Easter Island: land of mystery


David Pratt

Nov 2004, Jan 2009


Part 1 of 4



(Part 1)
    1. Introduction
    2. History
    3. South American connection

(Part 2)
    4. Carving the statues
    5. Moving the statues

(Part 3)
    6. Platforms
    7. Rongorongo
    8. Chronology

(Part 4)
    9. Sunken lands
  10. Megalithic Pacific


1. Introduction

Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken.  – Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919

Fig. 1.1 A stone giant at Rano Raraku continues its solemn watch, silent and inscrutable.

Lying just south of the tropic of Capricorn, midway between Chile and Tahiti, Easter Island – or Rapa Nui – is one of the most remote islands on earth. Triangular in shape, with an extinct volcano at each corner, its 170 square kilometres offer a varied landscape of gently rolling hills, volcanic craters, rugged lava fields, and steep ocean cliffs, surrounded by the deep-blue waters of the South Pacific. The island is famous above all for nearly a thousand gigantic long-eared stone statues or moai, most of them 4 to 8 metres tall, and for over 300 stone platforms or ahu, many of megalithic proportions. It is a land of mystery, known in former times as Te Pito o te Henua, ‘the navel of the world’.

Fig. 1.2 Easter Island lies isolated in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Platforms were built all around the island’s coast, and statues once stood on most of them, facing inland towards the villages. Some platform statues bore a large cylindrical headdress or pukao carved from reddish stone, and eyes of cut coral were fitted into their faces. Nearly all the statues are made from yellowish volcanic rock, quarried at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Work at the quarry seems to have stopped suddenly, for dozens of statues remain uncompleted, and thousands of stone pickaxes were found scattered around. Another enigma is the island’s still-undeciphered hieroglyphic script, known as Rongorongo – virtually the only ancient form of writing known in Oceania.

Fig. 1.3 Rano Raraku volcano.1 (courtesy of Carlos Huber)

The official view is that Easter Island was discovered accidentally by Polynesian migrants in the 4th century AD. Their descendants, living in isolation and having nothing better to do, decided to carve giant statues and build huge platforms. They rapidly acquired mastery in advanced stone-carving techniques and the transportation and erection of statues and stone blocks weighing many tons. For over a thousand years they maintained a peaceful, stable, constructive society which supported a large class of master-builders and master-sculptors, and was ruled by a hereditary hierarchy of sacred priest-kings. However, overpopulation and a deteriorating environment resulted in intertribal warfare by the late 17th century. Amidst the turmoil all the statues standing on the platforms were pulled down. It was around this time that the first European explorers discovered the island.

However, many controversies remain: How many times was Easter Island settled and from which direction: by Polynesians from the west, or by South Americans from the east? How did the islanders manage to sculpt hundreds of colossal moai, many as high as a three-storey building, transport them great distances, and erect them on the stone platforms? How did they manage to carve and shape the very tough basalt blocks used in the platforms, given that they are not supposed to have had any metal tools? Does the archaeological history of Easter Island really go back no further than 1500 years? Is there any truth to the legend that the island was once part of a much larger landmass?


  1. José Miguel Ramírez and Carlos Huber, Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a land of rocky dreams, Alvimpress Impresores, 2000, p. 67.


2. History

Fig. 2.1


The reigning consensus is that Easter Island was colonized around 300-400 AD as part of an eastward migratory trend that originated in Southeast Asia around 2000 BC. The settlers are thought to have been Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, 3600 km northwest, or the Mangareva (Gambier) Islands, 2500 km west.

Fig. 2.2 The official view of Polynesian migrations across the Pacific.

The history of Easter Island until the arrival of the first Europeans is usually divided into three main phases: settlement (400-1000), expansion (1000-1500), and decadence (1500-1722). The statues erected before 700 are thought to have been far smaller and more naturalistic than later ones. The golden age of platform building and statue carving is believed to have begun in the mid-12th century, with few statues being erected on platforms after 1500. Forests of palms and conifers once grew on the island, but overpopulation, deforestation, and reduced soil fertility, perhaps aggravated by drought, led to civil war, famine, cannibalism, and the collapse of the old order. The authority of the hereditary chief waned, and power was seized by a ruthless class of warriors. Platform statues were successively overthrown, and the islanders concentrated on making smaller wooden carvings and crude stone figurines.

Natural disasters – earthquakes and tsunamis – may have contributed to the damage suffered by the platforms and statues. On 22 May 1960, for instance, an 8-metre-high tidal wave, produced by an earthquake off Chile, struck the island and entirely destroyed the remains of Ahu Tongariki. Huge stone blocks and 15 statues with an average weight of more than 40 tons were carried over 150 metres inland.

Fig. 2.3 Ahu Tongariki, 150 metres long, as restored in the mid-1990s.

In April 1722 a Dutch expedition under Admiral Jacob Roggeveen became the first Europeans to set foot on Rapa Nui. They named it Easter Island as they landed on Easter Sunday. They spent one day there, and reported that the natives worshipped huge statues with fires while prostrating themselves to the rising sun. Some had stretched and perforated earlobes hanging to their shoulders, and both men and women were extensively tattooed. During a skirmish in which the natives threatened to throw stones, Roggeveen’s men shot dead a dozen islanders before sailing off – thereby ensuring that the arrival of European ‘civilization’ would be a day to remember. Like subsequent European visitors, the Dutch reported seeing not only fair-skinned Polynesians, but people of darker skin, others who were white like Europeans, and a few with reddish skin.

In 1770 a Spanish party from Peru claimed the island for Spain. A conflict seems to have raged on the island before the arrival of the British navigator Captain James Cook four years later. He found a decimated, poverty-stricken population, and observed that the statue cult seemed to have ended, as most of the statues had been pulled down. It’s possible that some of the statues were toppled even before the Dutch and Spanish visits but that those sailors did not visit the same sites as Cook.

The Frenchman La Pérouse visited Easter Island in 1786 and found the population calm and prosperous, suggesting a quick recovery from any catastrophe. In 1804 a Russian visitor reported that at least 20 statues were still standing. Accounts from subsequent years suggest another period of destruction so that perhaps only a handful of statues were still standing a decade later. Some of the statues still upright at the beginning of the 19th century were knocked down by western expeditions.

After 1800, whalers began stopping on the island, leaving behind venereal diseases. Easter Islanders also suffered a series of slave raids, the first being led by an American captain in 1805. A major slave raid launched from Peru in 1862, followed by smallpox epidemics, reduced the population to just 111 in 1877, wiping out the hereditary caste of teachers and initiates (maori). In 1864 Eugène Eyraud, a French Catholic missionary, settled on the island, and eventually succeeded in converting the population to Christianity – as well as introducing tuberculosis.

Commercial exploitation of the island began in 1870. The Frenchman Dutroux-Bornier began to transform the island into a sheep farm while expelling the islanders to the plantations of Tahiti. He was killed by the remaining islanders in 1877. In 1888 the island was annexed by Chile. The total population currently stands at about 4000, but it is estimated that the prehistoric population could have reached as many as 20,000.


Orthodox researchers believe that Easter Island was settled only once: by Polynesians in the 4th century AD. Since no seafarers in those days are supposed to have had maps, it is thought that the island must have been discovered mainly by chance, and that such an unlikely event could not possibly have happened more than once. As John Flenley and Paul Bahn put it: ‘The chances of Easter Island being reached even once were extremely limited; to imagine it being reached several times over vast distances is beyond belief.’1 Some of the island’s legends, however, imply two or three different migrations. As is often the case, native traditions are sometimes contradictory and cannot all be historically accurate, but they may offer important clues.

According to legend, a powerful supernatural being named Uoke, who came from a land called Hiva, travelled about the Pacific prying up whole islands with a gigantic lever and tossing them into the sea where they vanished beneath the waves. After destroying many islands he came to the coast of Easter Island, then a much larger land than it is today, and began to lever up parts of it and cast them into the sea. Eventually he reached a place on the island where the rocks were so sturdy that his lever broke. He was unable to dispose of the last fragment, and this remained as the island we know today.

Easter Island’s culture was founded by the legendary god-king Hotu Matua (‘prolific father’), who is said to have lived on a remnant of Hiva called Maori, in a locality called Marae Renga. According to one version of the legend, he set sail for Easter Island due to the cataclysm caused by Uoke. Another version says he was forced to flee after being defeated in war. After a magician in Hiva called Hau Maka had made an astral journey to Easter Island in a dream, a reconnaissance voyage of seven youths was sent there, and Hotu Matua followed later in a double-canoe.2

The most widespread tradition today is that Hotu Matua’s homeland was a large, warm, green island to the west of Easter Island, but a tradition told to the earliest European explorers says that the first settlers came from a land to the east, known as Marae-toe-hau, ‘the burial place’, which had a very hot climate.3 One tradition suggests that the first Polynesian migration, led by Hotu Matua, was followed by a second Polynesian migration about 100 years later. References are also made to several voyages being made back and forth to Hiva.

There are indications that Easter Island was inhabited even before Hotu Matua arrived. According to one tradition, when Hau Maka had his prophetic dream, he saw six men on the island. Another mentions that Hoto Matua’s seven explorers found an inhabitant on the island, who had arrived with another person who had since died.4 A third account says that a burial platform was found at Hotu Matua’s landing place, and a network of stone-paved roads built by earlier settlers was found inland.5

Francis Mazière, who conducted archaeological excavations on the island in 1963, was told by a native elder that ‘very big men, but not giants, lived on the island well before the coming of Hotu-Matua’. Another related the following legend:

The first men to live on the island were the survivors of the world’s first race. They were yellow, very big, with long arms, great stout chests, huge ears although their lobes were not stretched: they had pure yellow hair and their bodies were hairless and shining. They did not possess fire. This race once existed on two other Polynesian islands. They came by boat from a land that lies behind America.6

According to another tradition, one of the early tribes (the ‘long-ears’) were about 2.5 m (8 ft) tall, and had white skin and red hair.7

The key players in the island’s traditional history are the Hanau-eepe and the Hanau-momoko. These terms are often translated ‘long-ears’ and ‘short-ears’ respectively. However, some researchers say that this is erroneous, and that the correct translations are ‘stocky race’ and ‘slender race’. Hanau means ‘race’ or ‘ethnic group’. Eepe means ‘stocky’ or ‘corpulent’, but there is also a word epe, which means ‘earlobe’. Thor Heyerdahl says that the term was formerly spelled Hanau-epe. Whatever the correct term may be, the people referred to certainly had elongated earlobes. Today momoko carries the sense of ‘sharp-pointed’, and it is assumed that the word probably used to mean ‘slender’ or ‘weak’.8 Some writers have concluded that the Hanau-eepe were the upper class, and the Hanau-momoko the lower class.

One tradition says that Hotu Matua’s people were the ‘short-ears’, while the ‘long-ears’ arrived in a subsequent migration. But another says that he brought both short-ears and long-ears with him, and yet another that the long-ears arrived before the short-ears.9 Heyerdahl saw the long-ears as the descendants of the first, Amerindian colonizers, and the short-ears as more recent Polynesian arrivals. The long-ears are sometimes said to have started building the great platforms, while the short-ears were the first to carve huge images of their ancestors and place them on the platforms.

The long-ears reportedly subjugated the short-ears, until the latter finally rebelled. All the long-ears except one were allegedly massacred in the latter half of the 17th century; after a fierce battle the short-ears drove them into the Poike ditch, in which piles of brushwood had been set alight. Most researchers doubt this story, as no weapons or bones have ever been found in the ditch. Although some charcoal excavated from it has been radiocarbon dated to about 1676, other charcoal has been dated to about 386 AD and to the 11th century, and it could all have come from bush fires or slash-and-burn practices used in clearing the fields. In any event, it is unlikely that only one long-ear survived such a battle, since a period of civil war followed when all the long-eared statues were overthrown, and there were still people with elongated earlobes alive when the first Europeans arrived.


  1. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 67.
  2. Father Sebastian Englert, Island at the Centre of the World: New light on Easter Island, London; Robert Hale & Company, 1970, pp. 45-8; The Enigmas of Easter Island, pp. 64-5.
  3. Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, pp. 110-5.
  4. Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, pp. 44-5; José Miguel Ramírez and Carlos Huber, Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a land of rocky dreams, Alvimpress Impresores, 2000, p. 28.
  5. Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 125.
  6. Mysteries of Easter Island, pp. 45, 63.
  7. David Hatcher Childress, Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific, Stelle, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1988, p. 292.
  8. www.rongorongo.org/vanaga/a.html; Island at the Centre of the World, pp. 88-93; Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 127; Mysteries of Easter Island, pp. 60-2.
  9. John Macmillan Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited, 1996 (1924), pp. 44-5; Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 122, 126.


3. South American connection

Polynesian archaeology appears to be dominated by a small, zealous group, who will not permit any points of view other than their own. ... We must bear in mind that nobody, absolutely nobody has the right to claim to know the whole truth about the past; for there are simply too many elements of uncertainty involved.  – Øystein Kock Johansen1

Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, who led archaeological expeditions to Easter Island in 1955-56 and 1986-88, opposed the conventional view that Easter Island was first peopled from the west (Polynesia), and argued that it was first settled from the east (South America), as one of the island’s early traditions suggests. He held that the sweet potato, bottle gourd, and totora reed were introduced to the island from South America, while the chicken, banana, and sugar cane, for example, were introduced from Polynesia. He thought that a pre-Inca society had reached Easter Island from Peru, by making use of the prevailing westerly trade winds. In 1947 he demonstrated that such voyages were feasible when he sailed his balsa raft Kon-Tiki from South America to Raroia Atoll, in Polynesia’s Tuamotu archipelago.

Heyerdahl originally proposed that Easter Island was initially settled by South Americans around 400 AD, and that the Polynesians arrived centuries later, massacring most of Amerindian population. However, he later modified his opinion: he felt that the Polynesians had largely abandoned their own distinct faith and culture after arriving on Easter Island, and concluded that they had probably been brought there against their will by people from South America. During the 12th century the Incas rose to power in Peru, bringing about considerable unrest and the expulsion of many earlier settlers. Heyerdahl speculated that some of these Peruvians sailed west and brought Polynesians to Easter Island, either through force or cunning. In his view, history was repeating itself when, in 1862, Peruvian slave raiders sailed to Easter Island and put an end to the aboriginal culture.2

Most researchers dismiss Heyerdahl’s theory of a South American source for Easter Island’s culture, arguing that not a single South American artifact has ever been found in 50 years of intensive archaeology in Polynesia, and that there is no trace of a sudden influx of new cultural influences at any point in Easter Island’s history. They describe his theory as ‘a tottering edifice precariously based on preconceptions, extreme subjectivity, distortions and very little hard evidence’.3 They do, however, concede that there must have been at least sporadic contacts between Polynesians and South America, though they think it was probably the Polynesians who went to South America rather than the other way round.

Contacts of some kind are needed to explain how the sweet potato, for example, reached Polynesia, and why the Inca quipu – a system of knotted cords for remembering facts and especially numbers – is used on many island in Polynesia and Melanesia, into Indonesia and through China. There is archaeological and linguistic evidence that Polynesians landed on the north coast of Chile, among a tribe known as the Mapuche. In graves at Rio Negro in Argentina, human remains have been found that do not belong to any race of South America, but to those of Polynesia. Maori stone implements have been discovered at Cuzco in Peru and at Santiago del Estiro in Argentina. Carved wooden clubs similar to those of the Marquesas have been found in Peru, Chile, Columbia, and Ecuador.4 The possibility cannot be ruled out that influences may have gone back and forth between Polynesia and South America over vastly longer periods of time than orthodox theories allow.

The official thinking today is that the Easter Islanders are Polynesians, with no admixture of any other groups. However, the ‘scientific’ evidence is ambiguous. H.L. Shapiro found that Easter Islanders deviated significantly from the Polynesians in the shape and dimensions of the cranium, but proposed that this might be due to ‘selective migration followed by isolation and inbreeding’; the Easter Islanders have been said to be just plain Polynesians of ‘a somewhat specialized and exaggerated type’.5

The rocker jaw is the most characteristically Polynesian skeletal trait. Its frequency of occurrence on almost all islands from New Zealand to Hawaii ranges from 72 to 90%, but it is extremely rare among Amerindians; the figure for Easter Island is 48.5%. One researcher found that the Easter Islanders show a few minor Amerindian traits, and suggested this could be due to some Marquesans having sailed to South America. Some investigators think that the most likely homeland of the Easter Islanders is Mangareva (Gambier Islands) or the Tuamotus, though a small genetic element from South America remains a possibility.6

All the giant statues on Easter Island have long ears, and some islanders still practised ear elongation at the time the first Europeans arrived. The custom was also practised in the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia, and in Peru; the Incas said they had inherited the custom from their divine ancestors. The oldest known practice of ear extension was among the mariners in the prehistoric Indus Valley harbour-city of Lothal, where large numbers of big earplugs of the type used in ancient Mexico, Peru, and Easter Island have been found. Hindu rulers subsequently adopted the custom, but it was restricted to members of the royal families and images of the Hindu gods. Buddha images with long ears are found all over Asia, and long-eared stone statues have also been dug up in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

The most skilfully carved statues, regarded by some researchers as the oldest, had long tapering finger nails. The practice of letting the nails grow also existed in China and among initiated Incas, and symbolized knowledge, thought, and exemption from manual labour. Certain children on the island used to be shut up in caves to preserve the whiteness of their skin; they were required to remain celibate and let their nails and hair grow. The same custom existed both in the Andes and on the Polynesian island of Mangareva in the Gambier archipelago.7

Easter Island’s language (Rapanui) is usually said to be derived entirely from Polynesian. However, in 1770 the Spanish visitors compiled a vocabulary which included words clearly of Polynesian origin along with others which were clearly not; the numerals from 1 to 10 were totally different. Conventional researchers emphasize that the Spaniards were unfamiliar with Polynesian languages. Captain Cook, who visited the island four years later, had a Tahitian with him who could converse with the islanders to a limited extent; a list of 17 Polynesian words was compiled, and also correct proto-Polynesian words for 1 to 10. Heyerdahl says that the loss of the original language of the coastal cultures of western South America prevents any comparison with the non-Polynesian words in the Spaniards’ list.8

Robert Langdon and Darrell Tryon argued that at the time of contact, Easter Island’s language was made up of three elements: one of west Polynesian origin, one from east Polynesia, and a third of unidentified origin, probably from the east. Other researchers hold that there is no satisfactory evidence for the existence of a pre-Polynesian language or second wave of Polynesian immigrants, and that the Rapanui language is a member of the eastern Polynesian subgroup.9

The Easter islanders had their own writing system, known as Rongorongo (see section 7). The orthodox view is that either the islanders invented it after the arrival of the Europeans, or that they brought it with them from another Polynesian island, even though no Polynesian tribe is known to have possessed the art of writing. Heyerdahl points out that a variety of writing systems were in use in pre-Columbian America.

Some plants on Easter Island clearly come from South America, such as the islanders’ staple food the sweet potato (which is known by its Quechua name kumara), and also manioc and gourd.10 As already mentioned, mainstream researchers prefer to believe that the Polynesians made contact with the South American mainland and returned with the sweet potato. They also point out that the island had no maize, beans, or squash – which are staple resources in South America. On the other hand, the French visitors of 1786 brought maize and various domestic animals with them, but they were never seen again by subsequent visitors. The first settlers apparently did not introduce pigs or dogs, which conventional researchers admit is surprising if they came from Polynesia.

Two species of freshwater plants, found in Easter Island’s crater lakes but nowhere else in the Pacific, and both useful to man, come from South America. One of them was the totora reed, which dominated the banks of South America’s Lake Titicaca and was cultivated in vast irrigated fields in the desert valleys on the coast below; it was used for making mats, houses, and boats. The other was known to the islanders as tavari, and was used as a medicinal plant. Like the totora, it grew in Lake Titicaca. The most useful wild tree on Easter Island was the toromiro tree, which was used for carving. It is so close to its continental Chilean relative that it could be considered the same species; no other closely related species existed in Polynesia.11

Pollen analysis shows that totora has been present on Easter Island for at least 30,000 years, contradicting native traditions that it was brought by the Polynesian Hotu Matua. Mainstream writers suggest that seeds could have been transported to the island by the wind, ocean, or on birds’ feet. Another possibility is that they were brought by an earlier ‘Hotu Matua’.

On Easter Island there are several dozen round or rectangular towers – or tupas – of uncut stones with a crawl-in entrance and vaulted roof. Such structures are not found elsewhere in Polynesia, but they closely resemble the chullpas of pre-Inca Peru; even their names are similar. Chullpas served as mausoleums for prominent persons and are found in large numbers on desert hillsides from Lake Titicaca down to the Pacific coast. Human remains were likewise found in some tupas. Mainstream writers try to deny any link between tupas and chullpas, and many believe that tupas were chicken houses, as chickens were sometimes kept in them in later times.

Fig. 3.1 A Rapa Nui tupa (top) and a Peruvian chullpa.

Heyerdahl points out that the cultural elements usually considered indicative of Polynesian culture are the grooved wooden mallet for making bark cloth (tapa), the bell-shaped pounder for making poi (food paste made from the taro root), and the wooden bowl for the kava-drinking ceremonies, but that none of them had found their way to aboriginal Easter Island.

Most researchers see the total absence of woven textiles and pottery on Easter Island as damning evidence against it having had any significant links with Peru, since these are the two most characteristic and abundant products of Peruvian culture. (Double standards are at work here, since prehistoric pottery has been found in the Marquesas but this doesn’t stop many researchers believing that Easter Island was originally settled from there.) A further argument against a strong South American influence is the complete absence of the pressure-flaking technique on stone tools throughout Polynesia (involving ‘pushing’ flakes off a core as opposed to striking them), and the total absence of South American metalwork on Easter Island. Note, however, that no one has yet demonstrated how tough basalt blocks could have been cut without metal tools (see section 6).

Stonework and carvings

Stone statues (or tiki) with hands on their bellies are found on other islands of eastern Polynesia, often standing on ceremonial platforms. They tend to be fairly crudely made, and statues of reasonable size are found only in the Marquesas Islands, where the tallest is 2.4 m (fig. 10.18), and on Raivavae, where the tallest was 2.8 m (fig. 10.13). However, these figures look nothing like those on Easter Island. Monolithic human statues are also found in western South America, from San Augustin in Colombia to Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku) by Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. But they are usually far more ornate than those on Easter Island and again the resemblance is very poor.

Fig. 3.2 Statues at San Augustin (left) and Tiwanaku (right).1

John Macmillan Brown, who spent five months on Easter Island in 1923, nevertheless believed that the stone giants of Easter Island were closely related to those of South America and that the differences were due to stylistic and artistic variations. He thought that the inspiration for the Marquesan statues probably came from the tropical regions of Colombia, while those of Easter Island are more akin to the art of Tiahuanaco. But, as said, there are notable differences, and the question of who might have inspired whom is unsettled. Sir Clements Markham and Argentine ethnologist J. Imbelloni thought that Easter Island could have inspired the pre-Inca culture.

When proof was found in 1978 that some of the Easter Island statues once had inlaid eyes, it came as a shock to many researchers, who had opposed the idea on the grounds that this was not a Polynesian custom. Inlaid eyes were a common feature of many of the oldest images of the Middle East, from Egypt to the Indus Valley. The seafaring Hittites, for example, adopted the practice from the Sumerians. Many prehistoric American stone statues also had inlaid eyes.

Easter Island’s platforms are usually compared to the marae of Polynesia, though none of the latter are as impressive as the island’s best platforms. Heyerdahl says that Easter Island’s platforms resemble the huaca platforms found in the Andean region, while the marvellous stonework at Ahu Vinapu is reminiscent of the finest pre-Inca masonry in Peru (see section 6).

Heyerdahl’s expedition to Easter Island in the 1950s uncovered a number of unusual statues which he believed strengthened the South American connection. A unique discovery at Rano Raraku was the kneeling statue Tukuturi, which was almost completely buried. With a total height of 3.67 m, the figure kneels with its hands on its knees and its buttocks resting on its heels. Its round, upturned face has short ears and a goatee beard. Another complete but badly eroded kneeling statue has been found inside the crater.2

Fig. 3.3 Tukuturi.

Heyerdahl compares Tukuturi to the smaller kneeling stone statues that were typical of Tiahuanaco. Conventional researchers compare it to a small squatting stone statue from Tahiti.3 There are notable differences in both cases, and again the question is who, if anybody, inspired whom. Orthodox writers point out that ribs were an essential feature of the kneeling statues from Tiahuanaco, but Heyerdahl countered that fragments of a kneeling image were found buried deep in the sand by the great ahu at Anakena, one of which had clearly marked ribs.

Fig. 3.4 Kneeling statue from Tiwanaku.

In the sunken temple plaza at Vinapu, Heyerdahl’s team found a rectangular block of red scoria, representing a body with its arms resting on the stomach and stunted legs. A deep hole had been cut into the region of the heart and the head was broken and missing, but when set up the image fragment still stood 3.5 m (11.5 ft) tall. Heyerdahl points out that the cross section of the pillarlike figure has the rounded, rectangular form so characteristic of the pre-Inca stone giants of the Tiahuanaco area.4

Fig. 3.5 Red-scoria statue.

The Easter Islanders used to make an incredible variety of curious lava sculptures (moai maea), and wooden figures (moai toromiro), including moai kavakava or ‘statues of ribs’, and weird monsters and creatures, showing unbridled imagination and creativity. Petroglyphs on the island also display a wide range of imaginative motifs. They include bizarre human masks and eye motifs, birds and birdmen, turtles, fish, whales, spiders, lizards, monsters, boats, and strange symbols. Heyerdahl says that this artistry stands in sharp contrast with the rest of Polynesia, and archaeologist Henri Lavachery, who spent six months on Easter Island in 1934, drew comparisons with the imagination and variety displayed by the pottery motifs of the early Mochica art in Peru (dating from the first few centuries AD). Conventional researchers speak only of ‘superficial’ resemblances.

Fig. 3.6 Lava sculptures.5

Fig. 3.7 Moai kavakava: each figure has a large curved nose, protruding cheekbones, extended earlobes, a goatee beard, and protruding ribs in a sunken abdomen; they are said to represent akuaku, or ‘spirits’.

Birdman cult

The gods Tiki, Tane, and Tangaroa were common to all Polynesia and regarded as the progenitors of the royal lines of divine descent. But none of these principal Polynesian gods were originally known to the Easter Islanders.1 Their creator-god was Makemake (pronounced: mackay-mackay), whose representative on earth was not a hereditary king, but an annually selected birdman. Makemake does not exist anywhere else in Polynesia.

The birdman cult used to be practised at the ceremonial village of Orongo, perched on the 400-m-high rim of the Rano Kau crater. The village comprises about 50 oval houses with 2-m-thick walls of horizontal stone slabs and corbelled roofs, between 1 and 2 m high inside. An annual birdman contest was held there each September (the month of the spring equinox in southern hemisphere). Young men, acting on behalf of noble patrons, competed to find the first egg laid by the sooty tern on the small bird island of Motu Nui, about a mile to the southwest of the Orongo headland. The contestants had to clamber down the cliff face, paddle out to the island on small reed floats, and then look for a tern’s egg and return with it to their patron, who would be declared the tangatu manu or birdman, and was favoured with privileges comparable to those enjoyed by the king until the next year’s competition. The last ceremonies took place in 1866.

Fig. 3.8 Birdman petroglyph, with Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and the pointed rock of Motu Kao Kao in the background.  

Fig. 3.9 Birdman petroglyph overlooking Rano Kau crater.


The origins of the birdman cult are unknown. It has no parallel in the rest of Polynesia, but Heyerdahl notes that birdman motifs based on a prehistoric bird cult are typical of the pre-Inca empire to the east. Although we know little about the deities of the extinct pre-Inca civilizations, the Incas worshipped the sun and their royal ancestors, and depicted them symbolically as felines, as bird-headed men, or as faces with tear marks below the eyes – as on Easter Island.2

A relief found during excavations at Túcume, a village in northern Peru, shows two large sea-going reed boats with cabins on deck. Friezes around the ships depict dancing birdmen in two different variations lifting their arms, and holding eggs in their hands. The motif matches the Orongo rock carvings on Easter Island, and probably dates to the Lambayeque period, between the 12th and 14th centuries, though the earliest birdman motifs in Peru date back at least to the Chavin period (1800-1000 BC). Øystein Kock Johansen remarks that everybody is ‘desperately hunting high and low for vague Easter Island birdman parallels in Polynesia, Melanesia and Southeast Asia, while they more or less completely ignore the use of this motif in South America from times before Christ. The situation seems quite forced, almost ridiculous.’3

Some researchers have drawn parallels between the birdman cult and ancient Egypt.4 The birdman ceremony resembles a quest ritual for the primeval egg of the sun god Ra, laid by the phoenix, symbolized on Easter Island by the egg of the sooty tern, the manu-tera, meaning ‘sunbird’. Like the falcon and phoenix in ancient Egypt, this bird can be seen as a symbol of the sun, of cyclic time, and of reincarnation. The journey on the reed float across the sea is reminiscent of the journey of Ra, and also the souls of the dead, to the horizon on reed floats. ‘Crossing over to the horizon’, like crossing to ‘the other shore’ in Buddhist writings, refers to the attainment of enlightenment and ‘immortality’.

The tusk-shaped, totora-reed floats used on Easter Island are called pora – meaning literally ‘reed floats of the sun’. They are indistinguishable from papyrus-reed floats depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and still used in Nubia and Middle Egypt in recent times. They were also of a type characteristic of the Peruvian coast and still in use on Lake Titicaca. Tangata manu means ‘learned man of the sacred bird’. The ancient Egyptian religion attached huge importance to a learned bird/man figure – long-beaked, ibis-headed Thoth, the god of knowledge and the ‘enumerator of the stars’.

Rapa Nui

In the 19th century, missionaries and their Polynesian companions from French Oceania began to refer to Easter Island as Rapa Nui, meaning Great Rapa. Rapa Iti, Little Rapa, is an island southeast of Tahiti. On Rapa Iti a tradition survived claiming that the island had been settled by pregnant women escaping from massacres on Easter Island, known to them as Rapa Nui. Both islands are about the same size, but the names would be understandable if the migrants named the island they settled on after their original homeland. There is only one other island in the world called Rapa, and it is about the same distance from Easter Island but in the opposite direction: Rapa Island in Lake Titicaca. There are no stone statues on Rapa Iti, but many around Lake Titicaca, and the one on Rapa Island depicts a man with long ears.

One of the former names for Easter Island is the ‘navel of the world’. The megalithic Incan capital in Peru was called Cuzco – meaning ‘navel’. The same name was applied in ancient times to many other sacred places. Another name for Easter Island was Mate-ki-te-rangi, ‘eyes looking at heaven’ – a reference to the fact that, when their eyes were fitted, the moai seemed to be looking upwards at the sky. Rangi reappears elsewhere in Polynesia as rani and ani, and is commonly used also as a poetic reference to the legendary Polynesian fatherland. Mata-rani, ‘eyes of heaven’, is the name of an ancient aboriginal port on the south coast of Peru, just below Lake Titicaca.1 It is also similar phonetically and semantically to the Egyptian ‘maat Ra’, meaning essentially ‘the eye of the sun’.2

Fig. 3.10

The ambiguous evidence reviewed in this section is clearly open to multiple interpretations. Connections of some sort can be discerned between the culture of Easter Island and that of Polynesia, South America, Egypt, and other places. The exact nature and relative importance of these influences, and their timing are uncertain. In any event, the orthodox position that there was a single migration to Easter Island from Polynesia in the 4th century looks far too simplistic.


  1. Øystein Kock Johansen, ‘Modus vivendi within Polynesian archaeology in relation to the connection Easter Island – Peru’, www.museumsnett.no/kon-tiki/Research/Tucume, part 1.
  2. Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 173.
  3. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 58.
  4. W.R. Corliss (ed.), Anomaly Register, no. 3, October 1997, p. 1.
  5. Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 163.
  6. The Enigmas of Easter Island, pp. 56-8.
  7. Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, pp. 139, 148-9.
  8. Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 31-4, 45.
  9. The Enigmas of Easter Island, pp. 53-4.
  10. Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 31, 55.
  11. Ibid., pp. 153-5.

Stonework and carvings

  1. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 89, 156.
  2. Ibid., pp. 192-3, 199, 222.
  3. Flenley and Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, pp. 31-3.
  4. Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 193-5.
  5. Ibid., p. 211.

Birdman cult

  1. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 72.
  2. Ibid., p. 167.
  3. Johansen, ‘Modus vivendi within Polynesian archaeology in relation to the connection Easter Island – Peru’, parts 3-6.
  4. Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia, Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the lost civilization, London: Michael Joseph, 1998, pp. 243-4.

Rapa Nui

  1. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 77.
  2. Hancock and Faiia, Heaven’s Mirror, p. 245.


Easter Island: Part 2

Easter Island: Contents