The moai or Easter Island heads or Easter Island statues, represent the most important pieces of Rapa Nui art and they have become its trademark. However, in spite of their abundance, there are around 600 moai distributed throughout the whole island and 397 are in the Rano Raraku quarry, there are still plenty of unanswered questions regarding these stone giants.
Even though oral tradition states that it was Hotu Matu’a, or the seven explorers that reached the island before him, who brought the first Moai to the island, the most accepted theory is that it was the first Polynesian villagers who started sculpting stone once they were settled.
These stone giants were created by the Rapa Nui to represent their ancestors or past rulers, who after dying had the ability to extend their mana (spiritual power) over the tribe to protect it.
The Easter Island statues were at first sculpted out of basalt, trachyte and red scoria, but the preference soon switched to volcanic rock from the Rano Raraku quarry. At first the moais were small, with wide heads and short ears, but little by little the styling was changed to include long torsos and rectangular heads with long noses, thin lips and long ears, who’s imagine is so characteristic. Also, with the passing of time the sculptures increased in size to proportions that, it is believed, would have been impossible to transport.
The master carvers sculpted the stone with basalt or obsidian chisels and it’s calculated that a team of carvers could take 2 years in finishing a big moai. First, the front side was carved with all of the details except the eye sockets. Then, the back was chiseled to dislodge the stone statue from the main rock, stand it upright with the help of ropes and place it in the previously prepared pits.
Once upright, the sculpting was completed and the Moai was ready to take one of the four “Moai paths” that would lead it to the ahu (altar) it was destined for. Though many theories have been stipulated, the transport of the Moai is still the biggest unresolved mystery of Easter Island.
Once the Moai was set up in its ahu, the eye sockets were sculpted and, in a ceremonious ritual, the eyes made from white coral and red scoria were placed; from this moment on it was considered that the Moai’s mana could project over the tribe. Finally, an enormous red scoria cylinder called pukao was placed on top of its head. The meaning of the pukao is ambiguous, on one hand it is believed to have represented the tribe’s hierarchy and on the other to have symbolized the long hair that the islanders used to wear up in a bun.
The average height of a Moai is 4 meters. However, on the northern coast of the island one has been found that measures up to 10 meters and has an approximate weight of 82 tons. Also in the quarry, still attached to the rock, is the biggest Moai, almost 22 meters long and whose weight is estimated between 250 to 300 tons.
Though the majority of the Moai are male representations, because it is believed that all of the chiefs were men, it’s noteworthy that there are approximately twelve moais with feminine traits, such as pronounced breasts or sculpted vulvas.
One of the most well-preserved Moai, sculpted in basalt, is known as Hoa Hakananai’a and is found in the British Museum. This Moai shows all of the Rapanui beliefs’ symbology on its back.