Why Do We Think Of The Easter Island Statues As Just Heads?

For most of my life I was under the impression–as are most people–that the famous “moai” statues on Easter Island were simply big stone heads. And then at some point my mind was blown–as were most people’s–when I saw a picture on the internet from an excavation project that dug out the earth around one of the heads and discovered an enormous stone body attached to it:

Photo: Easter Island Statue Project


But people have known for decades that the statues had bodies. We’ve all even seen pictures of them standing up with bodies before. The very first painting of Easter Island by William Hodges from 1776 depicts the statues with bodies:


So why do we think of them as just heads?

Now that I’ve been to Easter Island, I can tell you why!

The moai of Rapa Nui (the native name for Easter Island) were all carved from a quarry called Rano Raraku on a small mountainside. The construction process more or less went like this: the islanders carved the statues out of the side of the rock face of the mountain. The statues were carved as though they were lying on their backs. The head, face, and body were all shaped carefully, ultimately leaving the body connected to the mountain by a small spine of rock running along the statue’s back.

When the statue was nearly fully carved, the islanders snapped the statue off its spine and dragged it down the hillside. Near the carving site, a ditch would be dug with a sheer drop. They would drop the statue into the ditch, feet first, so they could stand it up, chisel off the spine on the statue’s back, and add tribal markings and finishing touches to it. From there they would “walk” the statues (through methods not 100% yet determined) to whichever point on the island it was meant to stand. (Usually with its back to the sea, theoretically acting as a protector over the tribe that carved it.)


Over time, tribal warfare broke out. One of the ways that tribes would assert dominance or insult other tribes was by knocking over their statues. By the time the Europeans arrived in the 1700s, most of the statues had been toppled. The last report of a standing moai is from 1863.


Later on, when people arrived on the island with cameras, the toppled statues didn’t make the best photo subjects. Most of them lie face down and seem featureless. But there were some statues that made for stunning pictures: the statues that had been abandoned mid-production at Rano Raraku.

Over hundreds of years, the soil on the mountainside eroded and gradually filled in the ditches and pits that had been used to stand the statues up. So quite a few statues ended up being buried to their shoulders, necks, or chins, and the ground around it appears to modern visitors as otherwise undisturbed.


Those are the photos that you see in National Geographic.

All of those classic, famous “big head” shots are taken at the Ranu Raraku quarry. The moai with their thousand yard stare, defying time, the elements, and historical inquiry…they capture the imagination in a way that the crumbled, broken, face-in-the-dirt statues elsewhere on the island may not have been able to.

Over the years, many groups have put forth efforts to restore some of the toppled statues. The first restorations were done back in the 1960s, followed by other restorations in the ‘70s. Most famously, Ahu Tongariki, a set of fifteen moai (the biggest set on the island which includes the heaviest moai on the island at 86 tonnes), was restored to standing position in the 1990s.


So for several decades we’ve all been at least marginally aware of the image of full-bodied moai. Most people recognize Ahu Tongariki when they see a photo of it. Why, then, were we all so blown away when we heard that the Eastern Island statues had bodies? (Some of you may be blown away just reading this very article!)

I suppose it’s a testament to the power of the stoic imagery of the heads at the quarry. If you could sum up the phrase “ancient mystery” in one picture, the Easter Island heads would easily rival Stonehenge or the Pyramids. The appeal of the unknown touches something deep inside the human psyche, and revealing a clue the size of a moai’s body sends a surge through us.

Luckily, there are still many mysteries left unsolved on Easter Island…did you know they used to have EYES AND HATS, too?


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