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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Moai of Easter Island

How much do you know about the stone figures, called moai, on this tiny Polynesian island? Easter Island, known to residents as Rapa Nui, has long puzzled those who encounter the enormous statues. Although there is no one left to tell us for sure, experts speculate that the moai were constructed around 1200 CE by the original Polynesian settlers as representations of their clans’ revered ancestors.
Man Near Moai (Lava Stone Effigy Figures) at Base of Outer Slope of Volcano 1890, NAA 04960500
Man Near Moai (Lava Stone Effigy Figures)
at Base of Outer Slope of Volcano 1890,
NAA 04960500

This society’s belief system centered on the concept of mana, a magical or spiritual essence. Oral legend says that this is the power that was able to move and erect the moai. The figures, once placed atop their platforms (ahu), were believed to watch over their clan’s territory and protect it with the power of mana. The figures did not have mana until they were given eyes (made of white coral and obsidian or red scoria), however.  There are no remaining moai with their original eyes intact, but several have been restored for demonstration purposes. With or without eyes, these statues still appear majestic and stoic.

The National Anthropological Archives holds a variety of photographs and drawings of these massive stone figures.

The Smithsonian Institution is also in possession of two moai, one of which is on display in the National Museum of Natural History. These two specimens (Head SI-WDC-002 and Moai SI-WDC-001) came from an inland site called Ahu O’Pepe and were brought to the Smithsonian in 1887. William J. Thomson of the U.S. Navy collected the statues on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution in December 1886 and transported them to Washington, D.C. on the U.S.S. Mohican.

George Brown Goode, Samuel D. Langley, and Otis T. Mason with Two Moai (Lava Stone Effigy Figures) Inside Museum Building n.d., NAA 04960200
George Brown Goode, Samuel D. Langley, and
Otis T. Mason with Two Moai (Lava Stone Effigy
Figures) Inside Museum Building n.d.,
NAA 04960200
Until fairly recently, many people were unaware that there are bodies underneath those huge stone heads! Due to the age and shifting landscape of the island, some of the figures have been buried up to their shoulders, making it appear as though they were simply heads. The moai currently displayed in the NMNH (on the left in the above photo) is fully intact, and if you look closely you can see the detail of the hands and fingers laid across the stomach. The moai in the two other photos, taken on Easter Island, are examples of partially buried figures. We can only see the heads and shoulders here, but fully excavated they would appear even taller! The Easter Island Statue Project has been working since 1982 to catalog, excavate, and preserve moai, and they have lots of interesting related information on their website.

You can find other Smithsonian collections related to Easter Island here.

— Jocelyn Baltz, Intern, National Anthropological Archives

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