Tag Archives: moai

Why the Easter Island statues were built where they were

A new study suggests that the mysterious moai statues on Easter Island were placed to mark sources of fresh water.

Image in public domain.

A Polynesian population called the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island in 1200 AD. Despite the unpredictable weather and nutrient-poor soil, they established a thriving and industrious culture, leaving behind many impressive artifacts. Most famous among these artifacts are the giant moai: giant basaltic statues scattered across the island.

Although they are still shrouded in mystery, several explanations have been proposed. The most straightforward one is that the moai represent the inhabitants’ gods or ancestors, watching over them. But a new study has a new idea: the statues are marking valuable sources of freshwater.

As if Easter Island wasn’t inhospitable enough, there’s another problem: freshwater. Easter Island is a volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes. While there are freshwater lakes inside the volcano craters, there are no streams or other sources of surface freshwater. This must have been quite a worry for the Rapa Nui people, and the megaliths may have been built in to indicate freshwater, researchers suggest. The relationship isn’t straightforward, however: it’s not that all moai are indicators of freshwater, but everywhere there is some subsurface water source, there’s always moai nearby.

“Our results suggest that ahu locations are most parsimoniously explained by distance from freshwater sources, in particular coastal seeps, with important implications for community formation and inter-community competition in precontact times,” researchers write.

The team analyzed the connection between the moai (and the platforms they were placed on, called ahu) and rock mulch agricultural gardens, marine resources, and freshwater sources — the three most important resources for the Rapa Nui civilization. They didn’t find any connection to the first two, but the third one provided a good fit. The fresh water would pass through the ground into aquifers, seeping into caves as well as emerging around the coast. Controlling these places would have been quite valuable to the natives.

This may mean that, at least in part, the statues were built to indicate territorial domination over a sparse resource.

“What is important about it is that it demonstrates the statue locations themselves are not a weird ritual place — represent ritual in a sense of there is symbolic meaning to them, but they are integrated into the lives of the community,” said Prof Carl Lipo from Binghamton University in New York, who was co-author of the research.

However, not everyone is convinced by this theory. Jo Anne Val Tilburg, an Easter Island expert from the University of California, Los Angeles believes that these freshwater seeps would have been minor resources, so it is highly unlikely that the moai were built in relation to them.

Whatever the case may be, the enigma of the moai and their creators will undoubtedly continue to puzzle us and stir debates for many years to come

The study has been published in PLoS.

Everything you wanted to know about Easter Island but were too afraid to ask


Easter Island (Rapa Nui in the native Easter Island language) is situated in the southeastern Pacific Ocean – it’s an overseas territory of Chile. It’s the most isolated inhabitated area, and it’s famous for the monumental statues, called moai (pronounced MOE-eye) which have fascinated and baffled people for many, many years; and still, no good explanation stands. As you can see from below, there are three Rano (freshwater crater lakes), at Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi, but no rivers or streams.


Photo by wikipedia


easter island

Photo by momentito

It’s history is just fascinating! It’s really rich and impressive, but still highly controversial. 1200 years ago a double-hulled canoe filled with seafarers from a distant culture landed upon its shores. During the centuries that followed, a remarkable society developed in isolation on the island, thriving and fluorishing. Here, the theories start to diverge, and no two are alike. What’s known for sure, is that they endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids and colonialism which made their whole society crumble to dust – more than once! Yet, they managed to leave a cultural legacy that surpassed everything you could expect.

Moai (statues) and other carvings

easter island

Photo by glider king

These statues are the most important reason for the island’s fame. Due to the fact that the island was a volcanic one, they had several types of rocks to build from (Basalt, Obsidian, and more important – Tuff from Rano Raraku, which was used for most of the Moai). These impressive monolithic human figures were carved mostly between 1250 and 1500 AD, are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered. The Moai are the ‘living faces’ and lavish representations of ancestors who had been deified. But how were hundreds of these giants that weighed 10-80 tons (one unfinished Moai had the weight of 270 tons) created and more interesting, moved across the island? Also, what would be the point of building them? Nobody has been able to come up with a satisfying answer to these questions.

easter island

Photo by GothPhil

Another mystery concerns the colonization and creation of the culture. Orthodox archaeologists believe that Easter Island was initially settled sometime around 318 AD by a small group of Polynesians lost on the open sea, but other scholars believe it may have once been part of far larger island and that the original discovery and use of the site may be many thousands of years earlier in time.
Another point of interest is represented by Ahu. Ahu are stone platforms on which some of the moai were erected, varying greatly in layout.


Photo by vtveen. Moai on an Aru


easter island

Photo by wikipedia

As if these mysteries weren’t enough, there’s more! Rongorongo is the Easter Island’s script, and it is among few (if not the only one!) that was created out of nothing, without outside influence. Of the hundreds of wooden tablets and staffs reportedly having Rongorongo writing carved on them, only 26 survive, and scientists haven’t been able to decipher it. Also, several wood carvings, including Moko-Miro, a man with a lizard head, Rei Miro, a gorget or breast ornament of crescent shape with a head at one or both tips, and many others fill the island’s puzzle, but still, no “solution” seems in reach.


So, they left behind an amazing culture, and some interesting facts. But what’s by far the most interesting is still a mystery. The people of Easter Island called themselves the Rapa Nui. Where did they come from and why did they disappear? We’ve learned so much about them and yet, every answer brings more questions. Were those people actually able to build and move statues weighing tens of tons? Are we speaking about a very ancient and evolved civilization, something that would resemble Atlantis? Did … aliens have something to do with that? No matter how ludacris it could seem, it could be possible. After all, nobody’s been able to explain it.

easter island

Photo by Guillermo Salinas