Not so long ago, in a magazine and internet survey to find the world’s most mysterious, paranormal locality, the runaway winner was a certain tiny triangular island (no more than 25 km across) separated by over 2000 km of southeastern Pacific Ocean from any other inhabited locality, formerly home to an extraordinary birdman cult, and ringed by numerous stone statues of enormous size and alienesque appearance that stare inward across their lonely domain through unseeing eye-sockets yet with a gaze as chilling as the rock from which they were hewn many centuries ago. Where else could this be but Rapanui – or, as we know it better in the West, Easter Island.
Until Thor Heyerdahl’s famous first archaeological dig here during the 1950s, it was not generally realised that a moai is more than just a giant head. In reality, it is carved down the hips, with a pair of spindly arms and long-fingered hands pressed closely to its bulbous torso’s sides. However, so many moai were half-buried in soil and other deposits after centuries of gradual concealment by natural encroachment from sediment and plant life that their true nature was not realised until Heyerdahl oversaw the first scientific excavation of a moai, revealing its entire form.
Like so much of Easter Island’s past, the history of the moai is enshrouded in controversy and mystery. Estimates as to when they were created vary by as much as a millennium depending upon the authority consulted. The current consensus (discounting Heyerdahl’s problematic views of a South American origin) is that the island was first colonised in the 4th Century AD, by seafaring Polynesians, who subsequently split into separate, independent clans or kin-groups, and began constructing ahus and carving statues of modest proportions a few centuries later. By the 15th Century, however, moai production had reached frenzied proportions, as indeed had the moai themselves – now monstrously huge. Then, so abruptly that many of these statues were simply abandoned where they lay, complete or still in various unfinished stages of carving inside Rano Raraku’s volcanic bowels, moai production ceased. This is believed to be due to increasing rivalry and hatred developing between the various clans, culminating in violent battles and, as highly symbolic desecration, purposefully toppling over each other’s sacred moai.
Another factor is the wholesale destruction of the island’s once-luxuriant native foliage, most notably the giant palm trees that were eventually felled across the entire island. Their sturdy trunks were used as rollers on which to transport the moai from Rano Raraku to their chosen sites elsewhere, but once the palm trees had vanished, the moai could no longer be moved.
ALIEN RAYS AND THE STATUES THAT WALKED…?
Having said that, tree-trunk rollers (and also sledges constructed from trunks) may well be the orthodox explanation for how the moai were moved, but it is not the only one that has been proffered. Highlighting the paranormal links to Easter Island, proponents of the ancient astronauts school of belief have suggested that visiting aliens transported and erected the moai using anti-gravitational beams released from their spacecraft. Another suggestion is that the natives somehow levitated the moai by harnessing electromagnetism. And my Rapanui-born guide noted that according to traditional native lore, the moai themselves very obligingly walked to their chosen sites during the night, utilising a special life-force called mana. Then again, she was smiling when she said this. In any event, the moai are certainly left strictly alone following the onset of darkness, because even during the sunny daylight hours many visitors have reported experiencing a dark, unfathomable feeling of oppression and apprehension when in the presence of these stark, brooding sentinels.
Some moai originally bore on their heads a huge ceremonial topknot or pukao, carved from red scoria rock transported from Puna Pau, a quarry in the island’s southwestern region. How these enormous blocks were raised onto the moai’s heads, well over 6 m high in some cases, remains unresolved. A few of the lately re-erected moai have their pukao in place, but these were placed there using modern-day cranes.
Most intriguing of all, thanks to the unearthing of an intact example in recent years, is the realisation that the moai originally had eyes. These were made from white shells with pupils of black obsidian, but were destroyed or removed during the inter-clan battles that marked the end of moai production.