At Large  March 1, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Climate Change Reveals New Moai Statue on Easter Island

Photo taken by Ian Sewell, July, 2006. Wikimedia

Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island. These moai were restored in the 1990's by a Japanese research team after a cyclone knocked them over in the 1960's.

Last week there was an exciting discovery on the remote volcanic Easter Island in Polynesia: a new moai statue. Found on the dry lakebed of Lake Rano Raraku, this moai is much smaller than the thousands that have already been cataloged. Due to the change in climate in recent years that dried up the lake, archeologists were given the opportunity to study the area, which led to this discovery, as the statue was previously hidden by the tall reeds that grow in the lake bed.

The Indigenous organization Ma’Henua’s vice president, Salvador Atan Hito, spoke to Good Morning America about the excavation. He said, “For the Rapa Nui people, it’s [a] very, very important discovery, because it’s here in the lake and nobody knows this exists – even the ancestors, our grandparents don’t know [about] that one.” Ma’Henua is the Indigenous organization on the island that oversees the island’s national park.

Hito also said that with these new dry conditions on the island, there might be more to uncover in the dried-up lake bed including more moai, and tools that were used to carve the statues and writings. Terry Hunt, professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona said, “When there’s one moai in the lake, there’s probably more.” 

Researchers are still figuring out what the next steps are, but they have already said they will do radiocarbon dating on the organic matter of the statue, so they can get the exact date of the carving.


Map of Easter Island using moai to show locations of various ahu


But what are the moai, and why are these statues so important? 

The moai are monolithic statues that depict a whole body. They are known for their rectangular-shaped heads, long noses, strong chins, and slits for eyes. But, they are often referred to as Easter Island heads because of the disproportionate size of their heads, and the fact that many were buried up to their shoulders. 

The statues were carved by the Polynesian Rapa Nui people, over a thousand years ago between the years 1250 and 1500 AD. There are about one thousand moai statues known thus far. The moai are made out of volcanic tuff or solidified ash. A volcanic crater supplied much of the stone used to make the statues

The average moai statue is about thirteen feet tall, and the tallest found was over thirty feet tall. Many archeologists believe that the figures were representations of ancient Polynesian ancestors, as part of a Polynesian tradition of honoring your ancestors. The bigger the statue, the higher the status of the individual. And, the more expensive and laborious the process would be. They also functioned as religious and political symbols of authority, and as repositories of sacred spirit. This was not unusual in ancient Polynesian religion, as carved stone and wooden objects were typically thought to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called “mana.”


Photographic view of the back of a moai (figure carving) with petroglyph carvings and a South American man; Rano Raraku, Easter Island.

After constructing the form, the completed statues would be moved to the coast to be erected. Historically, they were found to be placed facing away from the ocean and toward the community, as if watching over the Rapa Nui people. The movement of the moai is still a mystery, and archeologists don’t know how they moved such heavy statues–some over a hundred tons–from one side of the island to the other. Some ideas researchers have come up with are ropes, wooden sleds, or they were placed on top of logs and rolled. But even the latter theory would require up to one hundred men to move the moai. 

There have been many accounts by islanders that the statues walked themselves, or were endowed with the power to walk. These theories go back to an ancient king, Tuu Ku Ihu, who supposedly moved the moai with the help of the god Makemake. Another story tells of an old woman who lived on the mountain and was able to order the statues to move at her will. But scholars are not yet swayed by these magical accounts and many take up the theory that the moai were rocked back and forth via a rope to move the statues. This method would make sense with the walking theories, as it would have made the moai look like they were walking. 

As for the newly discovered moai, researchers are not yet sure how it got to the bottom of a lake. We’ll just have to wait and see what they find next!

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