The story of the moai are an integral part of the history of Rapa Nui. Not only do these haunting statues celebrate the height of culture on Easter Island, but they are also a large contributing factor to its downfall.

When the first Polynesians arrived at the shores of Easter Island they were greeted by a lush forested landscape. This Garden of Eden-like paradise provided a strong resource foundation for a thriving population, society, and culture. Like most thriving populations from any era around the world, the Rapa Nui involved themselves in symbolic construction, in their case the Moai. Tributes to the spirits of their ancestors, their chiefs, and other V.I.Ms (Very Important Males) in a standardised design.

The Moai are cleverly carved utilising existing cracks in the volcanic rock, and form a head and torso statue which stand with their backs to the sea atop ahu platforms. Most of the moai were established between 1400 and 1600 A.D. The moai average around 14 tonnes each, so moving each to their ahu was no easy feat, but was managed by rolling the large stone statues on their side on tree logs. More trees were needed to lever the statue into upright position. A competition ensued between clans to build the biggest and the most numerous moai.

As the population increased to around 10,000, it reached a critical level that could no longer be sustained by its rapidly dimishing resources. The Rapanui clans began fighting for rights to the scarce resources that remained. However the fierce competition for moai building continued, furthering the destruction of the forests. Some moai were discovered resting exactly where they were carved, too large for transport. The largest measures 70 feet. And for those clans who could not keep up with the jones', they went around destroying the moai of other clans instead. The most fun one was placing rocks in the path of the moai so that it would be decapitated as it fell.

Thus the Rapanui continued until their entire society collapsed. Limited wood was available for the construction of boats, so no fishing could be done, and no fuel was available to burn. With the land bare from the cover of trees, erosion reigned. The population diminished to around 800. The culture was dominated by the Birdman Cult, which seemed to have a strange fetish for the eggs of the sooty tern.

All because they were more impressed with their 30ft moai than any 30ft tree.

The moai are the famous megalithic anthropomorphic statues of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui. Although there are no written records and scant oral history regarding the production, transportation, and production of the moai, Easter Island happens to be one of the most studied cultures on earth, at least relative to its size and contemporary importance, and over the years a multitude of archaeological, ethnographic, and geological studies have allowed a general scholarly consensus to form about certain key aspects of the moai.

The moai, all of which are male, are believed to represent the ancestors of the Polynesian chieftains that ruled the island. These chiefs legitimated their authority via their ability to mediate with powerful ancestor-gods on behalf of their people, to secure earthly blessings such as a bountiful harvest. Contrary to popular conception, the moai do not face the sea. Although they sat on ahu platforms near the seashore, where they could straddle the sacred border between the Earth, Sea, and Sky, they actually faced inland so they could watch over the people.

To facilitate their watchfulness the moai were originally fitted with massive eyes - black pupil on stark-white shell. These staring eyes are truly frightening to behold, and must have given the Easter Islanders a powerful sense of being watched at all times. Likely, the eye was considered an important source of power by the islanders, which might explain why, during the endemic warfare that destroyed their society, the islanders systematically removed and smashed every moai eye on the island (the fragments were found around the bases of the moai), perhaps as a way of venting their anger at the gods who had so utterly failed them.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the moai is the questions surrounding how such massive statues could have been produced and transported. Fortunately, more than 2/3 of the 887 total moai on Easter Island never made it to their final destinations, and were instead abandoned at various stages of the process in the quarries on the steep sides of the island's large central volcano, or along the transport routes to the sea, thus providing a relatively clear picture of the moai production.

The moai were carved from crevices in the volcanic rock, often quite cleverly such that a minimum of removal carving was needed. After removal, the moai were finished nearby, with many being buried up to their necks, presumably for ease of further carving. Many moai are still buried in this manner, accounting for the popular image of the moai as just a giant head, when in fact the finished moai included the torso as well. After finishing, the moai were then lowered down the sides of the mountain using a pulley system, and then rolled several kilometers to the sea on log rollers. The exact details of this process have been endlessly debated, but almost certainly included log rollers and ropes and pulleys.

Ultimately, the moai contributed significantly to the collapse of the Easter Island society. In the initial stages of the crisis, as harvests declined due to topsoil depletion and deforestation, production of the moai increased dramatically. As resources became scarce, competition increased and the island society fragmented into separate clans who competed to erect the largest and most plentiful moai. Undoubtedly the people believed that more moai would mean more "mana" from the gods to reverse the failing harvests, but of course diverting already diminishing resources to such an objectively useless endeavor only deepened the crisis. At last in desperation and anger, they would turn on the moai, smashing the eyes and pulling most of them down onto sharp rocks perfectly placed to decapitate.

But it was already to late. The once lush forests and rich topsoil were gone forever, and the Easter Islanders' fate was sealed.


Moai Stats

Total moai on Easter Island: 887
Total number of moai successfully transported and erected at their final ahu destinations: 288
Average height of the moai: 4.05 meters (13.29 feet)
Average weight of the moai: 12.5 metric tons
Largest moai: "El Gigante," located in Rano Raraku main quarry, 21.60 meters (71.93 feet) tall, approximately 160-182 metric tons
Largest moai once erect: "Paro," located at Ahu Te Pito Kura, 9.80 meters (32.63 feet) tall, 74.39 metric tons

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