The greatest mystery of Easter Island, a tiny speck (63 square miles) located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,150 miles west of Chile, is how its statues (known as moai) were moved up to 11 miles from a hillside quarry to platforms all around the island’s perimeter. Despite the stunning ocean vistas, the moai are all facing inland, apparently watching over the lands of their respective clans. Archeaologists believe that the native islanders, the Rapa Nui, carved a total of 887 statues predominantly from compressed volcanic ash between 1250 and 1500. These minimalist monolithic creatures, carved with a rounded base, weigh as much as 80 tons (the average weight is 13 tons), ranging in height from four to 33 feet. Unfortunately, between 1722 and 1868, all the moai were toppled by warring clans. Although this seems petty (Take that — I just knocked over your moai!), it is a venerated act of defiance or victory carried out in modern times — recall the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein by American troops in Bagdhad back in April 2003.
Each year more than 50,000 tourists visit the tiny island to take photos of the moai (as a UNESCO World Heritage site, no one is permitted to touch the statues). As tourists stand before the enigmatic giants, the overwhelming question on everyone’s mind is: how did the natives of this island move the moai — especially without the use of wheels or draft animals? If you ask the natives they will answer: “the maoi walked” according to Rapanui oral tradition. Nevertheless, over the centuries, many archaeologists have attempted to solve the riddle of Easter Island. Here are the most popular theories, from the practical to the ridiculous:
1955: Norwegian Ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl and a team of 180 strapped a moai onto a tree trunk and dragged it along dirt roads.
1968: Erich von Danken, a Swiss author and habitual miscreant (he was imprisoned for embezzlement, forgery, and fraud) published Chariots of the Gods? that suggested that extraterrestrial aliens built and placed the statues on Easter Island. Despite his outrageous claims based on pseudoscience and fanciful fabrication, the book was a bestseller. Needless to say, scientists were not amused.
1970: American archaeologist William Mulloy created a desktop model showing that a moai could be transported on its belly by swinging forward a little bit at a time while being suspended by the neck from two inverted beams that formed a V.
1986: Czech engineer Pavel Pavel and 17 workers walked a moai with a twisting motion using a rope attached to the head and another attached to the base of the statue (about three feet from the bottom).
1987: American archaeologist Charles Love and 25 men placed a moai on a wood sled and hauled it over log rollers. A rope was attached to the head and to the base.
1998: American archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg and 40 helpers placed a moai on an A-frame wood sledge and pulled it over lubricated log rollers.
2005: American scientist, Jared Diamond, published Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, suggesting that the Rapa Nui placed the maoi on wooden sledges and pulled them along log rollers (based on the experiment by Van Tilburg).
2011: American archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo proposed that three small groups of natives could have walked the moai by gently rocking it forward by pulling on three different ropes attached to the head. Two groups would coax the statue forward by rocking the moai side to side, while the third group would stabilize it from the back (since the statue had a tendency to fall forward). Hunt and his team of 18 were able to walk a moai a few hundred feet using this technique, confirming what the locals believe — that the moai walked. And certainly, the maoi are not pushovers.
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For further reading: “Easter Island: The Riddle of the Moving Statues” by Hannah Block, National Geographic Magazine (July 2012)
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (2005)
The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (2012)