Easter Island: land of mystery


David Pratt

Nov 2004, Jan 2009


Part 2 of 4

(Part 1, 3, 4)



    4. Carving the statues
    5. Moving the statues


4. Carving the statues

In Easter Island ... the shadows of the departed builders still possess the land ... [T]he whole air vibrates with a vast purpose and energy which has been and is no more. What was it? Why was it?  – Katherine Routledge1

Fig. 4.1 Unfinished statue at Rano Raraku.

A total of 887 moai have so far been catalogued on Easter Island, including 397 at the quarry – the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. Rano Raraku is one of the world’s most extraordinary and evocative archaeological sites. A great many statues were being sculpted there when activity apparently came to an abrupt halt. Francis Mazière writes:

Here in this lunar landscape they carved giants that belong to another world; the impression is shattering. Everything here is on the most tremendous scale, and it all gives rise to a strong feeling of distress, for everything seems to have stopped suddenly, in a single day, as though it had been hit by the blast of some enormous disaster. ... It is this which gives the sanctuary its unearthly feeling.2

Fig. 4.2 Statues still in their extraction cavities.

Most of the island’s statues are 5.5 to 7 m tall, and very few are shorter than 3 m. The vast majority are made of Rano Raraku tuff, including all those erected on platforms. About 55 statues are made of other stone – red scoria, basalt, or trachyte – and are smaller than the average size of 5 m. The largest statue ever made, El Gigante, still lies unfinished at Rano Raraku. It was a monstrous 21.6 m (71.9 ft) long, and weighed up to 270 tons. Carvers completed the front and sides, but never liberated it from the rock below.

Fig. 4.3 Exterior quarry and slope of Rano Raraku. El Gigante can be seen towards the right, just above the path.3 (courtesy of Carlos Huber)

More than 230 finished statues were erected on the ahu platforms. A single platform might have up to 15 moai in a row, with some rows of statues being built up over time. The platform figures tend to be stockier and less angular than those at the quarry, with less accentuated features and less concave or prominent noses and chins. The biggest, at Ahu Hanga te Tenga, is 9.9 m (32.5 ft) long. The statue known as Paro, which once stood on Ahu te Pito Kura, is 9.8 m long and weighs 82 tons.

Fig. 4.4 Paro.


Although all the giant moai are similar, no two are exactly alike. Their base is about where the statue’s hips would be, the arms hang stiffly, and the hands, with long slender fingers, extend across a protruding abdomen. The heads are elongated and rectangular, with heavy brows and prominent noses, small mouths with thin, pouting lips, prominent chins, and elongated earlobes, some of which are carved to represent inserted ear ornaments. The statues’ physical features do not look at all Polynesian. John Macmillan Brown writes:

Taken as a whole they express haughty scorn and imperious will; it is the expression of victorious warriors and empire-makers ... Though the arrogant and resolute look is given to the faces of all the statues, it is never the same on two faces; every one looks as if it had been intended to be an individual portrait ...1

Fig. 4.5 A platform statue.

Early European explorers received the impression that the Easter Island statues were idols, but no moai is known to have borne the name of a divine personality, such as the creator god Makemake. All were known by the general name of aringa ora, the ‘living faces’ of the past. Captain Cook’s party heard the term ariki (chief) applied to some, while others had nicknames such as ‘Twisted Neck’, ‘Tattooed One’, and even ‘Bad Smell’ (due to the upturned nostrils). They are generally regarded as stylized representations of deified, high-ranking ancestors, serving to keep their memory alive, and as intermediaries between the world of the living and the world of the gods. It is thought that the coastal statues faced inland towards the villages to provide protection, by projecting the mana (occult power) of the akuaku (ancestral spirits) they represented. Their location close to the shore may also have been designed to prevent encroachment by the sea, in view of native legends that the original settlers had fled a partly submerged island.

Figures with hands resting on their stomach are common in the Marquesas and elsewhere in Polynesia, and also in South America. In the traditional Maori carving of New Zealand, the hands were placed there to protect ritual knowledge and oral traditions, which were believed to be carried in the belly. Jean-Michel Schwartz says that the position of hands indicates the point on the abdomen – the she men or ‘stone door’ – where Chinese medicine situates the ancestral centre of procreational energy and vitality, and the seat of immortality.2

It is believed that the statues may have been commissioned during the lifetime of elders, but that they did not have their eyes carved until they had been moved to the platforms – after the person had died. Only the platform statues were given eye-sockets, and in 1978 it was discovered that the sockets were once fitted with beautiful inlaid eyes of white coral and red scoria. Some platform statues were also given a red ‘hat’ (pukao), and there are signs that some may have been painted red and/or white.

The straightness or concave curve of the statues’ noses contrasts markedly with the frequently arched noses on the island’s wooden figures, and art historian Max Raphael argued that the nose was shaped as a symbolic phallus, while the pouting or protruding thin lips with a groove between them suggest the form of a vagina. The islanders held that the entire moai was a phallic symbol.

As regards the reason for the statues’ elongated ears, H.P. Blavatsky made the following comments on long-eared statues of the Buddha: ‘The unnaturally large ears symbolize the omniscience of wisdom, and were meant as a reminder of the power of Him who knows and hears all, and whose benevolent love and attention for all creatures nothing can escape.’3 The actual physical elongation of the ears as a mark of social rank and power in many different cultures may have arisen after the original purely symbolic meaning had faded.

The squared shape between the fingers of the statutes is thought to represent the hami, or sacred loincloth worn by chiefs and priests, or a kind of penis cover or shield. Many statues have detailed carvings on their backs, which are often interpreted as tattooed signs of rank. Some statues also bear carvings of birdmen, double-bladed paddles, and vulva signs, but these seem to be later additions. The lines that curve across the small of the back are often said to represent a ‘belt’ associated with the loincloth. However, this is unlikely since it consists of an arched rainbow motif that does not continue round to the sides and front.

Fig. 4.6

Fig 4.7

Some islanders interpreted the triple bow with a circle (or sometimes two) above it and an M-shaped design below it as representing a rainbow with the sun above and rain beneath.4 Francis Mazière was told by a native that they represent the elements of life: sun, moon, and thunder, with thunder signifying electricity.5 Schwartz argues that they represent the three elements of the universe: sunlight, water or sea, and mountain or earth. He says that the circle at the level of the sacrum indicates that mana entered there; ancient Chinese medicine calls that part of the body ming men or ‘door of life’.6 Some writers, including H.P. Blavatsky, have drawn attention to the overall resemblance of these three symbols to the Egyptian ankh, also known as the ansated cross or tau, which signifies life, regeneration, and the descent of spirit into matter.7

Fig. 4.8 This basalt statue, 8.2 ft tall and weighing 4 tons, is now in the British Museum.


Rano Raraku contains numerous now empty niches where statues have been hacked out, as well as 397 figures visible on the outer and inner slopes illustrating every phase of the carving process. As a result of rubble and silt being washed down the slope, the statues set up at the foot of the quarry now stand so deep in the earth that no one has succeeded in pulling them down. Large areas of the quarry are in fact hidden under slope deposits, and many more moai undoubtedly remain to be discovered.

Fig. 4.9 A statue excavated by Heyerdahl’s team.

The yellow-brown tuff of Rano Raraku is compacted volcanic ash. The hardness of the rock should not be judged by the crumbly outer surface of the statues. The figures are as hard as bone below the outer surface, and so is the exterior surface where it has not been subjected to the rain. The Spanish visitors of 1770 struck a statue with a hoe, and sparks flew. At some time, an attempt was made to decapitate a statue, but it ended in failure and the damage extends no further than a hand’s breadth into the giant neck. Using a hammer and chisel, a member of Heyerdahl’s team took half an hour to chip off a bit of rock the size of a fist in the quarry.1 Other writers seem to contradict this, saying that underneath the outer layer, the rock is not much harder than chalk, and can be cut and shaped quite easily even with stone tools.2 But it should be noted that the quality of the rock varies widely.

Fig. 4.10 A toki.

The quarry was once littered with thousands of crude pickaxes (toki) made of dense basalt. During the Norwegian expedition, Heyerdahl hired six men who used these tools to outline a 5 m (16 ft) statue. The rock was frequently splashed with water to soften it, but the picks quickly became blunted and had to be repeatedly sharpened or replaced. It took three days to produce a statue outline, after which they gave up.3 On the basis of this very scanty evidence it was somehow calculated that six men, working every day, could have completed a medium-sized moai in 12 to 15 months.

Fig. 4.11 Moai outlined by Heyerdahl’s team.

Most moai were carved face up, in a horizontal or slightly reclining position, usually with their base pointing down-slope, though some point the other way, others lie parallel to the mountain, and some are almost vertical – apparently to avoid wasting any space. First the sculptors opened up channels about 60 cm wide and 1.5 m deep around a volume of rock, and then proceeded to carve the head, body and sides, leaving a keel along the back, to keep it attached to the bedrock. With the statue held firm by a packing of stones and fill, the keel was finally hacked away. The quarry displays plenty of evidence of breakage or of figures having been abandoned due to defects in the stone.

Fig. 4.12

The statue then had to be moved down the slope (of about 55°), without damaging it or any other statues on the way down. Depressed runways or channels of earth seem to have been used for this purpose. It is thought that ropes may have been attached to horizontal wooden beams set transversely in the channels leading down the slopes. Some moai had to be lowered down the vertical cliff face, and then manoeuvred over statues on which work was still proceeding on the ledge below.

Fig. 4.13 Statues still lying at the top of Rano Raraku, where they were carved.4
(courtesy of John Flenley)

At the highest point on the inner face of the crater, there are a series of cylindrical holes over one metre in depth and width, with horizontal channels connecting them at the bottom. One view is that large tree trunks were stood in them with ropes around them, though some of the holes are puzzling, and it is thought they may have been used for coiling and storing the rope. But even if such a hoisting system once existed, it would only have been of use to operations at one part of the inner slope. Archaeologist José Miguel Ramírez argues that, given their location above a marginal area of the main quarries, the holes ‘do not seem to be related to the sliding of the moai, but to an ancient game called ma’ari, which consisted of going up and down the volcanic cliff with the use of ropes, as in a cableway’.5

Fig 4.14 Holes at the summit of Rano Raraku.

Near the foot of both the inner and outer quarry slopes, workers raised the statues into a standing position in holes or on terraces, and sculptors finished carving their backs. One of the island’s mysteries is why most of the carving was done before moving the statues to the platforms and even before bringing them down the quarry slope, instead of simply cutting out rough blocks, and then hauling them to a more convenient working place.

About 200 statues are still standing on either side of the crater’s lip, all with their backs to the hill. Although only the heads usually project above the surface, they are full statues like those on the platforms, the tallest being over 11 m (36 ft) in height. On the plain adjacent to the outer slope about 30 more statues lie on the surface, mostly on their fronts. Others are scattered along prehistoric ‘roads’ or tracks heading out of the quarry. It is commonly believed that the statues on the crater slopes were awaiting transportation to the platforms, but had not yet been moved because the people they represented were not yet dead, or because there was no room on the platforms or no resources for transportation.

If the intention was to move all the statues to the platforms, it is not clear why some were quarried inside the crater given the additional effort required to get them out of there. Many researchers think that the statues inside the crater were not intended to be removed, but were set up there permanently, facing the lake. This would explain why far more statues were left finished or unfinished at the quarry than could ever have been erected on existing platforms.

The statues at the foot of the outer slope of the crater appear to be set up in the ground in a disorderly fashion, some alone, some in clusters, sometimes blocking one another’s view. The arrangement of the standing statues inside the crater is more regular, but there still appears to be no order. Researchers such as Katherine Routledge, who headed the first archaeological expedition to Easter Island in 1914/15, and Francis Mazière, thought that some, if not all, of the statues standing on the outer slope may also have been intended to remain there, guarding the volcano. Some of the upright statues are in fact standing on stone pavements. Most standing statues, on both slopes, were raised roughly along an axis running from NW to SE, and every statue had a slightly different orientation. Mazière was told by a native that all the Rano-Raraku moai are sacred, and ‘each looks at a part of the world over which he has power and for which he is answerable’.6

Fig. 4.15 Two giants’ heads, their bodies buried by erosion. Regarded as some of the oldest and purest statues, they are just under 40 ft high.


  1. Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1998 (1919), p. 165.
  2. Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, p. 128.
  3. José Miguel Ramírez and Carlos Huber, Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a land of rocky dreams, Alvimpress Impresores, 2000, p. 71.


  1. John Macmillan Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited, 1996 (1924), p. 17.
  2. Jean-Michel Schwartz, The Mysteries of Easter Island, New York: Avon, 1975, p. 193.
  3. H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1977 (1888), 2:339.
  4. Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 191.
  5. Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, pp. 130-1.
  6. Schwartz, The Mysteries of Easter Island, pp. 119, 183, 193.
  7. The Secret Doctrine, 1:322; H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings (vols. 1-14), Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1950-85, 7:297-8.


  1. Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The secret of Easter Island, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958, pp. 130-1, 137-8.
  2. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 114-5.
  3. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 203.
  4. The Enigmas of Easter Island, plate ix.
  5. Ramírez and Huber, Easter Island, pp. 66, 79.
  6. Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, p. 124.


5. Moving the statues

The islanders have a legend that the statues were moved to the platforms and raised upright by the use of mana, or mind power. Either the god Makemake, or priests or chiefs commanded them to walk or to float through the air, and according to one legend, use was made of a finely crafted stone sphere, 75 cm (2.5 ft) in diameter, called te pito kura (‘the golden navel’ or ‘the navel of light’), to focus the mana. Legends about the use of levitation in the construction of megalithic monuments are found all over the world.1

Fig. 5.1 Te pito kura.

Some writers have said that high up on the rim inside the Rano Raraku crater is an open rock-hewn cave with a series of rock benches or seats lining its walls, oriented towards the crater lake. According to one tradition, seven masters, or magicians, sat together on the benches and combined their mana to make the statues walk out of the crater and around the island in a clockwise spiral.2 However, the ‘open cave’ could also be seen as nothing but an ordinary extraction cavity from which the statue has been removed, and irregular ‘seat-like’ depressions can be found elsewhere in the quarry.

Fig. 5.2 Above: ‘Seats’ in an ‘open cave’, or an empty extraction cavity? Below: A sketch showing how the ‘seats’ may have arisen.

Francis Mazière was one of the few scholars to take the legends about mana seriously:

What if certain men at a certain period were able to make use of electro-magnetic or anti-gravitational forces? ... [O]n the sheer side of the volcano there is something wonderfully strange. Here statues were brought down over the top of dozens of others, without leaving any marks. Yet the movement of ten or twenty tons is by no means child’s play. ...
    The natives say that everything died on Easter Island when mana left it, while at the same time I see the amazing evidence of a quite extraordinary past. It may be that para-psychology will find a sympathetic vibration in this island with its perturbed, confusing magnetism.3

All modern mainstream researchers believe that muscle-power alone is sufficient to move the statues to the ahu, sometimes more than 20 km away, and to erect them. During Heyerdahl’s Norwegian expedition, about 180 men, women, and children pulled a 4 m (13 ft) statue weighing around 10 tons for a short distance on a sledge using two ropes. It would therefore have taken 1500 people to have moved Paro’s 82 tons, and the ropes would need to be several centimetres in diameter and 80 m long. The required manpower can be reduced significantly by pulling the sledge over log rollers. In a 1998 experiment organized by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, 40 men were able to move a 9-ton replica statue using this method.

The main problem in transportation is thought to be not so much the statues’ weight (the average being no more than 18 tons) but their fragility, since it was important not to damage the elaborate detail already carved on the figures. If transported on their fronts or backs, the statues would have required considerable wrapping and padding with vegetation to protect them, since none show any signs of rope marks or other damage. A major problem would arise as the columns of people pulling the sledge neared the coastal platform, as there would be nowhere for them to go – except into the sea. It is thought that this problem could have been solved by using levers. In one experiment, 12 men levered a 6-ton rock 15 ft in 1.5 hours. However, it has not yet been demonstrated that these methods could be used on a statue of average height and weight without damaging it.

Geologist William Mulloy suggested using a curved Y-shaped sledge made from the fork of a big tree, on which the statue rests face-downwards. Two gigantic wooden legs in the shape of a ‘V’ are attached to the statue’s neck by a loop, and when the legs are tilted forward, the rope partially lifts the statue and takes some weight off the sledge. The statue could therefore be rocked forward using the bulging abdomen as a fulcrum or pivot point. However, this technique – which has never been tried out in practice – puts particular stress on the statues’ fragile necks and not all the statues have the protruding stomachs ideal for this method.

Fig. 5.3 Mulloy’s method.

Czech engineer Pavel Pavel discovered that statues can be moved upright; they can in fact be made to ‘walk’. Two ropes are attached to the top of the statue and used to pull it to each side alternately, while another two are fastened down at the base and alternately pulled forward. As one team pulls on the top rope to make the statue tilt to the right, the other team pulls the left-hand side of the base forward before the giant tips back again. The teams then change sides, causing the statue to walk by wriggling forward from side to side. Mazière was told by a native that ‘the statues moved standing upright, making half turns on their round bases’, and many researchers believe that this is the method being referred to.

In one experiment on the island, a 2.8 m (9 ft) statue of 4 or 5 tons was moved using this method; only 3 men were needed to tilt it, and 5 to pull it forward. A 4 m (13 ft) statue of 9 tons was also moved in this way. Only 16 people were required to move it a distance of 6 m: 7 tilting and 9 pulling forward. It could therefore have been moved 200 m per day. It was so stable that it could tilt 70° without falling. This is because of the statues’ ingenious design: the thickness from front to back of the upper part is so insignificant compared to the bulky lower body that the centre of gravity is almost at the navel. Upright transportation avoids the need to take a standing statue at the quarry, tip it over onto a sledge, then raise it again at the platform.

Fig. 5.4 Tilt-and-swivel technique.4

During experiments conducted by geologist Charles Love in Wyoming, a 10-ton, 4-m replica statue, equivalent to the smallest 20% of the moai, was moved by crews of 14 to 21 men, but chips came off the front of its base, and the figure toppled over twice. Some researchers think that the tilt-and-swivel technique was probably used only for moving very short distances or for final positioning. Many researchers say that the bases of the statues do not show the amount of wear expected from this technique. Heyerdahl disagreed: he argued that statues that have not travelled far from the quarry have perfectly flat bases, but the farther away from the quarry they are, the more convex their bases become, until many of those erected on platforms have the edges of their bases completed rounded off from wear.

If the statues were moved upright, they would not have toppled over on a gentle slope of 10 or 12 degrees as they have a slightly forward-slanting base – stones had to be placed under some of those on reconstructed platforms to prevent them leaning forward. On the descending side of the slope, the statue could simply be turned round and moved backwards.

Love’s team found that if they placed a statue upright on two logs carved into sledge runners, and then raised it onto a track of small wooden rollers, it could be moved 45 m in 2 minutes using 25 men and 2 ropes. Some see this as the most efficient method for long-distance transportation: it causes no damage, and requires little wood, not much rope, and few people. Van Tilburg, on the other hand, says that both this method and the tilt-and-swivel method are incredibly dangerous: ‘The logistics of any upright method suggested to date are daunting-to-impossible on the rolling Rapa Nui terrain.’5 These two methods have yet to be tried out with taller statues on steep slopes. The results might be entertaining.

Fig. 5.5 Sledge-and-roller method. (courtesy of Charlie Love)

The general view is that different transportation techniques were used according to the size and stye of figure, the distance to be travelled, and the manpower, timber, and ropes available. It has been suggested that some figures might even have been transported 500 m to the shore and then floated on timbers or rafts around the coast to the platforms. At several points around the coast there are lava-flow causeways and paved ramps. There are unconfirmed reports from fishermen that submerged moai have been seen on the seabed.


Katherine Routledge discovered three main roads, each about 3 m wide, branching out from Rano Raraku. They were revealed when the level rays of the sinking sun showed up inequalities in the ground. Fallen statues lie along certain parts of the roads, but at very irregular intervals. The southern road can be traced from Rano Raraku, with one or two gaps, nearly to the foot of Rano Kao. 29 fallen statues lie scattered along it, most over 20 ft tall and some over 30 ft. Another road ran through a gap in the crater wall toward the western part of the island. It is not as regular as the south road, and has 14 statues, which grow further apart as the distance from the mountain increases. The third road runs in a northerly direction and is much shorter than the other two. It has only 4 statues covering a distance of about a mile, but the furthest image is the largest to have been moved (36 ft 4 in).

Routledge wrote: ‘Rano Raraku was therefore approached by at least three magnificent avenues, on each of which the pilgrim was greeted at intervals by a stone giant guarding the way to the sacred mountain.’1 In addition, there are signs that some of the statues on the southeastern side of Rano Raraku may have been on a fourth road along that side beneath the cliff, and a platform on the south coast was approached by an avenue with 5 or 6 statues.

Fig. 5.6

Many researchers disagree with Routledge and believe that all the statues found between the quarry and platforms were in the process of being moved. Geologist Christian O’Brien, however, felt that at least 56 of the 61 statues now found scattered on and off old roads in the island’s interior are in the place intended for their erection.2 Some of them stood on stone pavements, as did some of the upright statues at the foot of Rano Raraku.

Charles Love has examined about 20 km of the 40 km of roads built from Rano Raraku, focusing on the three main roadways plus several branch roads. Flenley and Bahn describe his preliminary findings as ‘startling’:

[The roads] traverse old basalt flows and the shallow valleys between them, and have a basic cut-and-fill construction; excavation of 10 m and 20 m stretches has revealed how they were cleared, cut, graded and, in many places, filled with soil. Various grades up and down slopes were cut and filled to help the statue movers, and it is clear that a great deal of cooperative labour was required for these roads – in the valleys, the fill construction can be built up to a metre or more with layers of clayey soil to make a flat surface about 5 m wide. In at least one area, a pavement was made, apparently to facilitate the movement of Paro through a section of rough bedrock. Some stretches of road were carved into the surface of the higher basalt flows, apparently to avoid a flat surface, with paths cut into a shallow V or a broad U shape, about 5.5 m wide and 30 cm deep (though in other places the roads seem half-worn in the ground surface, rather than cut into bedrock). Some segments of road have long rock alignments along the shoulders, which seem to be kerbstones set into the backfill, while others have numerous post holes dug into bedrock outside the kerbstones – presumably to accommodate some kind of contraption for pulling and prising the statue and its framework forward in places ... Such features seem most common where the roadway slopes upwards.

Regarding the methods used to transport the statues, they add:

[W]e need to go back to the drawing board, because researchers have always assumed that the island’s roadbed surface was flat and the road horizontal; but ... none of the moai-moving theories or experimental methods presented so far can cope with the structure of the roads he [Love] has excavated! The cut parts of the road are not conducive to rollers or tilting a statue along, and any contraption used would have to accommodate both the flat fill surfaces and the V-shaped surfaces. So the mystery of statue transportation remains intact ...3

Furthermore, the fragile statues were transported to many distant ahu, up and down steep hills and over rough and stony ground, where there is no trace of any road at all. Katherine Routledge relates the following anecdote:

We were once inspecting an ahu built on a natural eminence, one side was sheer cliff, the other was a slope of 29 ft, as steep as a house roof, near the top a statue was lying. The most intelligent of our guides turned to me significantly. ‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, ‘that that was not done by mana?’4

Routledge points out that besides the ceremonial roads and their continuations, there are traces of a different track which is said to run round the whole seaboard of the island. It is known as Ara Mahiva, ara meaning ‘road’ and Mahiva being the name of the spirit or deity believed to have made it. The road showed up as a continuous furrow: on the northern and western coasts it runs for much of the way along cliff tops, and it runs up both the eastern and western edges of Rano Kao. Routledge comments: ‘This silent witness to a forgotten past is one of the most mysterious and impressive things on the island.’5

This road is referred to in a rongorongo tablet known as Apai, which was recited independently by two islanders. It contains the following:

When the island was first created and became known to our forefathers, the land was crossed with roads beautifully paved with flat stones. ... Heke was the builder of these roads, and it was he who sat in the place of honour in the middle where the roads branched in every direction. The roads were cunningly contrived to represent the plan of the web of the grey and black-pointed spider, and no man could discover the beginning or end thereof.

At this point the recitation was interrupted because of unintelligible text in another language, but then comes a reference to a different ‘spider’, this one living in the aboriginal homeland (Hiva) ‘where the black and white-pointed spider would have mounted to heaven, but was prevented by the bitterness of the cold’.6

According to this legend, the island once had a network of roads resembling a spider’s web, radiating out from a central point, perhaps Rano Raraku. No network of this kind is visible today, though the existing roads could have formed part of it. We do, however, find an intriguing correspondence in Peru. The Nazca Plain is covered with numerous straight lines, zigzags, spirals, and geometrical figures, drawn on the surface of the desert by removing the mass of volcanic pebbles and boulders, and scraping off the surface layer of the earth. There are also outline drawings of faunal species – some of them hundreds of feet in extent – including a spider monkey, a gigantic lizard, a condor, an unidentified beaked creature, and a Ricinulei spider. To draw most of the animal glyphs, including the giant spider, the artist used a single line which turns and weaves but never crosses itself; in other words, it was drawn so that no one could discover where the line began or ended – just like the web of roads referred to in the rongorongo text.

Fig. 5.7 The Nazca spider, said by some researchers to represent Orion.

Raising the statues and headdresses

All the statues standing on platforms today have been re-erected during restoration work over the past 50 years. The first to be re-erected was a medium-sized (20 ton) statue at Ahu Ature Huki, Anakena, during Heyerdahl’s expedition in 1956. Twelve islanders used two wooden poles to raise it 3 m onto its platform by gradually slipping rocks underneath, and they had it standing in only 18 days.1 Since the levers were used against the statue itself, large scars were caused. All experiments to date have involved horizontal statues, but it is thought that if the figures arrived upright at their platforms, they could have been raised in the same gradual way, by being titled first one way and then the other, as stones or logs were inserted beneath them. Massive ramps do not seem to have been used to raise the statues onto platforms; this would have involved colossal amounts of extra labour.

Fig. 5.8 Re-erecting the statue at Ahu Ature Huki.

The pukao – the headdress or ‘topknot’ – is a soft red-scoria cylinder quarried from the small crater at Puna Pau. Some take the form of a truncated cone, while others have a narrower knob at the top. Since only about 60 statues have them, they are believed to be a late addition, associated only with statues on the largest and most important platforms. Some researchers see them as a sign of continuing rivalry between villagers or kin-groups.

Fig. 5.9 Interior of Puna Pau.

As at Rano Raraku, work at Puna Pau seems to have ceased unexpectedly, as about 30 cylinders lie inside or just outside the quarry. They range from 6 to 9 ft in diameter, are 4 to 8 ft high, and weigh up to 20 tons; nearly all of them are now carved with petroglyphs. According to legend, they were moved by mana, but the conventional view is that they were rolled out of the quarry and over the hilly terrain to their destinations using levers. No one has yet given a practical demonstration of this, and no traces of tracks leading out of the crater and across the rugged volcanic terrain have been found. The headdresses seem to have been reworked on reaching the platforms. Some were carved to a more elliptical cross-section, and a shallow mortise was made in the base; some of the Anakena statues have tenons on their heads to fit these mortises.

Fig. 5.10 Pukao outside the crater.

Placing the headdresses on top of the statues’ heads was a tremendous feat of engineering. Those to be seen today on restored statues were all put there by cranes (fig. 5.11), and not without difficulty. Captain Cook suggested that ramps and scaffolding were used. Some scholars have proposed that the cylinders were lashed to the statues and both were raised together, but this is generally considered to be far too risky. Experiments by Pavel Pavel show that some pukao may have been put in position by gradually pulling them up sloping beams of wood. A concrete pukao, 1 m in diameter and weighing 900 kg, was raised onto the top of a 3 m concrete moai by only 4 men in 6 hours (fig. 5.12).2 It should be borne in mind, however, that Paro’s monstrous pukao, which was by no means the biggest, measures almost 2 m across, 1.7 m high, weighs about 11.5 tons, and had to be raised 10 metres into the air.

Fig. 5.11

Fig. 5.12

In the past, the reddish cylindrical headdresses have been regarded as hats, baskets, or crowns. Ancient-astronaut enthusiast Erik Von Däniken saw them as space helmets! The islanders call them pukao, which means ‘topknot’, a male hairstyle common on Rapa Nui when Europeans first visited the island, and the present consensus is that this is what they represent (fig. 5.13). However, in the Marquesas, a great stone was placed on the image of a dead man as a sign of death and mourning, and some believe the pukao may have had a similar meaning. Flenley and Bahn believe that they are a stylized version of the hau kurakura, a red feather headdress worn by warriors. Throughout Polynesia, red was associated with ritual and chiefly power, and red feathers were identified with the spiritual power of the gods. Jean-Michel Schwartz held that the pukao were a sign of knowledge, and the seat of the mystical force known as mana; all island traditions agree that it was the head that bore mana.3

Fig. 5.13 An islander with a topknot.

In conclusion, despite the numerous theories that have been put forward regarding the carving, transportation, and erection of the statues and their headdresses, and despite the numerous experiments that have been carried out, we are still very far indeed from having solved all the mysteries.


  1. See ‘Gravity and antigravity’, section 5, http://davidpratt.info/gravity.htm.
  2. David Hatcher Childress, Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific, Stelle, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1988, pp. 319-20.
  3. Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, pp. 134-5.
  4. Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 240.
  5. www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/past.html.


  1. Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1998 (1919), pp. 197-8.
  2. Christian and Barbara Joy O’Brien, The Shining Ones, Kemble, Cirencester: Dianthus Publishing, 1997, p. 509.
  3. John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 131-3.
  4. The Mystery of Easter Island, p. 198.
  5. Ibid., p. 199.
  6. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 111; The Shining Ones, p. 510.

Raising the statues and headdresses

  1. Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 204-6.
  2. Flenley and Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, p. 144.
  3. Jean-Michel Schwartz, The Mysteries of Easter Island, New York: Avon, 1975, pp. 16, 107, 113.

Easter Island: Part 3

Easter Island: Contents