Ancient artisans of Easter Island depended on the quarry at Rano Raraku to supply the volcanic stone for the island's famous moai. Moai are the huge stone carvings of heads that have come to symbolize Easter Island civilization.

Photograph by Christian Wilkinson, MyShot
  • 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?

      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?

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

    3. How were moai decorated?

      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?

      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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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.

    civilization Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    civil war Noun

    conflict between groups in the same country or nation.

    coral 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.

    quarry Noun

    site where stone is mined.

    Encyclopedic Entry: quarry
    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.