As we neared Rano Raraku, the site of the quarry where Easter Islanders once fashioned the famous stone statues (Moai) for which the island is best known, I couldn’t help but exclaim in sheer amazement.
There, scattered across the side of an extinct volcano, stood dozens of Moai: giant heads representing long-ago chieftains and other notable ancestors, carved at the quarry centuries ago. For perhaps a variety of reasons, these Moai were never moved from their original location, and here they remain, as though displayed in a surrealistic open-air factory showcase.
Rano Raraku is an almost mandatory stop on any tour of Easter Island (also known by its traditional name, Rapa Nui). Various trails lead around the site, allowing you to see both the standing and “sleeping” Moai – as those that have fallen down are called.
Some lie on their sides, some on their backs, and some are upside down. Some are believed to have fallen in transit while leaving the quarry, while others were toppled by natural forces or perhaps by humans.
Nearly 400 Moai stand or “sleep” in the area altogether, compared to about 500 found elsewhere on the island.
While they bear a general resemblance to each other, the Moai often differ in detail. One I spotted at the quarry had particularly large ears, for instance – no doubt a real-life attribute of the ancestor being honored. They also vary markedly in size.
The Sleeping Giant
One of the most remarkable sights at the quarry is the “giant” – an enormous Moai that was being carved right out of the granite mountainside when it was abandoned.
Still lying on its back, unfinished, the giant is more than 72 feet long and weighs nearly 200 tons – three times the weight of any Moai that were successfully moved from the quarry. (The average weight of a Moai is still a hefty 14 tons.)
In the end, the giant’s team of carvers may have simply given up.
Viewing these uncompleted Moai gives a good indication of how the carvers worked. The fronts were chiseled out while they were still in the ground, while the backs were carved after the Moai were cut loose from the granite, turned over and slid down the mountainside.
Questions and Theories
No one knows for certain about the long-buried secrets of Rapa Nui, which is one of the most remote islands on earth, some 2,200 miles from the South American mainland (it’s now part of Chile).
The Polynesians who occupied Rapa Nui when European explorers arrived mostly died off from disease, were taken away as slaves, or succumbed to island wars, cannibalism, or eroded soil that made it difficult to grow food. About 4,000 people now live permanently on the island, many of them Chilean.
Key questions remain: What motivated the islanders to spend so much time and energy carving the Moai? And how did they transport the enormously heavy heads to villages on the far reaches of the island, to be placed atop sacred platforms — called ahus — to stand watch and exert mana (power) over the residents’ daily activities?
A popular theory for the latter question is that the islanders constructed sleds of logs and rolled the giant heads to their destinations.
An additional puzzle was how the islanders got the heads upright once they reached the ahus. One theory surmises that they placed stones under the Moai to gradually prop them up until they were standing.
Restoration and Nature
Today around the island you can see a number of ahus with Moai neatly lined atop them, mostly the work of restorers. (When Captain Cook landed here in 1774, few Moai were still standing, leading to speculation that warring villages toppled each other’s Moai off their platforms in an attempt to destroy their mana, or power.) Some 240 basalt platforms can still be found on the island, many of them heavier than the Moai themselves, and which also had to be transported from quarries.
At the Moai quarry, we eventually followed a trail to the back of the granite mountain to see the volcanic crater, where yet more Moai were visible in a natural setting that was quite lush, green, and in many places, overgrown. We never knew when we might encounter one of these remarkable statues partially hidden by bushes around a bend in the trail.
As much as I was thrilled to see the restored Moai standing proudly atop their platforms with lovely seaside backdrops in various settings around the island, the sight of the Moai that never left the quarry – some standing, some toppled, others still lying half-finished in their granite tombs – are, to me, the most poignant reminders of a mysterious but remarkable civilization that once existed, far out in the Pacific.