When most people think of Easter Island they’re likely to think of giant stone heads. And that’s fair enough; there are a thousand or so moai (as the giant stone heads are known – pronounced mwai) on the island. Calling the moai giant stone heads is a little misleading though, as the moai are in fact humanlike bipedal figures that have been buried up to the neck – hence the disembodied appearance.
The best place to see moai (although they are present all over Easter Island) is in the Moai Quarry, an archaeological site situated on the lower slopes of a decaying volcanic crater. As the name suggests, this is where the majority of the moai were brought into being.
There are a total of 397 moai in the Quarry. That’s almost half of the moai on Rapa Nui (Easter Island goes by three names: it’s Easter Island in English, Rapa Nui in Polynesian, and Isla de Pascua in Spanish). It’s not the number of moai that makes the Moai Quarry so extraordinary though; it’s the fact that so many of the moai remain upright.
The toppling of the moai
Every moai on Easter Island – apart from those in the Quarry – was deliberately toppled, by which I mean brought crashing to the ground, during an ill-documented and highly mysterious chapter in Easter Island’s history. The moai were so despised at the time – this happened sometime during the 18th to 19th Centuries – that some of the statues even had their heads severed from their bodies. It’s thought that internecine warfare – perhaps brought on by overpopulation, deforestation, and overhunting of land and sea birds – decimated the island society.
If you hunt around you’ll find plenty of half-carved statues in the Moai Quarry, some barely formed, and recumbent, as if lying in a bath; others all but complete, just a narrow line of stone connecting the backbone of the moai to the bedrock.
The moai are enormous. Many are as tall as a three-storey building, and they weigh up to eighty tonnes each. El Gigante, the biggest moai on Easter Island, would have weighed one hundred and fifty tonnes if it had ever been finished – it lies half-carved in the Moai Quarry. If it were pulled onto its feet it would have reached twenty-two metres in height – equal in height to a six-storey building.
The cataclysmic unravelling of Easter Island society.
Many of the moai, especially those on the lower slopes of the volcanic crater, are finished statues; their carving 100% complete. They had been brought out of the quarry workshops and put in the showroom, ready for purchase or trade. Perhaps they had already been procured by one of the island villages, and were being walked to their new home when the cataclysmic unravelling of Easter Island society took place.
Stranger still, evidence shows that the statue makers went into a carving frenzy immediately prior to Easter Island’s collapse, creating a massive oversupply of statues far in excess of the needs of the island. That’s what the 397 moai in the Moai Quarry are: oversupply.
What the moai carvers planned to do with this surfeit of statues is unknown, as the collapse ran its course, and suddenly all production at the Moai Quarry stopped. Half-carved moai were left incomplete; statues that were 99% complete were left unfinished, the workers dropping their half-drunk coffee cups and half-eaten doughnuts on the table and slipping out the workshop doors, never to be seen again.
Easter Island is not the easiest of places to get to (it’s the most remotely inhabited location in the world excluding Antarctica) – unless you happen to live in Santiago, Chile, from where there are regular flights.
It’s a 30 minute drive from Hanga Roa (the capital city of Easter Island) to the Moai Quarry. It’s also possible to cycle to the Quarry, although if there is a strong wind blowing the pleasant bike ride turns into a marathon effort.