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Telltale moais of Easter Island tell no definitive tales

Article and photos by Kathy M. Newbern & J.S. Fletcher ©2017. All rights reserved.

Weathered, oversize gray stone heads sporting elongated faces, hollowed eye sockets, broad noses and jutted jaws rise like massive tombstones from verdant slopes against a craggy, mountain backdrop on Easter Island. Many of the 6,000 or so residents call it Rapa Nui, its Polynesian name. Smaller than Washington, D.C., the roughly 64-square-mile outcrop of volcanic magma was unexpectedly discovered on Easter 1722 by an explorer seeking Oceania and was christened Isla de Pascua, Pascua translating to Easter. In 1888, Chile annexed the isle located at the southeastern most point of the Polynesian Triangle. It sits 2,290 miles to the west of Chile and 2,629 miles east of Tahiti. Getting here takes effort, but is well worth it. In its past, the island underwent severe deforestation, storms, tribal wars and erosion. Today, it remains largely rock-strew and desolate except for enticing palm-lined beaches and grasslands. But it is discovery and the search for answers that beckons. Today’s economy is primarily driven by visitors drawn to a land of mysteries. Undoubtedly the most mysterious are the iconic moais—monolithic carvings known to Night at the Museum film fans because the Easter Island Head comes to life, calling the protagonist “dum-dum.” About 80,000 people a year come to see the real versions. So Many Questions Tourists and those curious from afar have questions: Why were the statues built? How in the world could something so massive—one 33 feet tall weighing 82 tons—be moved and erected? Why do some have a hat or topknot? Why are many statues toppled or broken, some even “decapitated”? Scientific research, debate and hypotheses continue even today. Nearly every article and scientific paper on the island and its moais uses the word mysterious.

The mesmerizing moais total nearly 900 and date to sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. Today, Rapa Nui National Park covers about 40 percent of the island aiming to protect and preserve the archaeological sites. There’s an entrance fee. Much of the island is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. While some moais still stand erect at various locations, mostly along the island’s coastline—and seemingly grow from the ground at some spots—a large number were toppled during violent periods, likely by warring tribes, say historians.

Must-See Sites

The oft-photographed Ahu Tongariki on the southern coast has the most impressive lineup of erect moais island wide, 15 in all, atop a ceremonial platform called an ahu. Inland, Ahu Akivi has seven moais that directly face sunset on the spring equinox. Unlike other sites, these moais do face the distant ocean, and this is considered one of the island’s most sacred spots. Anakena Beach on the northern coast features seven moais (two partial) with their backs to the surf and resting on the most completely restored ahu. Orongo, a significant archaeological site, is home to the national park visitor center with information on the Birdman cult and its ceremonial site here for annual games that represented the transfer of power between competing clans. Panoramic views are spectacular at the rim of the Rano Kao volcanic crater (now filled with vegetation).

Fascinating Rano Raraku hillside quarry is where an estimated 95 percent of the statues were carved, and 397 remain “resting” in the rock or nearby almost fully buried. Archaeological excavations, including work by the Easter Island Statue Project, revealed that full bodies exist beneath the surface.

Husband/wife team KATHY M. NEWBERN and J.S. FLETCHER are freelance writers and photographers based in Raleigh, N.C. This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2017 issue of Home & Away Magazine. All rights reserved. For reprints, email

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