clark

Move a Megalith | Dispatches | Explore the Island | Lost Civilization
Resources | E-mail | Table of Contents | Easter Island Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule
About NOVA | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Jobs | Search | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated November 2000