Everything You Need to Know About the Moai

The Moai, better known as the Easter Island heads, are world-renowned and commonly recognized statues.

Mar 6, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History

moai easter island heads


The Easter Island heads, referred to as Moai (meaning statue) in their native language, are monolithic sculptures. They depict human figures, said to be representations of the island inhabitants’ ancestors. They were created between the 13th and 16th centuries and carry a lot of meaning. Yet, there is still an air of mystique around these statues. How were they made? What do they mean? Read on to find out.


What Are The Moai?

Three Moai heads; two with necks/bodies, one without. Source: Field Museum, Chicago


Many of them look very similar, all with the same stylized facial features, but there are some variations. Each one has a prominent eyebrow bone jutting above their eyes, creating a stern and chiefly appearance. The noses are elongated and usually have a curl to the nostrils, along with a prominent septum. The mouths are tight and small compared to the nose and eyebrows. The ears are elongated but not exaggerated, as they fit the proportions of the face.


Some of the Moai had inlaid eyes made from coral with obsidian or scoria pupils. These eyes were believed to be removable, with one theory suggesting that they were placed into the sockets during ritual ceremonies in order to invoke the ancestral spirit. They have a three-to-five ratio from the head to the neck. Usually, oversized heads in sculptures emphasize the importance of intelligence or wisdom. This aspect would follow in the statues’ purpose due to their depiction of principal ancestors, most likely high-ranking members or chiefs of the society.


Where Were The Moai Located?

NASA Imaging map of Rapa Nui, located off the coast of Chile. Source: NASA Earth Observatory


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Most of the Moai are located on a volcanic island called Rapa Nui. A dependency of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, this island has about 5,000 inhabitants today. It is globally known as Easter Island, named so by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen when he ‘discovered’ it on Easter Sunday in 1722. At the peak of its civilization, between 15,000 and 20,000 people lived there, surrounded by an abundance of palm trees along with banana, eucalyptus, sugar cane, and potato crops. It is extremely remote, located 2,182 miles from Chile, with the closest inhabitation being the Pitcairn Islands 1,289 miles away. Within the island, many of the heads can be found around the coast, located on stone platforms called ahu. This location is significant since many scholars have hypothesized that these sculptures work as protectors, so they essentially guard the island from any potential intruders.


How Were The Moai Made?

Moai in the Britsh Museum. Source: The Telegraph


These statues were created with basalt or tuff, a form of solidified volcanic ash found on Rapa Nui. This material gives the Moai their dark gray color. It is believed that they were first outlined in a stone wall and then carved away with stone tools. These figures are therefore monolithic (and megalithic), meaning they are made from one solid, large piece of stone. The average weight of the statues is 9 to 11 tons, though the heaviest weighs up to almost 95 tons. Similarly, they are quite tall as well. They have an average height of 13 feet, with the tallest being a towering 33 feet. Their large stature aids well in their role as protectors of the island.


Why Were The Moai Built?

Moai SI-WDC-001 on display at the Natural History Museum, Smithsonian Institute. Source: the Easter Island Statue Project


The figures depict aringa ora ata tepuna, or the living faces of deified ancestors. While their faces all look relatively the same, there are some differences between them, meaning that it is likely that they were modeled after individualized persons. There was mostly one clan of carvers who created the statues, who would take commissions from the inhabitants in order to create Moai that represented their ancestors. The larger the statue, the higher the price, and therefore, the greater the importance of the one being depicted. The Moai were revered and most likely prayed to as icons of godly ancestors.


Therefore, the Moai are symbols of status, power, and authority. As they watch over the island and its inhabitants, they work to protect their families. It is also believed that these statues stood as repositories of mana, the Rapa Nui ideology referring to the spiritual essence. Many Moai had carvings detailed into the face, back of the head, or body, much of which has been eroded due to the characteristics of the tuff material.


These carvings may reflect the traditions of Polynesian tattooing practices, though their exact meanings are unknown to Western scholars. Like many other Oceanic cultures, the people of Rapa Nui were polytheistic before forced assimilation by Christian missionaries. Much of their culture and religious practices are still being discovered, but it is likely that they had a god or ancestor cult similar to other Polynesian religions. One of the best-known deities in Rapa Nui culture is Make-make, the birdman, as the principal god of the birdman cult. In an annual competition ritual, men of the island would race to see who could collect the first sooty tern seabird egg of the year. After a tedious and dangerous hunt, the winner was declared tangata manu (the birdman), granted a sacred status for five months, and given the first pick of the year’s harvests.


How Were The Moai Moved?

Demonstration of the walking method of transportation. Source: Nature.com


The exact mode of transportation for the statues is unknown, though there are many hypotheses. One features the use of sleds or rollers, wherein the statues were laid down on perhaps wooden logs and pushed to the edge of the island. The most popular theory is that they were ‘walked’ across the island. Ropes were attached to the statues, tilted, and then pulled forward by one side, followed by the other. Many studies have been conducted by researchers in order to find out if this form of transportation was possible. Most of them found that it is, though there seemed to be a large amount of damage occurring to the base of the statues. Oral accounts from the people of Rapa Nui said that the Moai were endowed with divine power and walked by themselves.


How Many Moai Are There on Easter Island?

Rano Raraku. Source: Wikipedia


There are around 800 to 1,000 Moai created on Rapa Nui, though 397 of them remained in the main stone quarry, called Rano Raraku. The exact number is unknown due to remnants of destroyed/eroded statues; they lie in piles toppled upon each other, and therefore they are harder to distinguish from one another. Twelve of those have been removed from the island. Six of them are in museums in Europe. Two can be found in the British Museum, two are in the United States at the Smithsonian Institution, one is in New Zealand, and three are in mainland Chile. Most of the statues were forcibly removed by expeditions from Western scholars and stolen from the island in the name of conservation or educational efforts.


What Is The Significance of The Moai’s Red Hats?

Moai with pukao, via Carl Lipo at Binghamton University. Source: CBC.ca


Some of the Moai are topped with pukao, or stone adornments made from red scoria stone. It is said that they are most likely a stylized topknot, used to denote a chief or a high-ranking citizen. Tradition states that the mana was reserved in the hair rather than the body. These pukao were later additions to the statues, created during the 15th and 16th centuries. How these pieces were placed on top of the heads is unknown, as there is no evidence of crane technology. One plausible theory involves the use of ramps. Their transportation was probably similar to the method used to move the statues themselves, either with the rolling or walking technique. These hairpieces add an extra 6 to 10 feet to the statues.


Are There Any Moai Statues With Bodies?

Five Moai on Ahu Nau Nau. Source: NBC News


Though these statues are usually referred to as the Easter Island heads, many of them were made with full bodies as well. The bodies are just as stylized as the faces. They are elongated, usually with low-relief arms etched into the sides of the torso. Most of the bodies were buried and unearthed in the early 1900s by Chilean archeologists. One platform, called Ahu Nau Nau, housed five of the Moais with bodies (with two more partially eroded/destroyed statues). These figures have more pronounced arms, along with sculpted chests and carved collar bones. Four of them are topped with pukao. it is unknown if the other two eroded sculptures had them as well. Another ahu, known as Ahu Tongariki, is the largest platform on Rapa Nui, containing 15 standing Moai, all of varying shapes and sizes.


What Led To The Decline Or Toppling Of The Moai?

Fifteen Moai with bodies at Ahu Tongariki. Source: Easter Island Travel


By 1868, 146 years after the first visit by Roggeveen, all of the Moai had been toppled. The reasons cited include European contact, civil wars within Rapa Nui society, and natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis (such as in the case of Ahu Tongariki). Oral accounts tell of a story of a powerful woman, perhaps the same one that enchanted the statues to walk, forcing the Moai down. Many believe that the people of Rapa Nui toppled them after being devastated during the slave trade in the mid-19th century. Christian missionaries came to the island, forcing conversion and assimilation, stealing their land, and banning their traditional practices. The Moai were meant to act as protectors, yet they were infiltrated by the West, bringing sickness and destruction.


How Are Efforts Being Made To Preserve The Moai Today?

Photograph of Rano Raraku quarry, by Katherine Maria Routledge. Source: British Museum, London


Today, the Rapa Nui National Park is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and therefore many preservation efforts are underway. Further research is being conducted on the history of Moai and how to preserve and restore the statues. The Easter Island Statue Project from the Archaeological Institute of America was created in order to maintain the legacy of the Moai due to devastation from climate change and tourism. The World Monuments Fund has also started the Moai Conservation Project, working to repair ahus on the island. Around 50 Moai have been resurrected on the island, restoring them to their former glory. Yet, there are still calls for institutions like the British Museum and the Smithsonian to return their Moai back to their original home.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.