The Moai of Easter Island are monolithic human figures commonly believed to be carved between 500 and 1000 years ago. There are roughly 887 Moai statues found, most of which have rather disproportional head to body ratio. These figures are huge, on average standing over 13 feet tall and weighing over 14 tons, they make quite the presence on the island. Hundreds of these Moai statues are still unfinished at the quarry site. Obviously, this is a good starting point to figure out how the statues were built and then transported. Like Stonehenge and other monolithic sites, the transportation and construction techniques are debated. After all, the architects did not leave behind written records of the construction. Even the construction of the pyramids of Egypt, built by a culture that did leave a great deal of written record, is debated.
Ideas about how the Moai were transported include efforts using ropes, wooden sleds, wooden rollers, or by a rocking process. Many Moai lay on their sides along the road. The main theory is that this was the road used for movement of the figures and that the Moai found toppled over were merely abandoned during transportation. For a long time this seemed like an acceptable theory based on the evidence. However, with 21st century technology we are able to go back and analyze archaeological sites and this often leads to new discoveries. University College London and the University of Manchester have recently used new geophysical surveying equipment on Easter Island and determined that each of these so called abandoned Moai were actually propped on platforms, just the same as the other upright Moai, and had just fallen from the platforms over time.
The UCL and U. Manchester study has concluded that the roads were not built to transport the Moai but rather for ceremonial purposes. University of Manchester’s Dr. Colin Richards says in regard to the road system:
“they lead – from different parts of the island – to the Rano Raraku volcano where the Moai were quarried. Volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld and mythical origin land Hawaiki. Hence, Rano Ranaku was not just a quarry but a sacred centre of the island.”
The shape of these roads is concave in shape, obviously making it difficult to transport large objects using human energy. Dr. Sue Hamilton of University College London further explains why they came to the conclusion about the use of the roads.
“It all makes sense: the moai face the people walking towards the volcano. The statues are more frequent the closer they are to the volcano – which has to be way of signifying the increasing levels of importance.”
Based on the evidence, I would agree that the roads were ceremonial. However, does this absolutely disprove that the same roads were used to transport the Moai? “The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved,” said Dr Richards of U. Manchester. I find it surprising that he would make such a definitive statement. After all, the original evidence of the fallen Moai indicated that they had been abandoned during transportation. It took 60 years for Dr. Richards to find new evidence to argue the contrary. There are many things we do not know. Sometimes it is acceptable to say ‘we may never know’. But never in regards to history should be say “we will never know.” In another 60 years we might have uncovered something on Easter Island to completely change what we know about their culture.
If you are interested in current research check out the Easter Island Statue Project.