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Archaeologists Make A Strange Discovery On Easter Island

Published 2 years ago on October 16, 2017
By Vincent

The Chilean territory of Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth with its nearest neighbor being the Pitcairn Islands which are still over 1289 miles away! Despite this isolation, it is thought that the Rapa Nui people settled on the island between 300 and 1200 CE and some remnants of a society have remained in place there ever since.

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However, one of the most enduring images of the island are the iconic Moai heads, 887 giant stone effigies of ancestors as well as being ancient embodiments of spirits that the community worshipped. Their sheer size and weight have meant that how they came to be transported and dotted all over the island from the quarry they were carved from remains a mystery to this day and their history is shrouded in speculation, but archaeologists recently made a discovery that only adds to the intrigue of the statues.

Easter Island

The first settlers on Easter Island would have been Austronesian Polynesians and are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the West, and it was they who carved and erected these statues in the shape of distorted human bodies.

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Carved between the years 1250 and 1500 CE, there are over 900 documented statues with around 13 being taken off the island for research and educational purposes with many ending up in museums across the world including the British Museum. However, as to why the production of the statues ceased is another yet unlearned story.

Signs of Discord

European accounts in 1722 (Dutch) and 1770 (Spanish) reported seeing only standing statues, but by James Cook's visit in 1774 many were reported toppled and it is thought that this was a sign of internal struggles with the civilization and this was a sign of rebellion or overthrown power.

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However, no completely valid reasons have been found with the nearest idea being that the society used up all of its natural resources.

A Common Misconception

Often referred to as 'the stone heads of Easter Island' it is a common misconception that has been popularized by modern literature that the statues are just heads, but they also have arms and torsos.

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The idea that they were just heads comes from the fact that the most popular images of the statues are of those buried on the slopes of the Rano Raruku volcano, probably because the relative shelter there has meant that they have suffered from less erosion than other Moai on the island.

Excavating The Moai

The other Moai were all carved with torsos and arms and excavation of some of the heads on the slopes of Rano Raruku also proved that they had been carved with such features as well.

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For whatever reason, they were buried up to their shoulders and so the lasting image of just stone heads popping out of the ground is the one that has entered pop-culture.

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Other Discoveries

These excavations also led to further information being gleaned about the statues as well with large portions of red pigment being found inside the excavation structures.

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This pigment is thought to have been red pumice that was rubbed over the statues at the end of carving in order to smooth and color them at the same time.

Tribal Tattoos

On the back of many of the partially buried statues are markings and symbols. Whilst many of these are believed to be petroglyphs, with symbols for canoes or vaka being a common theme, other markings are thought to represent the tribal tattoos that were common practice amongst the island's community.

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These were only really discovered on many of the sheltered or buried statues due to the fact that the soft basalt material has meant the erosion of the other, more exposed, markings quite quickly.

Rongorongo

Rongorongo is a series of glyphs discovered on Easter Island in the 19th century which seem to represent writing or proto-writing of an ancient language. In incredibly good condition these like the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, many have tried to decipher what they say and if they have any historical knowledge that we can glean from them.

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However, unlike the hieroglyphs, these glyphs have never been cracked despite objects dating back right to the 12th century with them on. As such, many of the marks on the unearthed statues remain indecipherable.

A Heavy Undertaking

Excavating, unearthing and raising the statues was no mean feat for archaeologists given their huge size and massive weight. The tallest Moai statue is 33-feet tall and weighs a staggering 82-tons and so moving them was hard work even with today's modern technology.

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The heaviest moai erected was a shorter but squatter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 86 tonnes. And one unfinished sculpture, if completed, would have been approximately 21 m (69 ft) tall, with a weight of about 270 tonnes. This is why their transportation all over the island remains a hotly debated topic in historical circles as ancient technology would seemingly not have been up to this task.

Little Vegetation

Another twist in the tale of how these statues came to rest where they are is that the island was largely treeless by the time the Europeans first visited, the movement of the statues was thought impossible as no logs could be cut down and used as rollers.

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Pollen analysis has now established that the island was almost totally forested until 1200 A.D. but the tree pollen disappeared from the record by 1650.

Hard Work

It is thought that the islanders cleared the trees themselves, but there is still no evidence to suggest rollers were largely used to move the statues.

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Another such theory as to their movement is that ropes were secured around the statues and they were dragged by sheer force of numbers with up to 50-100 people required for each statue.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Czech engineer Pavel Pavel collaborated with Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl in order to construct their own life-size Moai statue and then try out this theory of moving the statue with a mass of people.

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Although they showed evidence of movement and how this could be done, they abandoned the idea when the statue showed signs of damage and, given the soft nature of the basalt that the originals are carved from, it is also likely they would have sustained serious damage if this method was used.

A Unique Design

The design of the Moai is something that makes them particularly iconic. Almost all Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, a design feature found throughout Polynesia with a belief in the sanctity of the head taking precedence.

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The heads have heavy brows and elongated noses with a distinctive fish-hook-shaped curl of the nostrils. The lips protrude in a thin pout. Like the nose, the ears are elongated and oblong in form. The jaw lines stand out against the truncated neck. The torsos are heavy, and, sometimes, the clavicles are subtly outlined in stone.

Based In Genealogy

Although these carvings are obvious caricatures of human features, their design may reflect the genealogy of the Rapa Nui people with skulls that were discovered on the island appearing to be long and narrow, with an indication that the Rapa Nui people may have had longer ears than the average human being.

British Museum/wikipedia.org

There is also evidence that long-eared and short-eared tribes may have gone to war against one another with long-eared tribes descending from Peruvians whilst short-eared tribes were more likely to have had Polynesian origins.

A Spiritual Aspect

Whilst some Moai represented ancient ancestors, others were considered to be physical manifestations of sacred spirits and as such were highly idolized.

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Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen undertook an expedition to the island in 1722 and noted of the Rapa Nui reaction to the Moai, "they relied in case of need on their gods or idols which stand erected all along the seashore in great numbers, before which they fall down and invoke them.” He also noted there were sorts of priests within each community who were much more devout to the carvings than many other islanders.

The Legend of Ahu Akivi

One particularly fascinating story relates to seven aligned Moai that sit on a raised platform called Ahu.

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Seven Moai of equal size and stature stand inland and face the sunset during the Spring Equinox. Then, during the Autumn Equinox, they face away from the sunrise. The seven statues represent seven protectors who in a dream, were ordered by the King’s spirit to wait for him and his other scouts to return from a trip across the Pacific Ocean.

Not All The Same

Whilst many of the statues have very similar features, they are not all the same with many of the later Moai sporting what looks like headgear.

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The headgear, known as pukao in Rapa Nui, actually represented hair tied into a topknot, something chieftains would do to represent the authority bestowed upon them.

Tukuturi

One notably different Moai is that of Tukuturi, thought to be a carving of an ancient singer.  The figure was found in a kneeling position, resembling the celebratory stance during the festival of rui.

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Unlike many of the other Moai, this one has a beard and is much smaller than many of the other carvings. It is also made from a different material, being carved from red Puna Pua stone. All but 53 of the more than 900 moai known to date were carved from tuff (a compressed volcanic ash) from Rano Raraku.

National Park

Easter Island is home to the Rapa Nui National Park with a large portion of the island being declared as part of this park. As such it is afforded great protections by the national government of Chile although recent disagreements over governance have led to disputes.

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Many Rapa Nui descendants want autonomy and self-determination which has led to Chilean police to clamp down hard on many of the natives, especially given the importance bestowed on the island by the national government.

World Heritage Site

Not only a national park but also given World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1996, the Rapa Nui National Park largely met the criteria for such protection due to the Moai.

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Their cultural significance is undoubted, but there is still much more to learn and uncover about their intriguing history and importance.

A Vital Tourist Attraction

The majority of the island's economy is based around tourism with the Moai being the main draw to the remote region where hospitality has flourished because of them.

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Carvings and other artisan crafts have been kept alive by the tourist trade, and so the Moai remain integral to Easter Island to this day.

 

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