There is a lot to like about Easter Island, but it must be acknowledged that people primarily come to this lonely part of the Pacific Ocean because they have rocks in their heads.. or rock heads on their mind.. or they simply have a thing for head-shaped rocks.

The carved, but deteriorating moai of Rapa Nui are, collectively, one of the great prehistoric wonders of the world.

Their creation, placement and subsequent face plants are the subject of old myths and new musings.

Who were these men, and in one or two cases, women and children? And why do they resemble Malcolm Fraser?

It is like a modern day murder mystery. Were they pushed? Or did they fall?

There are solid theories, and others involving aliens, however the truth has been lost through the almost complete annihilation of the Rapanui people. By the time Europeans arrived in the 18th century the local population had almost been wiped out. Disease, civil war and slave raids in the 19th century sent population numbers crashing to just over 100 people.

The most commonly accepted theory is that the moai were deliberately pushed over during war/famine caused by overpopulation. A recent analysis of human bones found that many people died in one year, so it appears there was a great catastrophe.

Here is the famed Ahu Tongariki. Japan, through its National Moai Restoration Committee, helped restore these 15 individuals in the 1990’s. Only one has a pukao, or red topknot. The other pukao were too fragile to place on top or had been washed far away in a 1960 tsunami.

These moai have long fingers tucked underneath enormous bellies. Each figure of someone very important at the time, but now lost to history, is oozing with personality. Except, that is, for the moai without a face fourth from the right.

I chanced upon an archaeological dig at the moai “nursery” known as Rano Raraku. It is here that the main moai bodies were made at the edges of a crater.

Half-finished statues lie in their rock cradles; others stand or lie fallen down the slopes, while a few others were dropped in transit to their seaside destinations. At some point, for some reason, the stonemasons of Rapa Nui dropped everything and gave up.

This is the fourth time these two moai have been excavated, but I am told it is the first time it has been done properly and it is taking place for the first time with the permission of the Rapanui people.

Last century’s excavations involved exploiting the locals as labourers and information was not shared with them. The local men were paid with packets of cigarettes.

All archaeological data collected around Easter Island will go into a big computer database to be shared locally.

.. and this is what a pristine moai looks like.

Not the weathered, smashed ruins that dot the edges of Easter Island. Not the restored ones that clearly have modern concrete holding up the necks of the imposing stone beings. The petroglyphs on the uncovered yellow coloured stone are seemingly fresh.  The pictures and inlaid bone and obsidian tell the story of the important men these two moai represent.

These moai, with their true towering height revealed, never made it out of the Rano Raraku crater.  They have sat in red dirt for centuries facing a lake used by Rapanuians to collect reeds and hold water races.

This is no permanent display. My timing was perfect as tracings, photographs and drawings have been done and the red dirt was being poured back into the hollow.

There are 1045 documented historical stone items scattered over Rapa Nui and hardly any will be dug up like this. It took special permission from the local chiefs for this dig to happen and these two moai were chosen because they had been excavated before. It was generally known what the archaeologists would find.

People talk of moai mystery, or even magic, but no small archaeological dig will take that away. New tantalising images of centuries gone by poses new questions and can only add to the allure of this lonely island in the Pacific.




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  1. February 22, 2012

    Fascinating Karen, thanks!

  2. Murray #
    February 22, 2012

    Love the first shot Karen. A great Photo doc and article

    • February 22, 2012

      Thanks! I got up early to get that shot. The sunlight hits the moai’s eyes first in the morning. Quite eerie huh? I have hired a car and I am headed to Ahu Tongariki for dawn tomorrow.

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