Words can’t describe the impression one receives while contemplating this ahu and its 15 gigantic sculptures, framed by a turquoise sea background with the sound of the waves crashing on the cliffs. Ahu Tongariki represents the maximum splendor of the island’s sculptures. With a ceremonial 220-meter long platform, it’s the largest structure of this nature in all of Polynesia.
Front view of Ahu Tongariki
Each of the statues is different, some are higher than others, some with fatter bodies and others with more skinnier ones and even in the faces, some have coarse features and others finer features. It’s believed that these differences are due to the fact that they’re representations of ancestors, so they tried to give them a touch of veracity. The largest statue with a pukao (headdress) is 14 meters tall. To truly notice the enormous size of this platform and its moais, it’s ideal to walk around the back.
View of the only moai wearing a pukao
As with the other ahu, at some point in history, the Rapa Nui Moai toppled the Tongariki. But beyond that, the earthquake that measured 9.5 points on the Richter scale, which struck the Chilean coast of Valdivia in 1960, caused a large tsunami in the Pacific Ocean; with waves that reached up to 11 meters high in Easter Island, waves that hit the ahu and dragged the moai up to 100 meters inland, damaging them significantly.
The restorations lasted five years, from 1993 to 1996, and were led by Chilean archaeologist Claudio Cristino, who rebuilt the platform based on drawings by British archaeologist, Katherine Routledge. Routledge reached Easter Island in 1914, in the first archaeological expedition made to the island and gathered for 17 months collected much of the information that is now available about the original Rapa Nui culture.
The restoration project, which cost over $2 million USD, was possible thanks to funds provided by the Japanese government and the help of a private company from the same country (Tadano), that sent a large crane to the island which helped stand each moaiupright. During the excavations another 17 moais were discovered to be completely destroyed and were used as a base for the current platform, as was the usual thing to do when an ahu was raised in a place where another had once stood.
In recognition of the assistance provided by the Japanese government, in 1982 the moai located at the entrance of Tongariki was sent to Japan, as a loan, to be shown at trade shows in Osaka and Tokyo. Because of this epic journey, the islanders began to call it “the traveling moai”. This moai was also one of the ones Thor Heyerdahl used to test his theories on the transportation of moais.
On the hillside that stretches towards the platform, 7 red scoria pukaos or headdresses can be seen can that couldn’t be placed on top of the statues due to their deterioration. In two stone circles closer to the platform, there are petroglyphs (stone carvings) in the shape of turtles.
In the center of the square you can also see a moai lying on his back. Although one might think that it was once standing upright on the platform, this isn’t the case because the eye sockets are not carved out, which was done once the moai was placed on its ahu. It’s possible that this sculpture fell and broke during transportation from the Rano Raraku quarry.
Just a few meters from Tongariki (where there’s a curve in the road) Papa Tataku Poki can be found; an interesting place to appreciate other petroglyphs with images of turtles, tuna, and several carvings depicting birdmen.
Basrelief of a turtle
Another of the wonderful things about Ahu Tongariki is the indescribable spectacle that happens at dawn. Between the 21st of December, the “Summer Solstice”, and the 21st of March, the “Autumn Equinox”, the sun rises behind the Ahu, between its giant stone sculptures, creating an unforgettable sight.
Ahu Tongariki at dawn
After those dates the sun rises behind the Poike volcano, but it’s still possible to capture wonderful images of the sunset from behind the statues.
Back view of Ahu Tongariki at sunset