Easter Island – Worth the Trip – About Those Moai

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

“Massive, imposing, dark protectors around the island
you can sense their love, compassion and curiosity.
Mysterious, beautiful, a testament to time past
and yet part of an unseen future.”

Heather Markel, May 2019.


So, you want to know about the Moai? They are of course the top reason to be obsessed with Easter Island. While I thought I was just going to get some cool…head shots 😉 …I am mesemerized by the education I received. First of all they’re huge. They weigh an average of 13 tons each. Let’s put that in perspective. According to Quora, the average compact car weighs 2.9 tons and a larger car is about 4.3 tons. You’ve seen those huge trucks on the highway that move them around? Well, Easter Island doesn’t have any big trucks. These Moai were built when the first settlers came, sometime between 350 – 1200 AD. Even with today’s technology, everyone is baffled at not just how the Moai were moved from the quarry where they were built, how they were stood up on their platforms, and also, how they were even carved in the first place.

Every one of the Moai has a special feeling.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

Fascinatingly, I received slightly different accounts of facts from people on Easter Island than in Chile. For this post, I’ll stick to the Easter Island accounting. All of the Moai face inwards, with their back to the ocean, with the exception of one set – they are known as the Seven Travelers, and face the ocean. There is a legend that King Hotu Matu’a of the Polynesian islands sent 7 explorers to find the island that his priest, Hau Maka, had seen in a dream. There were two waves of migrations, and this is how the island was originally settled. Again, according to legend. So these unique Moai may represent those first 7 explorers. It’s interesting that the sun aligns perfectly with the Moai at the winter equinox on June 21st. (Remember, in South America, June is winter.)

“Simply awe inspiring.”

As for the other Moai, it’s believed that the reason they face inward is because the Rapa Nui inhabitants believed their island was the only place on earth, and nobody was coming. (Clearly a slight conflict with the story of the 7 travelers…) The people believed their king descended from the gods and used geneaology to determine the descendants. (Wars occured when too many questions were asked about why someone was ruling.) The Moai statues were built after the king died. His spirit inhabits the statue and this creates a connection with the gods. The people ask for mana (energy) and believe their Moai helps with resources and life. There used to be 8 – 17 tribes on the island. The only people to fight with, then were other tribes. When wars occured, the goal was to break the rival tribes’ Moai to destroy their connection with the gods. 

The 7 Travelers.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

The statues were built in the single quarry on the island. That means rival tribes would have their Moai carved, and carried, from the same place. It’s another source of confusion trying to understand how rival tribes could build their Moai in the same place. Possibly each tribe had their own set of carvers, or it was agreed that the quarry was a sacred area as two possibilities. What is still not understood is how, with no modern technology (and even with it, boggles the mind) did the Rapa Nui get the statues from the quarry to their final resting place, possibly several kilometers away. One theory is that they told the completed Moai to stand up and walk. (!) Another is aliens. (!) Either way, the completed statues often broke on the way to their pedestals, so the eyes were not opened (essentially they got eyeballs as the last step) until they were transported and standing up. This final step was the most sacred.
Sadly, all of the Moai were eventually face down – some were destroyed by war in 1864, and then a tsunami hit the island in 1960 which destroyed the rest.  Happily a restoration project led to most of them being restored so that we visitors can see these amazing Moai standing. One of the most famous sites is Ahu Tongariki. This is where you see the 15 Moai which take your breath away with the sunrise. A Japanese company led the restoration of these with a crane but that crane of course was only useful after the intense work of excavation and understanding exactly where each Moai rested and which fragments belonged to which statue. 
Moai built in later periods appear to be wearing hats – it’s not certain whether these were hats actually, or hair. All Rapa Nui were converted to Catholocism by 1870 and that’s when Moai stopped being built. Most of the Moai represent males. However, some are proposed to be female. Women were not considered important but elders were worshipped. You were considered an elder at age 30! 
Regardless of the various stories, myths and legends, when you go to Easter Island, the experience of standing in front of these beautiful Moai is stunning. They feel at once powerful, protective, kind and are inspiring, to say the least – how an ancient people could create them, and move them puts today’s miracles in perspective. Flights leave from Santiago once, or twice, per day (depending on the day) with LATAM airlines. Book your seat and go.

Of particular note – this is a replica of one of the most important Moai ever made. It represents the tradition of the bird man who would compete to rule the island each year by being the first to dive off a dangerous cliff, find the bird’s egg and return, alive, before any of the other contestants. It was stolen by sailors and presented to Queen Elizabeth as a gift and is at the British Museum. The Rapa Nui have requested its return.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

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