The Mo’ai of Easter Island

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is “the most remote, inhabited island on the face of the planet.” 1

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui is located 2 500 miles west of Santiago Chile and 1 500 miles east of Polynesia. It was settled by the Polynesians in the fifth century AD. Escaping overpopulated homelands, they set sail from Tahiti and the Marqueses for what is known today as Easter Island. 2

Without maps or compasses, in their outrigger canoes, the Polynesian navigators used their deep knowledge of currents, swells and the flight of birds in order to detect land including New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui. 3 By the fourteenth century, Rapa Nui had a thriving population that had reached 20 000, five times what the island could naturally support. 4

In 1722, however, when Dutch explorers arrived on the island on Easter day, hence the island’s new appellation, they were shocked to find a “starving population and a struggling culture.” What had happened? Why were the mo’ai, the island’s legendary stone statues, strewn about as if they’d been abandoned? Why had Rapa Nui eroded into a quasi-barren land?

Something eventful had happened that had nearly decimated the people of Rapa Nui whose population remained less than 2 000; the island was ecologically devastated; and, from a rich, thickly forested island, painfully few trees remained. 5

The Mystery of Easter Island Giants attributes the devastation of Rapa Nui to the inhabitants themselves placing the blame on overpopulation; the overproduction of mo’ai stone statues; and the depletion of the island’s natural resources. One theory posits that the statues were moved from the volcanic quarries where they were carved to other parts of the island (i.e., distances of up to twenty kilometers) by rolling them on logs and that this would have seriously depleted the island’s trees. Another theory claims that the mo’ai were moved upright with strategically positioned groups of men manipulating the statues’ movements using ropes. According to the ancients, though, the mo’ai walked to their new locations. 6

Ancestor worship

The mo’ai heads represent the island’s protective ancestors of old. They are said to personify the “living faces” of the Rapa Nui. When a chief died, a statue or, mo’ai, was carved in his honor in which his spirit was said to live on. The statues embodied the dead returned to life to act as guardians of the living. Although we are used to seeing the mo’ai with dark, empty eye sockets, reputed archaeologist Sergio Rapu discovered the mo’ai’s original, coral eyes. 7 When placed inside the statues’ empty eye sockets, the mo’ai take on an entirely new appearance and appear to look “alive.”

Lava tubes & cave living

In the sixteenth century, roughly one thousand years after settling, the inhabitants of Easter Island began inhabiting extensive cave systems in order to protect themselves against warfare and raiding, now endemic on the island. They lived and cooked in these caves, ancient lava tubes through which “rivers of molten rock once flowed from volcanoes now long extinct.” 8

There was no more wood from which to build their outrigger canoes and they were essentially cut off from the outside world. There were food shortages as fishing became difficult and the population grew. This created bitter and bloody conflicts over land and food between different clans.

Skeletal mo’ai

To illustrate the ecological and social ravages plaguing the island, a new kind of mo’ai were created: small wooden statues, emaciated in appearance. These skeletal figurines depicted the island’s starving population.

The Birdman Cult

The Birdman Cult, which replaced the Ancestor Cult, the worship of Rapa Nui’s ancestors in the form of the mo’ai, was the redistribution solution devised to resolve Rapa Nui’s resource problem (i.e., the dearth of agricultural land and food). Leaders and warriors gathered annually at Orongo in order to compete for the political and economic control of Easter Island. The outcome of the contest determined which clan would rule the island the coming year.

The egg hunt on Motu Nui

The clans’ best warriors would, carrying reed floaters, race down Orongo’s incredibly steep 1 000 ft. cliff at the bottom of which were shark-infested waters. Upon reaching the water, they would swim, supported by their reed floaters, fighting strong ocean currents and powerful swells, to the larger of two nearby islands, Motu Nui. Once on Motu Nui, they had to find the egg of what they considered to be a magical bird that came straight from heaven. Its egg was considered a symbol of “cosmic fertility and power.” 9

As soon as a warrior-contestant found an egg, and after most likely securing it in his headdress, he would plunge back into the water on his reed floater, swim back to the base of Orongo’s cliff, climb up, and give the egg to his chief, thus winning the grueling Birdman contest.

Rapa Nui

“Rano Kau volcano in Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island”

Image source: DzineBlog 360


“Patiperros-‘Rapa Nui'”

Image source: Club Chileno de Chicago


1 The Mystery of Easter Island Giants, Host, Josh Bernstein; Executive Producers, William Morgan and Jason Williams.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Mysterious Easter Island Heads Have Bodies Too, TheLeakSource.

The Mystery of Easter Island Giants, Host, Josh Bernstein; Executive Producers, William Morgan and Jason Williams.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.


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