What’s a moai?

The reason that David and I travelled through four airports spending 30 hours of our lives flying and eating airport food was to get to Easter Island, the number one item on David’s bucket list.  I know, you’re thinking we are awfully young to think about a bucket list, and we would agree if not for the fact that both of our fathers have developed Alzheimer’s.  Once our youngest child got out of college, we decided we better get on the stick to make sure we got to see everything before one or both of us couldn’t remember where it was we wanted to go.

Ahu Tongariki

Easter Island is home to over 900 Moai.  Moai are large stone statues that were carved by the Rapanui from rock called “tuff” found in the volcanic quarry at Rano Raraku.  Peter, the owner of the HareSwiss bungalows where we stayed and host and guide while we were on Easter Island, took us on a tour of Rano Raraku.  We walked around the back of the volcano where the path lead us close to the Moai buried in the ground to the lake in the center.  As we followed the designated path, we saw hundreds of moai abandoned in various states of completion.  One thing that I noticed right away on Easter Island was there is very little background noise.  Once you leave Hanga Roa (the only town on the island) you are wrapped in a wonderful silence. There are no planes flying overhead, no cars speeding down the super highway and not a dog bark to be heard.   Standing in the dead silence of the quarry looking at several hundred abandoned moai projects I could totally understand how people can be lead to believe in alien abduction.  The moai are littered about the landscape.  Some, still in the work pits have been buried by hundreds of years of the earth’s settling.  Some were on the Moai road to the coast and appear to have been just left lying face down by the side of the road.  Others are still fully encased in the side of the volcano never having been released from the original worksite.  Rana Raraku gave me the eerie feeling that the workers were suddenly sucked up from their job posts, never to return again.

The Moai Quarry at Rana Raraku

When a high ranking member of a clan passed away their moai was taken from the quarry to the clan’s ahu by the coast.  At the same time from the quarry at Puna Pau in the center of the island a craftsman would sculpt a round “pukao” (a top knot representing the person’s hair but somehow was translated as a hat) made of red scoria and send it to the ceremonial site.  Once the moai and pukao were together at the ahu, the moai would be raised into position. The final touches were to give it white coral eyes with black volcanic glass pupils.  The person was then cremated behind the ahu.  It was believed that the spirit or ‘”manu” would enter the moai giving it special powers to protect the village from all that might threaten it.   The moai at Ahu Ko te Riku has been fully restored.  This moai gave us an idea of how spectacular the island must have been during the height of the Moai period when ahu full of standing moai were found every mile or so up and down the coastline.

How the moai were transported is a subject of great debate.  Some think they were rolled across the rocky terrain face down until they reached the ahu.  Others believe that the giant statues were “walked” (rocked side to side like moving a refrigerator) to the ahu site.  Some legends tell of the spiritual leader of the clan passing power to the moai and having it walk itself from the quarry to the ahu at the coast.  No matter which version you would like to believe, getting a 30-foot tall stone statue that weighs several hundred tons from the steep side of a volcano, across miles of the undulating, rock littered terrain to a ceremonial site, only then to have to raise it onto a platform at least 10 feet high while attempting to keep a several ton red hat on its head is an amazing feat as far as I am concerned.

Fully restored Moai

Some of the locals still believe that the moai will talk to you if you are listening carefully.  I tried to listen during the time I spent sitting on a stone waiting for David to finally get the perfect picture of his moai but unfortunately, it never spoke to me.  I brought home a small stone moai that now lives among the clutter on my desk.  This is where I spend the majority of my time, so hopefully if it does ever want to tell me something, I’ll be all ears.


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