The Stone Ancestors

Easter Island is populated by Moai. Today on the island there are more Moai than people; at the moment of maximum demographic expansion, there was a Moai for every one hundred people. A Moai is a monolithic anthropomorphic statue with stylized and oblong traits, probably (but not certainly) representing a being of male sex, with the body merely sketched. Usually the statues are embellished by reliefs representing ears with elongated lobes, clothes, and other objects. The monoliths are made of rock from one of the dead volcanos of the island, known as Rano Raraku, which was used as a huge open-air quarry. As we shall see in more detail later, many statues remained in the quarry, or on the slopes of the volcano; among the latter is the so-called Tukuturi, the sole Moai that seems to represent a human being kneeling down.

The huge boulders of rock destined to become statues were patiently quarried using hand-hammers of hard stone; while the bottom part of the block was still not completely detached, the top part was already being carved. Thus, the statues were shaped on the spot and then carried to their appointed site already finished or nearly finished. To many statues, or possibly to all of them, a sort of cylindrical hat was then added, probably representing the hair of the figure, made out of a heavy red coral stone block.

Figure 12.2: The Moais at Ahu Akivi

On the island there are about nine hundred Moai (to be precise, 887 of them have been counted). Among these, 397 are still in the quarries; of the remaining ones, at least 288 were successfully carried to their final destination (Van Tilburg 1994). The standard Moai is about 4 meters tall and weighs 12 tons. The largest Moai was never finished and lies, as a sort of puzzle for visitors, in the Rano Raraku quarry. It is over 20 meters long and it weighs at least 170 tons, so it is hard to believe that it could have carried elsewhere (I believe that it was meant to stay there, in the womb of his quarry-mother). It is not clear what method was used to move the Moai and lift them into an erect position. Were they carried directly in the erect position, as suggested by accounts reported in the first Europeans chronicles? In any case, moving the standard-size Moai would not have been a problem for a motivated team of some hundreds of men (see Appendix 2).

The final destination of the stone giants were stone platforms, called Ahu, hosting a collection of statues positioned one next to the other. Having to sustain a weigh of several tens of tons, the Ahu were themselves sturdy and extremely solid buildings made of stone blocks. Some of the platforms show signs of various restorations or reuse, and it is even possible to notice the presence of Moai recycled as construction materials. Other platforms, however, were built with exceptional skill, joining with extreme precision huge polygonal blocks in a manner that closely resembles Inca's stonework (for example, Ahu Vinapu, Ahu Tepeu, and Ahu Vai Mata). It is possible that

Figure 12.3: The Moais at Ahu Vai Uri

not all of the platforms were intended to support the Moai, but their precise function is unknown (some are called seawalls, even though this was obviously not their purpose). The presence on the island of these Inca-like walls fueled the idea that Eastern Island was reached also by people coming from South America (see, e.g., Heyerdahl 1961), but up to now no clear evidence has been found to support this view.

Figure 12.4: Ahu Vinapu, detail of polygonal joints and keystone

The most important Moai platforms are the following:

1. Ahu Tongariki lies on the south coast, close to the slope of Rano Raraku. The platform (restored) holds 15 huge Moai.

2. Ahu Vinapu is located in the west end, near the island's airport. It is considered one of the older Ahu. The quality of the stonework of the platform is impressive, very similar to the Incas' polygonal masonry.

3. Ahu Akivi, probably one of the last to be built, is the only large Ahu that is built on the interior of the island, on the western slopes of the central volcano. It holds seven Moai, all very similar to one another in their dimensions, shape, and expression. They are good examples of the standard size: 4 meters tall, weighing 12 tons. The platform is carbon-dated around the year 1440 AD, and it is thought to have been used up to the end of the Moai period, around the year 1600 AD. If this is the case, then the seven statues may represent subsequent rulers of this part of the island.

4. Ahu Naunau is on the northeast coast of the island near the place were the first settlers are thought to have landed, Anakena Beach. The platform was changed and rebuilt several times. The statues have recently been restored, including the original red-rock hats, and each one shows detailed, although enigmatic, carvings on the back (Plate 25).

Figure 12.5: Moais on the slopes of Rano Raraku.

5. Ahu Vai Uri is on the western shore, near Akapu. It is the only platform that holds statues that are appreciably different from one another. In its center stands a prominent character flanked, on its left, by two figures of similar size. On its right stands a smaller figure and, further ahead, still on the right, the remnants of an even smaller Moai. It is very difficult to interpret these differences, although one may consider them monuments dedicated to special people, perhaps a royal family.

What is the meaning of these extraordinary works? The vast majority of scholars believe that the Moai were part of a cult that worshiped ancestors, represented by the statues (Van Tilburg and Lee 1987). However, despite the fact that they are not all perfectly similar, the statues are too standardized to be portraits of different people. Rather, I believe that they conform to a style, with rigid canons, that has little resemblance to known images from Polynesia or South America. The stylized, oblong traits have little to do with the somatic characteristics of the inhabitants of Easter Island as well. On the other hand, we must recognize that the megalithism on Easter Island was a autochthonous phenomenon. Indeed, although several megalithic monuments do exist in Oceania—such as the spectacular site of Nan Madol on the Pohnpei island, composed of tens of artificial islands of rectangular shape separated by canals and built using huge basalt boulders, or the Tonga gigantic trilithon, which is over 5 meters tall—they all belong to a much later period than the Easter Island colonization, since all the radiocarbon dates related to these stone monuments fall within the last millennium.

This is why I believe that, even though the interpretation of the Moai as representations of the ancestors may contain a kernel of truth, it is not enough to explain the obsessive, maniacal presence of the statues on the island. To gain further insight, we must consider the distribution of the Ahu on the territory and the relationship between the statues and the landscape. The general impression that one gets from these monuments is that of a "frontier'', except for Ahu Akivi, which looks like a late stylistic exercise or an attempt to reaffirm a changing tradition whose meaning is no longer fully understood; all the other Ahu are in fact located near the coast, and all the statues face the interior of the island. (Maybe they are looking at the villages or the horizon and the sky, as we shall see below.) Thus, they form a sort of ideal border, needed to indicate and therefore to legitimate the presence of humans. Consequently, the whole island is a sacred landscape similar to that of the Sardinia island, where, as we mentioned in Chapter 3, thousands of huge towers are used to establish the presence of people (see also Chapter 15). This special place where humanity lives is visited by the Moai; they indeed look like newcomers who, as soon as they disembarked from their canoes, start walking inland. But where are they going?

Figure 12.6: The profile of Rano Raraku
Figure 12.7: The profile of a Moai (picture rotated 90 degrees to facilitate comparison)

Avery plausible possibility, in my opinion, is that they wish to go back to their rocky mother. Indeed, and this has been noticed by many others before me, the thing that a Moai's profile resembles the most is the profile of the volcano Ranu Raraku, the quarry where all the statues come from. Ranu Raraku is, after all, a real Moai nursery. Statues of different dimensions and at different stages of their sculpting emerge for the rock, some abandoned for unknown reasons, others because the stone was cracked, and still others ready to be transported or simply standing there and left in place on the slopes of the volcano, looking outward. It looks like the mountain is peeling off, reproducing itself in smaller scale and in an obsessive way with little variation and at different levels of definition, in a succession that reminds many of M.C. Escher's famous lithographs.

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