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South America

The Story Behind the Statues

Jonathan van Bilsen



June 3, 2012

The Story Behind the Statues

If you close your eyes and picture the most remote place on earth you will no doubt envision the small, Chilean landmass of Rapa Nui (known to most of us as Easter Island). A mere six hours of flying from Chile’s capital of Santiago puts you smack in the middle of the South Pacific. Easter Island is in fact 4,000 Kilometres from the coast of Chile and the same distance from the shores of Tahiti. One can not get farther from civilization and still experience hotels, electricity and automobiles, albeit only a few with the best years behind them.

The most well known, and probably the only identifying symbol of the island are the famous statues or Moai. Their interesting history, contrary to popular opinion, does not lie in magical myth. To truly experience the splendour of the island one must first realize the history. Like all islands in the South Pacific, Easter Island was settled by Polynesians around 400 AD. In dug out canoes Polynesian seafarers accidentally stumbled onto the island. 

As with any culture, rituals soon developed and in an effort to immortalize their leaders, men began cutting huge stone images in the likeness of the chiefs of their tribes. The island is volcanic and from the slopes of the great crater the famous statues were carved. It took a team of thirty men nearly two years to shape one Moai. The ritual was commissioned by the chief of each tribe during their reign. At the same time, a second team of men dug a hole at the base of the crater. When the carving was complete, the back of the statue was chipped loose allowing it to slide down the mountainside into the hole. It stood there, upright, until the death of the village chief (which in some cases was many years later). Some of the statues visible today remain lodged in the ground, as the ritual ceased prior to the death of the chiefs.

The funeral ritual included the task of taking the statue and hauling it to the Ahu (a burial platform made from lava stones measuring anywhere from 30 to 100 metres long and at least 10 metres high). Trees were cut, dragged to the base of the crater and placed in a row. The Moai were then excavated and allowed to gently fall onto the bed of logs. From there, they were carefully rolled to the burial platform. It may sound simple, but the statues were up to 11 meters in height (34 feet) and weighed as much as 100 tonnes. In some cases the travelling distance could be as great as 10 kilometres.

Eventually the statues arrived at the Ahu. Stones were placed underneath and the logs (mostly ruined by this time) were cast away. More stones were added until the Moai at last rested the same height as the Ahu horizontally. The head was raised a few centimetres (using the brute strength of the tribesmen) and stones were placed under it. This continued until at last (in some cases several years) the statue stood upright. Using more logs, it was then rolled onto the Ahu to stand in its final resting place. Some platforms held as many as fifteen Moai, with all but one facing inward to watch over the tribe. One was always placed facing the sea, ready to warn of approaching dangers.

As the years progressed the population grew to its maximum of 4,000. The island flourished, but one day it was realized that all the trees had vanished and the land was barren. Used for logs to manoeuvre the statues, the once densely covered island was now nothing more than endless fields of shrubs and bushes. Reforestation had not been practiced and in today’s world, one can’t help wonder how such neglect was possible. No trees - no boats – no fishing – no food. And the wars began. 

People grew sick and tribes blamed each other. Killing sprees grew rampant. As a sign of the highest disrespect, tribes would topple the Moai of their enemies. Eventually the population had diminished to 1,000 inhabitants and the people realized they had to stop fighting or face extinction.

It was at that time, somewhere in the eighteenth century, the rare Sooty bird was discovered on a small, uninhabited island 300 metres off the coast. To further enchant the inhabitants, they discovered each bird would lay one egg on the same day each year. The “egg laying day” became sacred to the inhabitants and once a year each tribe sent swimmers out to gather and return as many eggs as possible. Nature, in an effort to protect herself, had establishing a breeding ground for sharks in the waters surrounding the small island. Few men returned. 

The tribes concentrated on developing superior swimming skills and the elders decreed that each tribe could only send one swimmer on the ‘sacred day’ to retrieve the eggs. The first to return with an egg would be island chief for the following year. It was not long before tribes began to murder swimmers of competing tribes. Soon small, round, stone huts were built in the side of the slope near the water’s edge as a safe haven for the swimmers the night before their trek. Fights broke out, which led to uprisings and heavy guarding of the swimmers. The entrances to the huts were barricaded with stones and became so small that only one person could crawl through at one time, minimizing an assassin’s ability to strike.

Life continued until 1722 (on Easter Sunday, no less) when the island was discovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who gave it its current name. Along with European exploration came fatal disease inflicting the people of Rapa Nui. The population soon dwindled to 400. Spanish missionaries (with the help of a few hundred soldiers), in an attempt to bring Christianity, abolished the egg gathering rituals. Oddly enough, for reasons unknown, a small segment of the ritual remained and the practice of hiding and seeking eggs at Easter has become embedded into modern day customs.

Of the 500+ Moai that were sculpted, only a handful remained in tact. Of those that remained into the 19th century, most were demolished during the great Tsunami of 1964. Thankfully, governments of the world are gathering together in an effort to preserve the heritage and symbolism of the island. Japan alone has donated 8 million US dollars for the restoration of one burial platform. Other countries have taken up the challenge as well and are now actively involved in the restoration. In fact, more than 100 countries are leading the charge to bring this beautiful island back to the spectacle it once was. Canada and the US have yet to join the quest, but there are high hopes by many that they will do so.

A trip to Easter Island is not for everyone. With no natural beaches, ships have no place to dock. Goods are carried on barges sent to meet supply ships. The winds are fierce and the island experiences only fifteen to twenty days of sunshine a year. I was fortunate during the week of my stay I encountered sunshine every day. It is an awesome place and for the true adventurer, it is a destination not to be missed. 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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