The moai have intrigued all who have seen them since 1722. None was standing when scientists first arrived, those upright today have been re-erected. But how did a Stone Age society ever make, move and raise them in the first place? And why?
"The statues are full of pride… the mouth firm, the nose elevated"
There are nearly 900 moai on Easter Island, in various stages of construction. Opinions differ widely on how they were moved and raised (Some think they were walked; others that they were pushed on log rollers) but no one disputes the years of effort involved in getting the statues carved and into place. Some stones weighed 80t, twice the weight of Stonehenge's, and were transported 16km from the quarry.
It was an Easter Islander's local knowledge that helped unlock the reason for their construction. Archaeologist, Sergio Rapu, matched coral fragments with a traditional name for the moai, 'living face of our ancestors' and realized that the figures had once had eyes. He believes the statues were overseeing the people, part of a Polynesian tradition of ancestor worship but on a scale seen nowhere else. Each totem was different to immortalize a particular chief, halfway between the living and the gods. With their backs to the sea they could inspire and protect the Islanders.
Scarce, violent times
That protection fell apart in the 1600s. The moai were torn down. Legends talk of a time of hardship, terror and cannibalism. Archaeological evidence includes wooden carvings of emaciated people and the appearance of a new implement - spear tips. Examination of skeletons from that time confirms the violence that took hold in the Island's society. He describes the people of the time as, "at war with themselves."