Moai are the enormous "Easter Island heads" that have come to symbolize the ancient traditions of Rapa Nui, the native culture of Easter Island. Now a part of Chile, Easter Island is the most isolated, western point of the Polynesian Triangle of the South Pacific. Rapa Nui civilization flourished on Easter Island between 1250 and 1500.

Moai are called "Easter Island heads" for two reasons. First, the statues' heads are disproportionately large: the average head-to-body ratio is 3/5. Second, many moai are buried to their shoulders, making them appear as only heads.

Most moai remain at the Rapa Nui quarry, Rano Raraku, shown in the photograph above. Tools and other implements unearthed at Rano Raraku have given archaeologists and anthropologists clues about how moai were carved.

Most moai are made of tuff. Tuff is a soft volcanic rock native to Easter Island. (A few moai were carved from basalt and scoria, other volcanic rocks.) Because tuff erodes easily, few of the moai's original designs remain. Moai that were buried retain some original markings, which are similar to Rapa Nui tattoos of the period.

Moai are known for their exaggerated brow ridge and nose. However, most moai also had decorated eyes. Rapa Nui sculptors used white coral in the eye sockets, with black obsidian or red scoria for the pupils.

All moai were toppled in the 18th century, following a Rapa Nui civil war or other internal conflict. Like the moai above, most moai were deliberately pushed face-down. The hundreds of moai standing on Easter Island today were restored by historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists in the 20th century.

  1. What is Rapa Nui?

    • Answer

      Rapa Nui are the people and culture native to Easter Island. Rapa Nui civilization is most famous for its giant stone statues, carved between 1250-1500.

  2. What is Rano Raraku?

    • Answer

      Rano Raraku is the main stone quarry on Easter Island. The main stone mined at Rano Raraku is tuff.

  3. How were moai decorated?

    • Answer

      Most moai originally had "tattoos" carved into their torsos. Their eyes were decorated with white coral and either black obsidian or red scoria.

  4. Why do you think most moai were pushed face-down during a conflict?

    • Answer

      The Rapa Nui left no written records, so anthropologists can't be sure what caused the internal conflict or why the moai were toppled. Some possible reasons may include:
      •    Moai represented tribal ancestors. Pushing them face-down was an insult to the surviving members of that tribe.
      •    Moai represented Rapa Nui deities. By pushing their faces down, the gods did not have to witness the Rapa Nui conflict.
      •    Moai simply fell into disrepair and toppled over.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

anthropologist
Noun

person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

basalt
Noun

type of dark volcanic rock.

brow ridge
Noun

prominent bone above the eye. Also called the superciliary ridge and supraorbital ridge.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

civil war
Noun

conflict between groups in the same country or nation.

Noun

tiny ocean animal, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form reefs.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

deliberately
Adverb

on purpose.

enormous
Adjective

very large.

erode
Verb

to wear away.

eye socket
Noun

hole in the skull where the eyeball and its associated tissues are secured. Also called the orbit and eye socket orbital cavity.

flourish
Verb

to thrive or be successful.

historian
Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

implement
Verb

to carry out plans.

moai
Noun

very large stone figures carved and displayed on Easter Island.

obsidian
Noun

black glass formed as lava cools above ground.

Polynesia
Noun

island group in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

Noun

site where stone is mined.

Rapa Nui
Noun

people and culture native to Easter Island. Also another name for Easter Island.

ratio
Noun

relationship between numbers or numerical values.

rock
Noun

natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.

scoria
Noun

type of rough, crusty volcanic rock.

symbolize
Verb

to represent an object, idea, organization, or geographical region.

tattoo
Noun

permanent ink decoration on skin.

tool
Noun

instrument used to help in the performance of a task.

tradition
Noun

beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.

tuff
Noun

type of rock formed from hardened volcanic ash.

unearth
Verb

to dig up.

volcanic
Adjective

having to do with volcanoes.