Easter Island Feature

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Mysteries of the Moais

Most people are drawn to Easter Island by the moai, the stone statues that have puzzled outsiders since the first Europeans arrived there almost three centuries ago. These squat, minimalist figures with over-sized heads are believed to have been the crowning glory of a family shrine, standing on an ahu—or stone platform—beneath which ancestors were buried, and transmitting their mana, or power, to the living family chief. That probably explains why most moai look inland, rather than out to sea.

Most of the moai were carved at the Rano Raraku quarry in the east of the island where many can still be seen at different stages of completion. That, in itself, was a mammoth task with only stone tools to chisel the statues laboriously out of the volcanic hillside. It was, however, nothing compared to that of transporting the finished statues to their ahu.

Ask Easter Islanders today how this was achieved and they're still likely to tell you that the moai "walked." Most archaeologists, however, believe they were either dragged on wooden platforms or rolled along on top of tree trunks. It's not clear how they could have been moved miles without damaging the delicate features that were carved at the quarry.

And, once they arrived at their ahu, how were the moai lifted into place? In 1955, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and a team of a dozen men were able to raise the single moai on Ahu Ature Huki in 18 days. In 1960 archaeologists William Mulloy and Gonzalo Figueroa and their men raised the seven moai at Ahu Akivi. They struggled for a month to lift the first, but the last took only a week.

Both teams used the same method—lifting them with a stone ramp and wooden poles. This technique would be unwieldy for lifting the larger moai, however. It also fails to explain how the pukao, or topknots, were placed on many of the heads.

And why were the moai subsequently toppled? The reason, ironically enough, seems to have been that creating them required a tremendous amount of natural resources, particularly wood, and as these were depleted, family groups that had once worked in harmony began to squabble, attacking the source of their opponent's mana—their moai.

That, at least, is the theory put forward by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. If that is the case, the moai are not only Easter Island's glory but, as the island was deforested, the cause of the decline of the civilization that created them. But, in a way, the moai are still serving their original purpose: mana meant prosperity and the moai continue to bring this today in the form of tourism.

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