Easter Island Enigma

For centuries, explorers and archaeologists have tried to solve the riddle: how did Easter Island’s tiny population build the massive, big-headed stone statues known as moai? And how did they move them?

The ancient moai statues of Easter Island are as vexing as they look. Numbering in the hundreds and reaching up to 30 feet and 80 tons, there’s no surviving blueprint for their construction or how the huge carvings were moved from the quarry, miles inland, to the coast. The mythology, passed down through the oral tradition of the indigenous Rapa Nui, says the statues “walked.”

That was a less-than-acceptable explanation for the Europeans who landed in the 18th century. “We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures,” wrote Captain Cook, surprised to find such a small community among such larger-than-life craftsmanship. Typically, his questions said more about him than any reality of the place.

When it comes to explaining the mysteries of Easter Island, that’s something of a pattern.

Moai statues average a height of 13 feet and a weight of 14 tons.

The Popular Theory: Population Collapse

In 2005, Pulitzer winner Jared Diamond wrote the book on Easter Island. If you’re hoping to draw a line from Easter Island to our own struggles with climate change, this is your theory — a handy blueprint for what happens when you fail to preserve your environment.

In Diamond’s bestseller, Collapse, the author made an irresistibly allegorical argument that the original Polynesian settlers were almost entirely to blame for the collapse of what must have once been a magnificent, much larger community. In their need for farmland, firewood, and possibly devices to move the moai statues, they stripped the forest bare. Once the forests expired, so did several species of edible birds, so did the wood for boats, and so did their ability to fish. The soil eroded and the crops wasted away. The society devolved into vicious infighting and cannibalism.

It was, according to Diamond, “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

Today, this theory is still used by columnists to illustrate the dangers of what happens “when a people” — either the Rapa Nui or the the modern global community — “damages the environment that sustains it.”

William Hodges
The artist, William Hodges, joined Captain Cook’s voyage to Easter Island in 1772.

The New Research: A Different Story Entirely

Some archaeologists deny the theory of population collapse entirely, saying that interpretation of Easter Island makes a massive assumption.

In 2016, archaeologist Carl Lipo told Ars Technica that there’s no evidence any grander population once lived on Easter Island at all, and that Diamond and the like argue “that there must have been 10,000 or 20,000 (or 30,000!) people, not because of the archaeological record or any direct evidence of demography but from the assumption that the statues must have required huge populations.”

According to Lipo, the population remained around 3,000 until the arrival of Europeans, when it eventually dwindled to just 110.

Likewise, modern researchers don’t blame deforestation on a greedy, overextended society. Instead, they blame rats. Along for the ride with the original settlers of the place, Polynesian rats would have reproduced exponentially with no natural predators, feasting on tree seeds. While excavations show the human inhabitants made the rats a steady part of their diet, they couldn’t stop the inevitable.

Instead, they battled the difficult terrain in an effort to create sustainable farming, ate what they could, and supported their own relatively small population in what the researchers call “an unlikely story of success.”

Moai head detail
The moai are said to represent ancestors and chiefs. With few exceptions, they all face inland.

Reassigning Blame: From Civil War To Slavery

As for stashes of obsidian littering the island, seen as evidence of widespread warfare, Lipo doesn’t see that as evidence of weaponry, but of agriculture — pointing to the shape of the artifacts as too wide and worn to have been used for effective warfare. And as recently as 2018, researchers showed that tools used to build the moai all originated from a single stone quarry. It’s not definitive, but it hints that the Rapa Nui may have been “cooperating and sharing information” at the precise time they were said to have been killing and eating one another.

As Lipo put it, the tale “that’s been told about these populations going crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of [Christian] missionaries telling stories.”

After all, they had their own motive for blaming any devastation on the Rapa Nui.

Without a doubt, the arrival of Europeans heralded devastating disease, slavery, and clashes among the surviving islanders. In one powerful refutation of old narratives, researcher Catrine Jarman writes that “perhaps this, instead, was the warfare the ethnohistorical accounts refer to and what ultimately stopped the statue carving.”

Easter Island
Easter Island in all its glory.

Finding Common Ground: It Probably Wasn’t Aliens

Recent research has brought the population collapse theory more and more into question. But it’s no wonder it became such a compelling answer to the island’s mysteries.

After all, before Collapse hit the shelves, you may have picked up Erich von Daniken’s book, yet another perspective on Easter Island that lingers in the popular consciousness. On something of a lifelong mission to prove that the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge have extraterrestrial origins, he theorized that stranded aliens built the moai as an S.O.S. to their compatriots.

So, yes. All the easier to believe a compelling climate change parable when your other option is ancient aliens.


In The End: A Return To Folklore

But if you’re ready to cast aside the population collapse theory, and not everyone is, then you’re left wondering — how did the Rapa Nui move the moai?

In 2012, Lipo and his team put forth a theory. In a video, they demonstrated how just 18 people, using ropes tied around the top of a moai statue, could work together to rock it back and forth across the island.

As one contemporary report put it, it’s a bit like how you would shimmy a refrigerator around your kitchen, lifting the front then the back to urge it forward step by step.

In other words, the statues walked.



Easter Island
The Rano Kau volcanic crater and the strikingly modern Explora Rapa Nui.

Explora Rapa Nui: A Suitably Exciting Hotel

Striking modern hotels in far-flung, exotic locales are an Explora specialty. But there’s no more dramatic example of that tendency than Explora Rapa Nui, their hotel on Easter Island. The building’s rounded forms are almost futuristic, but it’s brought down to earth by humble materials like raw concrete and unfinished wood. With Explora’s guided tours, you’ll see Easter Island’s archaeological sites as well as its natural gifts — on foot, by bike, and by sea.

Learn more.