26th April: Easter Island (Vinapu)

At mid-afternoon on the 26th we went to Ahu Vinapu O Tahiri, which is famous for its fine stone work, as you can see here.  (You can also click the image above for a much larger view.)

Alternatively, here is a detail.

This is probably the head re-erected by Thomson in 1889.

Here is another part of the ahu wall, which is 80 metres long by 12 metres wide.  People often wonder “How did they cut those stones?”.  Carving the moai from volcanic tuff using granite tools is one thing but ahu facing walls were often granite.  Perhaps the simple answer is they didn’t carve them, for the final fit at least.

My guess is that they put one stone on top of another (easy to say), perhaps with a wooden frame around the top one, and hauled on ropes to move the top stone back and forth and slowly grind the edges to match.  That way, there’s also no requirement for right angles.

Vinapu was cited in the past (for example by Heyerdahl) as evidence of Inca influence but the current consensus of archaeologists is to discount that.  For one thing, the technique is different.  Whereas the Incas used solid stone blocks, these are facing blocks for rubble fill.  You can see this from the side view, here.

Also, the average weight of the blocks here is about 7 tonnes and the largest 10 or 12 tonnes; the largest blocks in the Inca Sacsayhuamán fortress weighted somewhere between 120 and 360 tonnes!

Stepping back a bit, here is a side view of the ahu with toppled moai.   (You can also see in the distance the carpark and also the refinery poking its ugly head up between the moai and the ahu.)

Curiously, there is a dwelling space at the front of the ahu,  created after the fall of the moai, using the fallen moai itself as part of the roof.

There are actually two ahus at Vinapu. We have been looking at Vinapu I which paradoxically is the later of the two.  The image above and the next one is from Vinapu II, which has been dated as far back as 900AD.

The reason the numbering of the ahus is the wrong way round is because Thor Heyerdahl thought that the one with the finer stonework was made by South Americans prior to the arrival of Polynesians on the island but this has been refuted by carbon dating of charcoal buried under or around the ahus.

The ring of stones around the moai head in the foreground is not ancient; it is just to keep people back.

In the distance we can see the fallen moai on Ahu Vinapu II and over to the right a pukao or topknot.

In the front is a most unusual moai.  It is made of the soft red scoria, like the pukao, and is now greatly eroded.  Fortunately there is a description from the early nineteenth century when its form was still visible.  It was a female moai, with a vulva visible near the ground and lacking the usual male loincloth.  It also had two heads and had a special use for funerary functions.

They would wrap one or more dead bodies in bark cloth and suspend them on poles that rested between the two moai heads until the flesh rotted away.  Then the bones were washed and deposited inside the ahu.

The Rapanui also used cremation, uniquely for Polynesia.  There are, for example, cremating platforms behind Ahu Akivi and Huri A Urenga. The burial practices associated with this moai may therefore have been a later practice, after the supply of wood ran out.

Google Maps location (green arrow).

15 comments on “26th April: Easter Island (Vinapu)

  1. […] Murray Foote a journey to the Deep South Skip to content HomeHello ← 26th April: Easter Island (Vinapu) […]


  2. […] have considered whether they might have taken an alternative route from Akahanga down the coast to Vinapu instead of up it to Tongariki but this doesn’t seem to fit the descriptions.) The eroded moai […]


  3. […] had lost their fishing and had the poorest agricultural land.  Areas around Tongariki and Vinapu still possessed the best rock for carving but this counted for less and less as time went on.  The […]


  4. hi murray,
    what is your reference for this:

    “In the front is a most unusual moai. It is made of the soft red scoria, like the pukao, and is now greatly eroded. Fortunately there is a description from the early nineteenth century when its form was still visible. It was a female moai, with a vulva visible near the ground and lacking the usual male loincloth. It also had two heads and had a special use for funerary functions.

    They would wrap one or more dead bodies in bark cloth and suspend them on poles that rested between the two moai heads until the flesh rotted away. Then the bones were washed and deposited inside the ahu.”

    thank you


    • Murray Foote says:

      Hi Candace

      Mainly Shawn McLaughlin “The Complete Guide to Easter Island” p171.
      “There is a tall, red scoria statue in front of Vinapu II, said to be female insofar as, according to Van Tilburg, the shortened fingers frame and display female genitalia. It also lacks a hami or loncloth worn only by males. At over 11 feet (3.5 metres) it originally had two heads; the forked configuration between the heads served to support a rack on which the cadavers were exposed to the elements.”

      I read somewhere that the moai was described by a traveller in 1838 when it was in much better condition but I don’t know where I read that, perhaps it is the source of Van Tilburg’s statement. There were three ships that called in 1838 and I don’t know which it would be.

      I also don’t know where I read that the bodies were wrapped in bark cloth and that the bones were washed and deposited in the ahu. The use of bark cloth I remember was a general comment on Rapanui funereal practices. I thought that might by Jarrad Diamond “Collapse” but can’t find it in a quick search. Storing the bones in the ahu reads as a comment specific to Vinapu.

      I thought of including footnotes but decided it might make what I write less accessible to most readers. However, I will post, probably on Monday, a bibliography for my readings on Easter Island, together with a list of special topics and table of contents.



  5. Lois says:

    Most interesting, Murray. The ships which called in 1838 – were they on their way to somewhere else or were they calling there specifically? I must look at a map again to get my bearings – or rather, the island’s bearings!


    • Murray Foote says:

      The list of ships calling is an Appendix in Shawn McLaughlin’s “Complete Guide to Easter Island”. I don’t know where I got three from, there were six that called in 1838, one French and five English or American. The French one took a moai head back to France, so that may be where the account of Vinapu came from. All would have been on their way somewhere else because there was not much to go to Easter Island for in terms of resources or food or even water, there were no safe anchorages and it would not have been a target destination for sealers or whalers.


      • Lois says:

        I was interested in the ships aspect because ten years alter my g-g-grandad had a ship (at least one) which traded across the Pacific.When I was looking up information about it I was amazed at the swarm of shipping at that time criss-crossing the ocean and South China Sea.


      • Murray Foote says:

        I also have my share of Sea Captain ancestors on both sides of the family and my g-g-grandfather owned the ship he sailed in with his family and paying passengers from Newfoundland to NZ in 1865.


  6. Jean-Paul says:

    The refutation of the Inca link doesn’t hold water.
    The Inca empire had one thousand times more peoples and resources. Therefore, Easter Island inhabitants had to do with their little means, thus using smaller stones and don’t caring for the inside of the wall.
    Walls with such external similarities cannot be seen anywhere on planet earth, but in Easter Island, AND in Inca Empire (which, by the way, was the nearest technologically advanced civilization). What is the probability of such similarities happening by the pure effect of random contingencies, two times separately but about at the same epoch and in neighboring areas of the world? It is practically equal to zero.
    By the way, the stone is probably not granite, but andesite. Both look the same, but andesite is magma which went to the earth surface in molten form; Granite was cold and solid since a very long time when some geological process put it to the surface. Since Easter Island is a volcanic island, andesite is quite more probable than granite. This detail is relevant, since the Inca walls were made from andesite.


    • Murray Foote says:

      Sorry, it’s that link that doesn’t hold water, or very little at most. It is superficially plausible and was propounded fifty or sixty years ago by Thor Heyerdahl, but no modern archaeologist I have read attaches it any credence.

      The rock they used was not andesite, it was tuff, formed from ejected ash rather than lava and therefore presumably softer. There was one small moai made of granite which is in the British Museum, but only that one.

      Inca structures were solid rock, Easter Island ahu were rubble faced with cut rocks. There are more than 360 ahu on Easter Island and only two finely enough wrought for people to compare them with Inca structures. One of those is Vinapu, the other on the North-East of the island I did not visit. Stone ahu and moai were developed to a unique style on Easter Island but in different forms they were widespread in Eastern Polynesia, the Marquesas, Tahiti and some small islands far to the west of Easter Island, for example. The earliest moai were similar to stone statues found in the Marquesas.

      The Rapanui started building ahu and moai from 1100 or earlier which predates the Incas. The Incas did not exist before the mid 13th century and did not reach the Pacific until the time of Tupac Inca in the late fifteenth century.

      Polynesians did visit the Inca Empire in the time of either Tupac Inca or Huayna Capac and Incas did subsequently visit the Marquesas on one occasion. There is no evidence they visited Easter Island and most of the construction on Easter Island predated any possible contact, which could only have been in the last fifty years of the Inca Empire (when they had a sea coast). After all, the Polynesians were master mariners, not the Incas. The Polynesians (and previously Lapita) had thousands of years of celestial navigation experience in their ocean-going catamarans whereas the Incas only had Balsa rafts. However, Easter Islanders lost their capacity to build ocean going canoes before the time of the Incas so could not have visited them

      Of course we will never know everything in detail. However, the mystery of how kumara or sweet potato got to Polynesia and the highlands of New Guinea in pre-European times has been recently settled by DNA analysis. Polynesians visited South America 900 to 1000 years ago and returned with the kumara, well before the time of the Incas.


      • Jean-Paul says:

        Many thanks for your very detailed and informative comment. I have not time to write the answer it deserves. Only a few points:

        -since in Peru there is many hypothesis about which “Inca” wall was build by the Incas and which one could have been build by some of their predecessors, I was not reasoning exclusively about the Incas stricto-sensu. I should have been more lengthy and say I was also considering their predecessors.. Thus, the dates you spoke about were not opposing my general idea.

        -yes, the moai were made from tuff, but are you certain the wall is not from granite/andesite? Your photo did not give me the feeling it was tuff.

        -in any case, I can’t help myself to keep convinced there had been some influence. The visual similarity is so perfect that the probability it happened by chance is almost zero. For me, this point is really heavier than any academic consensus.
        It is not always obvious at first glance, but real science always, always, is made by comparing the probability of hypothesis. This should prevail on any opinion or consensus.

        -thanks again for all your info, I learned that whatever the real events have been, the story was more convoluted than the one I believed.


      • Murray Foote says:

        There are two ahus at Vinapu, the first is one of the earliest on the island from as old as 900AD, the second with the fine stonework (mistakenly called Vinapu I by Heyerdahl) is from much later (don’t know the date).

        Yes the walls were of granite or andesite. I have more information in the text including how they were probably produced. Also, consider the first image in the next post for the stonework on the walls of a different ahu.

        There are many examples of convergent evolution. Consider the similarity of dolphins to ichthyosaurs for example. Convergent technology should be no surprise. The largest Inca stones though were thirty times heavier than the largest Rapanui ones! Superficial similarities is not enough. There were any number of ancient civilisations in different parts of the world able to cut large stones accurately.

        Just leaving aside the ahu walls at Vinapu for a moment, everything on Easter Island has Polynesian links and equivalents elsewhere.

        There is no DNA or linguistic evidence of any South American presence on Easter Island.
        South Americans didn’t really have ocean-going craft. Thor Heyerdahl only just made it to the Marquesas on Aku Aku. If anyone sailed between South America and back it would have to have been the Polynesians. Direct voyages from South America to Easter Island may not have been possible because it was against the currents. Easter Islanders lost their capacity for ocean-going canoes with their trees. They only brought chickens with them. It is unlikely there was later contact from the Marquesas or goats and dogs would have been introduced.

        So the body of stonework on Easter Island is clearly Polynesian. Some contact with South America for the ahu facings at Vinapu is possibe but highly unlikely.


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