Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Moai

Rapa Nui moai cast in the Pacific Galleries of the American Museum of Natural History, NYC, made during the 1934–45 AMNH expedition to Rapa Nui

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the American Museum of Natural History, and we’re looking at a moai, from an island in the Pacific called Rapa Nui. It’s very popular because it appeared in a recent movie, so lots of folks come to the museum and want to take their picture with it.

Dr. Jenny Newell: [0:21] People really love coming to see this moai. It’s a cast, it’s not an actual moai from Rapa Nui.

[0:26] It’s brought a lot of people into the Pacific Hall, and we’re hoping that people will not just take their selfies with the moai, but they’ll also stop and read more about the moai and understand a bit more about the culture that he comes from and also stop and look around the Pacific Hall and learn a bit more about the amazing cultures that are there.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] We normally think about museums having original works of art, but this one is a cast.

Dr. Newell: [0:47] Yes, I’m so glad it’s a cast and not an actual moai because they really do belong in Rapa Nui. They were sacred figures. They’re ancestor figures and they’re very heavy, they’re made out of massive stone carved on the island. They were worshiped through different ceremonies, and what’s happened over time is that they have become very iconic, and people from beyond the Pacific recognize them.

[1:09] The museum wanted to have something really substantial and impressive and recognizable in their new Pacific Hall when they were putting it together. It was first opened in 1971.

[1:19] When they had an expedition there, they didn’t bring back an actual moai. They were bringing back more documentation about the ways of life there, the different types of people there. They were doing onithological and other collecting.

[1:30] They had an artist with them, Toshio Asaeda. He created a plaster cast of one of the moai that was on the inner slope of the volcanic crater, Rano Raraku. What they decided to do was take this plaster cast and bring it back to the museum.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] Let’s go back a minute and talk about Rapa Nui, because so many people in the West know it as Easter Island, which is a name given to it by…

Dr. Newell: [1:53] The Dutch explorers who landed there in 1722 on Easter Day.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] There are close to 900 of these figures. They were part of a sacred precinct, where they helped to form a bridge, as ancestors, between the earthly realm and the supernatural realm, and they stood on these platforms called “ahu.”

Dr. Newell: [2:15] The ahu were platforms that raised these moai up high above the people who were communing with them.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] They were already quite tall.

Dr. Newell: [2:24] On average about 14 feet high, so extremely impressive. Very large eyes and very imposing bodies and heads. Their backs were to the sea, they’re facing inwards towards the middle of the island. They were carved inland, where the rock quarries were.

[2:39] Their fronts were carved, and they were still attached to the rock. Then the rest of them would be chipped away from behind, and then raised.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] We believe that many of them did originally have inlaid eyes, which would have made them look very different.

Dr. Newell: [2:51] They had eyes made of coral, and they were inset.

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Their faces are very imposing, and they seem to stick their very squarish chin slightly forward. Their shoulders are a bit narrow, so that we really focus on that head, and the nostrils, the nose is very pronounced. The brow is very pronounced, but it must be very different to see these on the island arranged in a row with their backs to the sea.

Dr. Newell: [3:20] I think also you have the elongated ears, which was another part of the ritual power, I think, that many of the early ancestors would have had, and you could also see the wonderful curved nostrils, which are on all the figures on Rapa Nui.

[3:34] The one here doesn’t have those wonderful nostrils unfortunately. We’re not quite sure why, but we think we have an artist’s impression here. We don’t have an actual cast of the moai’s face.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] This is a very standard type, but they’re identified with specific ancestors. For example, the one in the British museum.

Dr. Newell: [3:49] The one at the British museum, Hoa Hakananai’a, was found in the ritual center in the middle of Rapa Nui, and was brought by an archaeological expedition back to England. At the time when they unearthed it, the expedition team saw that he was painted. And the most amazing thing was he had Bird man religion images carved into his back.

[4:12] So it’s this incredible transition from one religion to another, was represented in this one object.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] So by around 1400, we begin to see the decline of the religion that inspired these ancestor figures and the rise of a new religion called the Bird man religion.

[4:30] The people of Rapa Nui today, the Indigenous people, are interested in repatriating some of the figures that made it to museums like in Washington, D.C., or in London.

Dr. Newell: [4:42] There’s been close continuity throughout the history of Rapa Nui, even though the population did drop terribly because of European diseases that were brought in, [and] because of the slave raids, when people were taken off the island forcibly and taken to work in the mines in Chile.

[4:57] The population has grown again, but it’s been a hard period for a lot of the cultural traditions to survive in the kinds of ways that the Rapa Nui would like. There’s been a lot of ways of remembering those kinds of traditions and bringing them to the fore again. Even though there’s been a lot of the usual sorts of difficulties that people have in a colonized and missionized environment.

Dr. Harris: [5:17] It is unfortunate that the character in the movie “The Night at the Museum” is called “Dum Dum.”

Dr. Newell: [5:23] It does unfortunately continue these ideas about the Pacific being a primitive place, which is, of course, not at all true.

[5:30] This ancestor figure is a figure of great mana, great personal and ancestral power, with great wisdom and dignity, and it would have been great if the character could have been a character like that.

[5:41] [music]

View of the northeast of the exterior slopes of the quarry, with several moai on the slopes, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Katherine Maria Routledge, c. 1914–15, 8.2 x 8.2 cm, lantern slide (photograph) (© Trustees of the British Museum)

View of the northeast of the exterior slopes of the quarry, with several moai on the slopes, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), photo by Katherine Maria Routledge, c. 1914–15, 8.2 x 8.2 cm, lantern slide (photograph) (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The moai of Rapa Nui

Easter Island is famous for its stone statues of human figures, known as moai (meaning “statue”). The island is known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui. The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around 1000 C.E. until the second half of the seventeenth century. Over a few hundred years the inhabitants of this remote island quarried, carved and erected around 887 moai. The size and complexity of the moai increased over time, and it is believed that Hoa Hakananai’a dates to around 1200 C.E. It is one of only fourteen moai made from basalt, the rest are carved from the island’s softer volcanic tuff. With the adoption of Christianity in the 1860s, the remaining standing moai were toppled.

Three views of Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Three views of Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Moai Hava (“Dirty statue” or “to be lost”), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1100–1600 C.E., 156 cm high, basalt, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Moai Hava (“Dirty statue” or “to be lost”), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1100–1600 C.E., 156 cm high, basalt, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) (© Trustees of the British Museum)

Their backs to the sea

This example was probably first displayed outside on a stone platform (ahu) on the sacred site of Orongo, before being moved into a stone house at the ritual center of Orongo. It would have stood with giant stone companions, their backs to the sea, keeping watch over the island. Its eyes sockets were originally inlaid with red stone and coral and the sculpture was painted with red and white designs, which were washed off when it was rafted to the ship, to be taken to Europe in 1869. It was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze, under the command of Richard Ashmore Powell, on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work. Islanders helped the crew to move the statue, which has been estimated to weigh around four tons. It was moved to the beach and then taken to the Topaze by raft.

The crew recorded the islanders’ name for the statue, which is thought to mean “stolen or hidden friend.” They also acquired another, smaller basalt statue, known as Moai Hava, which is also in the collections of the British Museum.

Hoa Hakananai’a is similar in appearance to a number of Easter Island moai. It has a heavy eyebrow ridge, elongated ears and oval nostrils. The clavicle is emphasized, and the nipples protrude. The arms are thin and lie tightly against the body; the hands are hardly indicated.

Bust (detail), Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Bust (detail), Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the British Museum, the figure is set on a stone platform just over a meter high so that it towers above the visitor. It is carved out of dark grey basalt—a hard, dense, fine-grained volcanic rock. The surface of the rock is rough and pitted, and pinpricks of light sparkle as tiny crystals in the rock glint. Basalt is difficult to carve and unforgiving of errors. The sculpture was probably commissioned by a high status individual.

Hoa Hakananai’a’s head is slightly tilted back, as if scanning a distant horizon. He has a prominent eyebrow ridge shadowing the empty sockets of his eyes. The nose is long and straight, ending in large oval nostrils. The thin lips are set into a downward curve, giving the face a stern, uncompromising expression. A faint vertical line in low relief runs from the centre of the mouth to the chin. The jawline is well defined and massive, and the ears are long, beginning at the top of the head and ending with pendulous lobes.

The figure’s collarbone is emphasized by a curved indentation, and his chest is defined by carved lines that run downwards from the top of his arms and curve upwards onto the breast to end in the small protruding bumps of his nipples. The arms are held close against the side of the body, the hands rudimentary, carved in low relief.

Back of head (detail), Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Back of head (detail), Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Later carving on the back

The figure’s back is covered with ceremonial designs believed to have been added at a later date, some carved in low relief, others incised. These show images relating to the island’s birdman cult, which developed after about 1400 C.E. The key birdman cult ritual was an annual trial of strength and endurance, in which the chiefs and their followers competed. The victorious chief then represented the creator god, Makemake, for the following year.

Back (detail), Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Back (detail), Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), Moai (ancestor figure), c. 1200 C.E., 242 x 96 x 47 cm, basalt (missing paint, coral eye sockets, and stone eyes), likely made in Rano Kao, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), found in the ceremonial center Orongo (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Carved on the upper back and shoulders are two birdmen, facing each other. These have human hands and feet, and the head of a frigate bird. In the centre of the head is the carving of a small fledgling bird with an open beak. This is flanked by carvings of ceremonial dance paddles known as ‘ao, with faces carved into them. On the left ear is another ‘ao, and running from top to bottom of the right ear are four shapes like inverted ‘V’s representing the female vulva. These carvings are believed to have been added at a later date.

Collapse

Around 1500 C.E. the practice of constructing moai peaked, and from around 1600 C.E. statues began to be toppled, sporadically. The island’s fragile ecosystem had been pushed beyond what was sustainable. Over time only sea birds remained, nesting on safer offshore rocks and islands. As these changes occurred, so too did the Rapanui religion alter—to the birdman religion.

This sculpture bears witness to the loss of confidence in the efficacy of the ancestors after the deforestation and ecological collapse, and most recently a theory concerning the introduction of rats, which may have ultimately led to famine and conflict. After 1838 at a time of social collapse following European intervention, the remaining standing moai were toppled.

© Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum: contested objects from the collection

Rapa Nui National Park UNESCO site

Easter Island on The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Easter Island: The Rock Art Statues of Rapa Nui (Bradshaw Foundation)

Easter Island Statue Project

S. R. Fischer, “Rapanui’s Tu’u ko Iho versus Mangareva’a ‘Atu Motua: Evidence for Multiple Reanalysis and Replacement in Rapanui Settlement Traditions, Easter Island,” Journal of Pacific History 29 (1994): pp. 3–48.

S. Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760–1860 (London: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, 2006).

A. L. Kaeppler, “Sculptures of Barkcloth and Wood from Rapa Nui: Continuities and Polynesian Affinities,” Anthropology and Aesthetics 44 (2003): pp. 10–69.

R. Langdon, “New light on Easter Island Prehistory in a ‘Censored’ Spanish Report of 1770,” Journal of Pacific History 30 (1995): pp. 112–120.

J. L. Palmer, “Observations on the Inhabitants and the Antiquaries of Easter Island,” Journal of the Ethnological Society of London 1 (1869): pp. 371–377.

P. Rainbird, “A Message for our Future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Eco-disaster and Pacific Island Environments,” World Archaeology 33 (2002): pp. 436–451.

J. A. Van Tilburg, and G. Lee, “Symbolic Stratigraphy, Rock Art and the Monolithic Statues of Easter Island,” World Archaeology 19 (1987): pp. 133–149.

J. A. Van Tilburg, Remote Possibilities: Hoa Hakananai’a and HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui (London, 2006).

Cite this page as: Dr. Jenny Newell and Beth Harris, "Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Moai," in Smarthistory, June 24, 2022, accessed July 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/easter-island-moai/.