Living on a remote deserted island with few resources, Rapanui needed to combine ingenious design with perfect carving in order to move the huge moai without any machinery.
Scattered across Easter Island are 887 moai statues, known to the islanders as Rapa Nui, 15 moai standing at the base of Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial building on the remote Chilean island. Looking up at the oversized heads and legless torsos, it was hard for me to imagine how these giant monoliths, weighing 88 tons and built at least 900 years ago, had gotten here. But I’m not the only one who’s confused: researchers have long been puzzled by how these heavy moai stones were transported to the island by hand.
Several theories have been put forward, including the use of logs to roll the statues and even far-fetched beliefs of extraterrestrial help. However, it seems that the secret lies in the combination of clever design and perfect carving that allowed the human statues to stand upright and sway from side to side, guided by ropes that gave the statues the ability to “walk”.
This movement is similar to the shuffling of a refrigerator in a standing position, moving forward one at a time on each side. “But Rapa Nui [the indigenous Polynesians of Rapa Nui] went beyond that and actually carved the base of the statue and added certain angles, so it’s a better version of movement,” explained Carl Lipo, an archaeologist specializing in Moai statues and lead author of a 2013 study on how statues move. The lead author of a 2013 study on how the statue moved.
According to Ellen Caldwell, professor of art history at Mount San Antonio College in California, this is the first study to successfully “walk” a 5-ton replica, and it presents a theory of walking that “blends oral history and science “. Marine art.
She noted that the walking statue is part of the Rapa Nui oral tradition, and that the word “neke neke” in the Rapa Nui language translates to “walking without legs”; and said that Rapa Nui elders and descendants recalled when answering the question of how the Moai statue moved over long distances without any machinery. It is this phrase and this oral history that the elders and descendants of Rapa Nui recall when they answer the question of how the Moai statues moved over long distances without any machinery. Rapanui childhood nursery rhymes also tell the story of the statue walking; legend has it that a chief with magical or supernatural powers helped the Moai to walk.
There are plenty of ancestral songs and stories that talk about the moais walking
“The oral tradition on the island talks about the Moai stone statues walking from where they were made to their final destination,” said Patricia Ramirez, who has lived on Rapa Nui since she was five years old and now works there as a tour guide. “Traditionally, the only way to pass down history on the island is through songs, chants, games and poetry. There are a lot of ancestral songs and stories about the Moai Stone Walk.”
Yet while locals have long said they walked, it took more than two centuries for foreign scholars to accept this way of transporting moai. “It was really just Europeans and other researchers saying, ‘No, there must be another way, it can’t be that way,'” Lipo said. “We couldn’t think of moving the statue except that there were a lot of people. It turns out that’s not true. The archaeological record does point to that.”
The centuries-old feat of “walking” Moai still impresses engineers and scientists today: a study published in January 2022 examines the application of the statue’s swaying motion to a robot, using the same technology as the ancient Rapa Nui stone sculpture.
Almost all of the statues were made in the volcanic quarries at Rano Raraku and then transported to stone pedestals (called ahus) at various locations along the island’s coastline. lipo’s research found that unfinished statues in the quarries and abandoned statues on the island’s side of the road – i.e., statues that needed to be moved -were wider in relation to shoulder width than those standing on the ahus. They also tilt forward significantly by about 17 degrees, resulting in a center of gravity just above the edge of the rounded front base. These adjustments allow the statues to roll from side to side and be transported to their final position.
“It’s amazing that they tilt so far forward that they can’t stand up on their own because they would tip forward,” he said.
These features suggest that the moai mimic “our own way of walking,” Lipo said, explaining that when we walk, we rotate our hips and fall forward. “Rapanui essentially created a structure that can do the same thing. As the statue leans forward, it will fall and take a step forward across the front.”
The walking moai stone would be supported and guided by ropes, with a group of Rapanui on either side of the statue leading the steps and a small group behind it moving steadily. Once the statue reached its ahu, the stone carvers would chisel into the eyes and reshape the base to adjust the center of gravity, allowing the statue to stand upright on its own.
According to Lipo, why the Rapa Nui chose to walk the statues rather than dragging them or rolling them over logs boils down to practicality. The weight of the statues would have crushed the logs, and dragging such huge moai would have required a lot of manpower. On a remote, deserted island with few resources, a walking statue would be an effective method. “You see the engineering techniques that can make and move a moai statue at minimal cost. The Rapanui did it within the confines of the island, largely through collaboration and ingenuity,” he says.
My walk from Rano Raraku crater to Ahu Tongariki was only 800m, but I didn’t try to guide an 88-ton moai with a few ropes. other statues I visited stood on ahus 18km from the quarry, where my bike ride seemed a breeze compared to the feats achieved by the ancient Rapanui civilization.
Creating the walking statues will be an iterative process, Lipo says, adding that there are about 400 statues in various stages of completion in and around the Rano Raraku quarry, suggesting that the stone carvers used the valley as an artistic laboratory to experiment with different prototypes before finding one that could be moved effectively. “It really chronicles the history of craft, experimentation, trial and error,” he adds.
Once the statue is ready, it is taken out of the valley and guided to its ahu. The ancient road out of Ranoraku is concave, which helps and supports the moai’s swaying motion from side to side. However, not all moai stones reach their destination – some lose their balance along the way and fall off the road. Visitors to the quarry will see the ruins of dozens of abandoned statues scattered along the outer slopes and roadsides; this is the best place on the island to get a feel for the large number of moai statues, and Lipo’s research has found that these fallen moai statues break when they fall from a vertical standing position, reinforcing the theory that they walk.
Once the statue reached its destination and was reshaped so that it could stand upright, it was lifted onto its ahu. Joanne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist specializing in Rapa Nui rock art, says that back then, moai stones sometimes wore stone caps called pukao on top to give them aringa ora (living faces), or in other words, “their human form. .
For the Rapa Nui, having a human-like appearance was important because moai stones were used in ceremonies for the dead and to honor Rapa Nui chiefs. The Rapa Nui believe in a continuum between the worlds of the living and the dead, Ramirez explains. “They are not content with just symbolically remembering their ancestors – they want physical images to represent them,” she added. “That’s what the Moai stone statues look like. They are the faces of dead ancestors.”
The first contact with the Europeans devastated their culture. It’s the same saga on all Polynesian islands
Lipo notes that stone carvers may have sung ritual songs to keep the rhythm of movement as the statue walked, singing different songs for different sized figures to match the rhythm of Moai’s movement. However, oral histories of the Rapa Nui rarely confirm this. “Many songs and stories were lost due to colonization and missionization,” Tilburg said. “The first contact with Europeans destroyed their culture. The stories are the same on all Polynesian islands.”
While scientific research has answered many of the most puzzling questions about the Moai, the lack of oral and written history has shrouded Rapa Nui in myth. But it was this element of mystery that first drew me – and thousands of other visitors each year – to this remote island.
I imagined the 15 statues on Ahu Tongariki rolling from side to side across the barren landscape, the air filled with sacred chants. Yet, after walking the ancient unpaved roads of this South Polynesian island, these massive moai statues are motionless and silent today, their architecture speaking volumes about the ingenuity of their past creators.