Ahu Tongariki, the 15 moai statues
The contemplation of the imposing Ahu Tongariki with the Pacific Ocean on its back is the fulfilled dream of most travelers who cross the planet to reach Easter Island. The image of Tongariki, together with that of the statues of the nearby Rano Raraku volcano, is the one that has most spread in books, magazines and documentaries of Easter Island. And, since its restoration, this colossal structure has become a symbol and the maximum exponent of the collective imagination about Rapa Nui.
- A legendary natural scenery
- The largest ceremonial center on the island
- The devastating tsunami of 1960
- The restoration of Tongariki, a titanic task
- 15 imposing giants
- The traveler and walker moai
- The petroglyphs of Tongariki
- Tips for visiting Ahu Tongariki
- Sunrise in Tongariki
- How to get to Ahu Tongariki
- Location Map
- Nearby places
A legendary natural scenery
Tongariki, whose name refers to easterly winds, is located on the eastern end of the south coast of Easter Island in a land of great scenic beauty. On your left you can see the Poike volcano, the oldest on the island, whose eruptions gave rise to the peninsula of the same name and where, according to tradition, the battle between “the long ears” and “the short ears” took place. At its top you can see the crater now covered with a small eucalyptus forest. Its southern slope descends by steep cliffs to the level of the sea where the volcanic rocks form the cove of Hanga Nui (big bay).
In the background the islet known as Motu Maratiri stands, which in ancient times served as a refuge for many people during tribal conflicts and is the setting for several myths and legends.
To the right there is a tiny fishing port known as Hanga Iti (small bay) and several caves including Ana Havea, home of leader Poie during his war against the Kainga clan.
Finally, in front of the ahu, the impressive southeast face of the Rano Raraku volcano rises, the origin of most of the statues that have made the island famous.
The largest ceremonial center on the island
The history of Tongariki mixes mythological stories, wars between clans and settlements of tribes that date back to the tenth century. In the large esplanade that extends in front of the ahu, there have been remains of boat-houses or hare paenga, old hearths or umu pae and hundreds of petroglyphs engraved in the volcanic rock that reflect the importance of this extraordinary place.
It is believed that Tongariki was the sociopolitical and religious center of Hotu Iti, one of the two great clans that grouped the tribes of the eastern sector of the island. The first human occupation dates from the year 900 AD. and it is related to the first phase of a first ahu. The impressive final monument is the result of a successive series of modifications and extensions, carried out throughout history, which show the technical mastery achieved.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial structure built on Easter Island and the most important megalithic monument in all of Polynesia. It represents the zenith of the sacred constructions called ahu-moai that were developed in Rapa Nui for more than 500 years.
The central platform, whose axis is oriented to the rising sun of the summer solstice, measures almost 100 meters long and with its wings or original lateral extensions reached a total length of 200 meters. During the last final phase of construction of the ceremonial altar, Ahu Tongariki held 15 moai, which made it the platform with the largest number of images of the whole island.
Unfortunately, as happened with the rest of the ceremonial platforms of the island, the moai were knocked down from the ahu during the violent episodes that took place between the different island clans at the time of decadence of the Rapanui culture. It is believed that this period began after 1500 AD. reaching its peak at the end of the seventeenth century.
It is not known with certainty when the statues of the Ahu Tongariki were demolished, but according to the testimonies of the first European navigators who arrived at the island, it seems that these were no longer standing when they arrived at the beginning of the 18th century. However, the place continued to be used as a cemetery until the conversion of the population to Catholicism in the second half of the 19th century.
The devastating tsunami of 1960
Because of drawings, stories and photographs that are kept, it is known that until 1960 the state of conservation of the ahu was relatively good; even though the statues layed with their faces facing the ground and one of the lateral wings had been destroyed by having used the stones as a fence building material for the cattle.
But the night of May 22nd to 23rd of 1960 everything changed. On that fateful date one of the largest recorded earthquakes in history, with an intensity of 9.5 on the Richter scale, took place. It destroyed most of the central and southern regions of Chile causing numerous victims, since its epicenter was located in the Chilean city of Valdivia located 3,700 km east of the island.
But the disaster was even greater because the earthquake produced a wave that moved across the Pacific to reach the coasts of Oceania and Asia, causing special destruction on the islands of Polynesia. Almost 6 hours after the earthquake, the tsunami reaches Easter Island on its eastern side, hitting Tongariki directly.
Thanks to the fact that the town center of Hanga Roa is located on the west side, there was no need to mourn victims or serious damage, despite the sea level rose considerably. The tsunami skirted the island and resumed its course to Polynesia, where 15 hours after the earthquake, a wave of 10 meters high hit Hilo in Hawaii, killing dozens of people and destroying the city completely. The devastation continued until arriving at the coasts of Japan and New Zealand.
An apocalyptic landscape
The first witnesses of the destruction of Tongariki arrived a few days after the tsunami due to the lack of transportation on the island at that time. Several estimates indicated that the gigantic wave that reached the bay of Hanga Nui exceeded 10 meters in height and entered more than 500 meters inland reaching the land near the base of the Rano Raraku volcano.
The tsunami hit the back wall frontally, destroying completely the main platform to the foundations and extending the remains over a large area. The force of the sea pushed some of the statues more than 100 meters inland. Some of them fractured and beat, and others rolled and remained face up showing their face for the first time after several centuries.
When the water receded, it had completely destroyed most of the monument that now presented a Dantesque scene. The whole area was covered with boulders from the coast, stones from the ahu and remains of statues, mixed with human bones and skulls from the tombs that had been under the platform, remains of dead sheep and large amounts of dried seaweed and rotten marine animals.
Before this dramatic event, the Tongariki area represented a first-rate archaeological site from which valuable information could have been extracted on the historical evolution of the island culture. Unfortunately, the tsunami caused most of the remains to be lost forever.
As a historical note, it is worth mentioning that a few months after this serious incident, in October 1960, the seven moai of Ahu Akivi got back on their feet. These were the first statues of the island that were risen after being prostrate for several centuries. A fact that revolutionized the recent history of Rapa Nui and with which began a stage of study, care and restoration of historical sites.
The restoration of Tongariki, a titanic task
Despite the state of destruction in which the place remained, the desire of the islanders and archaeologists to recover one of the main emblems of the island was always present. However, it took more than three decades for the first restoration work of Ahu Tongariki to begin.
It seems that everything started in 1988 when on a Japanese television program, Sergio Rapu, the archaeologist and ex-Governor of Easter Island, commented: “It would be a dream to see the moai statues back on their feet … if we had a crane …”. An employee of the Tadano crane company saw the program, and thought that his machines could be useful for that purpose.
A few years later, in 1992, a multidisciplinary working group that included archaeologists, engineers and other experts from Japan, Chile and other countries was created for the recovery of the Tongariki site . The restoration work was carried out under the direction of the Institute of Studies of Easter Island of the University of Chile (IEIPA) led by the archaeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas, with funds provided by the government of Japan and the Tadano crane manufacturing company. The latter made a large donation of funds and technical equipment, highlighting a huge crane capable of lifting the great weight of the statues.
In this way, work began on what would become the most important archaeological project in the entire South Pacific. In the first place, in order to carry out a realistic reconstruction of the monument, it was necessary to carry out a detailed analysis of the documents and historical images that existed of Tongariki from the end of the 19th century until 1960 to contrast it with the ruins that existed after the tsunami.
To do this, new terrain maps were created using advanced methods of topography and cartography along with digital models. Then it was necessary to excavate, inventory and classify the remains of thousands of stones, rocks and pieces of statues scattered for hundreds of meters around. Also during the excavations remains of another 17 destroyed moai were found that had been reused as constructive elements of the old platform, as was customary when an ahu was raised in a place where there had been another from a previous period. These circumstances, added to an occasional lack of funds, and conflicts of competence between the different project managers complicated the reconstruction further and caused unforeseen delays.
Finally, during 1994 and 1995, the huge figures were placed on the new platform with the help of the Tadano crane, and in 1996 work was completed with the lifting of the lateral wings of the ahu.
Later in the period 2003-2006, within the UNESCO-Japan-Easter Island Project new conservation work was carried out in the ahu, in order to correct constructive errors committed during the 90s and to complete tasks such as the application of waterproofing products that protect the surface of the moai statues against erosion.
The recovery of the site was a milestone in local history, with Chilean experts, foreigners and a group of islanders working hand in hand to rebuild one of the most important places for the Rapanui people.
15 imposing giants
Now, thanks to the restoration, the current visitors are lucky enough to be able to observe this wonderful structure in a similar way to how it could look in its period of maximum splendor.
Fifteen giants observe from their dominant position the astonished travelers who arrive at this unique place in the world. These megalithic images, which form a row on a central altar about 100 meters long, turn their backs to the sea to project their mana or spiritual protection to the ancient village that existed here.
Read more about Moai, the giant statues of Easter Island
The variety in the shapes and sizes of the statues is striking. Here, contrary to what happens in other platforms such as Ahu Nau Nau or Ahu Akivi, they are all different. There are thin, thick, high and low, and even the expressions seem different.
It is possible, as some theories point out, that they reflect in this way, the character or features of each represented ancestor. Although esthetic differences are more likely to be due to the different times in which they were manufactured. During the reconstruction, some old heads were found that show a more round and natural shape, but it seems that with the passage of time, the features became more and more stylized.
All the moai statues were carved in volcanic tuff from the quarries of the Rano Raraku volcano, located one kilometer northwest. Despite their relative closeness, it is still not explained how they were able to transport to Tongariki these huge giants that have an average weight of 40 tons.
Read more about the Rano Raraku volcano
The moai measure between 5.6 and 8.7 meters, being the highest and heaviest (86 tons) the fifth on the right. If at the height of the moai, we add the 4 meters of the back wall and the almost 2 meters of the pukao or headdresses that adorned the head, the complete monument reaches a maximum height of 14 meters.
Formerly all the moai of the ahu carried a pukao on their head, but during the restoration only one could be placed on the second moai on the right. The others, due to the passage of time and the tsunami, were too eroded. On the right side of the platform you can see seven of these huge cylinders carved in red scoria extracted from the Puna Pau volcano.
The statues sit on the highest part of the platform, which takes the form of an inclined plane when descending towards the front. Here, as a finishing touch, there appear a series of rows formed by large marine boulders, called poro, which are characteristic of this type of ahu.
It is interesting to approach the back of the platform, to appreciate more closely the size of the statues and other details of this megalithic structure. Here you can also see some remains of heads and torsos of other moai used in the first phases of construction of the ahu. According to the remains found, it is estimated that at least 30 moai were part of Tongariki in its different stages over a period that lasted more than 700 years.
In the middle of this extensive square, about 80 meters in front of the platform, another huge stone silhouette that rests on the grass stands. This moai, split in two parts, lies on its back and looks up. Although perhaps that is not the most appropriate expression, because its eye sockets have not even carved.
It is thought that the eye sockets were carved once the statues were erected on the platform. Later, their coral eyes were installed in order to grant them the spirit of the ancestors. So it can be deduced that this moai never rose over the ahu, perhaps because of its fracture or some other problem. In any case, its extended position allows to observe closely the details of its carving and the imperfections of the tuff.
The traveler and walker moai
A few meters from the west access to the Tongariki site, very close to the remains of a hare paenga or boat-house, there is a peculiar statue that welcomes the visitor. Irs face, with the carved eye sockets, faces towards the opposite side to the one that the statues of the platform look at, as if it wanted to show his anger for not having been included in the monument. However, the reality is that this interesting figure, besides not belonging to this ahu, has enjoyed greater prominence than its fifteen stony neighbors.
One of its moments of fame, it got it when in 1982 it was shipped to Japan to participate in an exhibition in the city of Osaka. The friendly relations that have emerged between Rapa Nui and Japan in recent decades have always been manifested through a moai. When some time later it returned from its trip abroad, the islanders called it “the traveling moai” and that is how it is known since then.
Its second moment of glory came in 1986 when it was used in the experiments carried out by Pavel Pavel. This Czech engineer was invited by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl to participate in his second expedition to Easter Island and to demonstrate his theories on the transport of the statues.
After making a first attempt with a smaller statue that is now on the outside of the Sebastian Englert Museum, he used this moai for his final test. On February 5th of 1986 Pavel Pavel, with a group of less than twenty people, well-attached ropes and a studied technique, got the moai to advance a few meters in a vertical position with a swinging motion.
It was quite an achievement to make “to walk” a moai of 4 meters high and 9 tons of weight, which despite showing some “wounds” produced by the ropes during their travels and experiments continues to emanate an energy of another time.
The petroglyphs of Tongariki
In addition to the impressive statues, in Tongariki there are other lesser-known vestiges that often go unnoticed by visitors because they are at ground level. We are talking about the petroglyphs or engraved designs in the volcanic rock.
A large number of the petroglyphs found on the island were carved on more or less flat horizontal stones protruding from the ground. These rocks, known in the Rapanui language as papa, have their origin in the laminar flows of basaltic lava produced during the period of volcanic activity on the island.
In Tongariki there are hundreds of designs and engraved figures that reflect its historical relevance, being the place with the most important rock art of the south coast of Easter Island. A few meters southwest of the platform there is a circle of stones that delimits an interesting group of petroglyphs where two bas-reliefs of sea turtles can be distinguished. In Rapa Nui there are more than 30 engravings of honu or turtles, but the details of the carapace and the head that they have here, together with those of the nearby and surprising Papa Tataku Poki, make them stand out from the others.
Papa Tataku Poki
About 200 meters in front of the ahu, almost on the edge of the enclosure surrounded by a stone wall, there is the magnificent set of petroglyphs of Papa Tataku Poki. These panels of volcanic rock are very close to the remains of stone foundations of the hare paenga or boat houses that were built here in the past. Unfortunately, many of these stones were reused to build the nearby wall that in the days of the sheep company was part of the fences where cattle were enclosed.
During the excavations that were carried out in the 90s, several umu pae or stone ovens and human bones with some incisions belonging to a child were found, which could be related to cannibalism actions.
According to oral tradition, this is the place where several children were massacred during the war between two large tribes led by Kainga and Poie. It is said that Poie and his men went to search every day for several young enemies, who had taken refuge on the nearby islet of Motu Maratiri, to sacrifice them and then cook them. After the death of each victim, a small hole was made in the rock to record the cruel deed. And that would be the origin of the meaning of Papa Tataku Poki, which could be translated as “flat stone where children were counted“.
Another version, much more innocent and pleasant, would relate the holes in the rock to a census-like record of the born children. Whatever the origin of these curious marks, the truth is that currently you can see dozens of them forming aligned series in different areas of the rock.
Apart from these numerous and enigmatic dimples, on the surface of the stone you can find a wide variety of symbols related to the high rank of the people who lived here. There are several bas-relief figures that represent the bird man or tangata manu.
Read more about Tangata Manu, the bird-man of Easter Island
The designs of the twelve bird men are of great quality, especially the three who turn their backs on each other. After Orongo, this is the site with the highest number of reliefs of this figure, which would link this place with the residence of the chosen Tangata Manu in the vicinity of Rano Raraku, as tradition tells.
The other most striking motifs are faces of the god Make Make, one of them with goatee, and several figures representing the tuna, a very important fish on the island, which used to be destined for the upper classes, and today anyone can taste at the local restaurants.
There are also excavated bowls to collect rainwater called taheta, bas-reliefs of sea turtles, komari or female vulvas, small figures reminiscent of moai and symbols similar to those of the Rongorongo tablets.
Since the rock has a very rough and eroded surface, the petroglyphs are not easy to see. They are best observed with the low light of the early morning or sunset, when shadows are created that allow to appreciate them better.
Tips for visiting Ahu Tongariki
The visit of the Ahu Tongariki can be done by hiring some of the excursions offered by most of the island’s tourism agencies. This archaeological site is usually included in any of the full day tours in which other places of interest are also visited.
More information about Easter Island Tours
The other option is to do it on your own, but for this you will have to arrive by vehicle, since you are far enough from Hanga Roa to walk.
In any case, it is necessary to buy in advance the ticket to the Rapa Nui National Park to enter the site. The ticket is valid for 10 days to visit the different archaeological sites, which can be visited several times, with the exception of Orongo and the Rano Raraku volcano quarry that can only be done once.
More information about the Rapa Nui National Park
The access to the site is on the west side, where the “traveler moai” is. In front of it there is a parking area to leave the vehicles. After crossing the wall, you must go to the right to present the ticket in the kiosk of the National Park. Ahu Tongariki opens shortly before dawn until 6:00 p.m.
Another fact to keep in mind is that in Ahu Tongariki there are no toilets or food services for visitors. The closest ones are 1.7 km away in Rano Raraku, where in addition to public baths, handicraft stalls and a cafeteria, a picnic area for travelers who bring their own food has been enabled.
Sunrise in Tongariki
Another of the wonders of Ahu Tongariki is the indescribable show that gives at dawn. Between December 21st, “summer solstice”, and March 21st, “autumn equinox”, the sun rises through the back of the Ahu, among its gigantic stone sculptures, offering spectacular and unforgettable images.
After these dates, the sun rises behind the Poike volcano but it is possible to also capture wonderful images of the sunset, behind the moai statues.
How to get to Ahu Tongariki
Those people who do not wish to hire an organized tour, can get to Tongariki on their own in a simple way. To arrive by car from Hanga Roa, take Hotu Matu’a Avenue towards Anakena beach, then turn right at the crossroads indicating the road to Rano Raraku and continue for approximately 15 kilometers along the road that runs along the coast, while enjoying the scenery.
Another quite recommendable alternative is to get by bicycle. It is possible to rent bikes in Hanga Roa where they also provide customers with maps and everything necessary for their tours.
The outward journey takes approximately 1 hour and a half doing it calmly. The coastal road offers the possibility of enjoying the sea breeze and the view of the cliffs during the whole journey, as well as stopping at other archaeological sites that are on this side of the island. You have to be careful with the horses that cross and with some sections of rough asphalt where some bumps have formed.