25th April: Easter Island (Ahu Te Peu)

A lone moai head beside the ahu

Ahu Te Peu, about 8 kilometres north of Hanga Roa , was once the focus of a significant community.  The main ahu is 70 metres long by 3 metres wide.  It was unfortunately damaged by the Thor Heyerdahl expedition in 1960 when they undermined the intact ahu during excavation.


Ahu Te Peu from the sea side


Looking out to sea from Ahu Te Peu, as the sun sets


After sunset …


The fall of the moai and the ahu

You have probably heard of the colourful account of Easter Island history that there was a revolution, the long ears against the short ears, with a climactic battle at the Poike Peninsula where the long ears got trapped in a ditch and all burnt.  Just another myth, actually.  Even the division between long ears and short ears appears to arise from a linguistic misunderstanding.  The terms probably mean fat people and thin people and refer to a class distinction rather than an ethnic or cultural one.  In any case there were many long-eared people into the late nineteenth century when the missionaries suppressed the practice.

There is also a theory that settlement may have been as late as 1200AD, that there may have been no population collapse in classical times and that all chaos and carnage was engendered by European contact, mainly in the nineteenth century.  I do not find this view credible and will stick to what I regard as the well-grounded view.

Ahu Te Peu – stonework at the ahu


Classical Easter Island society reached its apex about 1500, when environmental constraints became increasingly felt as we saw in an earlier post.  Most of the trees were chopped down and there was no wood left for canoes so fishing was restricted.  All the sea and land birds on the island had been killed and eaten apart from a few on small offshore islands. Soil erosion undermined the productivity of the agricultural land.  Clearing of the forests must also have exacerbated water retention and water supply because Easter Island has porous volcanic rock.  Burgeoning population threatened to overwhelm productive capacity and there was nowhere to migrate to and no capacity to do so.

In classical Rapanui society, the ariki mau (or paramount chief) had a direct line to the Gods, was in fact directly descended from them.  So to a lesser extent were the ariki of the clans and the ivi atua or priests.  They and their ancestors guaranteed the prosperity of the society, which in turn justified the huge effort of building ahu and moai dedicated to them.  The society had clearly been one without major conflicts because their monumental structures were places of worship rather than military fortifications.  This contrasts, for example, with New Zealand Maori who lived in fortified hill pas.  Erosion to the economic basis of Easter Island society not only undermined the credibility of the ariki, it set in motion fundamental social changes and civil war.

Ahu Te Peu – some of the stonework is particularly fine.


Rather than a sudden collapse, it was a slow process during the huri moai or decadent period, from 1500 to 1722, and maybe beyond.  While the pace of construction slowed after 1500, construction continued on ahus and moai possibly as late as 1680.  Inclusion of older and often broken moai into foundations of later ahu shows that the periods of construction and destruction overlapped.  At the same time, increasing shortage of resources led to destructive competition between tribal groups.  The warrior class matato’a, also known as tangata rima toto (the men with bloody hands) came to prominence and the mana (power, prestige) of the ariki declined. Archaeological sites from this period have a high incidence of very sharp obsidian spearheads (mata’a) that were lashed to wooden shafts.  Middens from this period also show a very high incidence of charred and fractured human bones, many from juveniles, which may indicate cannibalism.

Tribal conflicts and blood feuds overturned the moai of rival clans and despoiled their ahus.  Overturning moai also sought to eradicate the mana of the ariki ancestors, since these represented a now oppressive system that had failed to deliver prosperity.   Most moai were overturned onto a pile of stones designed to break them in half.  Moai overturned on their backs could have their eyes or eye sockets hacked out.  Actually, in most cases, the moai would not have had eyes at this stage for it is generally thought that there were few sets of eyes and they were inserted for special ceremonial occasions only.  Either way,  the clear intent was to destroy the mana of the moai.

Moai head at Ahu Te Peu, 15 minutes after sunset


When the first Europeans arrived in 1722, most or all of the moai were still standing and the last one (Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura) was overturned sometime between 1838 and 1864. The Rapanui appeared well fed and peaceful, though admittedly this was a  fleeting visit to a single location.  By this time perhaps half the population had died but they appeared to have stabilised with a new dominant religion and presumably a greatly modified social structure.  The classical society was overturned yet the ravages to the population and culture had barely begun.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, due to the impact of external contacts, the population was around one percent only of what it had been at the peak of the classical era and much of the cultural memory was erased.

Ahu Te Peu

25th April: Easter Island (Ahu Te Pito Kura)

We arrived at Ahu Te Pita Kura in the morning of the 25th, after visiting Ovahe at dawn and then Papa Vaka. The moai here was the largest ever moved to an ahu at nearly 10 metres tall and weighing approximately 82 tonnes.  As well as that, its pukao (topknot) weighed a further 12 tonnes.


… and this is Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura and its pukao.

I did read (though I’m not sure where) that the moai was commissioned by the widow of an ariki (chief) to commemorate his memory.  Moai became larger as moai construction became increasingly competitive so this moai would date from near the peak of the classical period.  In this period the competition became focused between Western and Eastern confederations of the clans.  Ahu Te Pita Kura was with the western group, even though Ahu Tongariki was not far away and the main focus of the eastern group.

You can also click on this link for a digital reconstruction to see what Moia Paro would have looked like.


This is the back wall of the ahu, from the seaward side, featuring massive closely fitting blocks.  In its prime, the ahu was over 75 metres long by 30 wide.


Here is a view from just south of Ahu Te Pita Kura looking north.  Clicking on the image takes you to a much larger view in another tab.  (Then click the bottom right icon for full screen and use mouse button, mouse wheel or the other icons to zoom in and out).

I presume the rectangular structure in the middle is a tupa (tomb) or hare moa (chicken house).  (See the Tahai Complex post for more detail on that).  Moai Paro, its pukeo and the ahu are on the far left.  There are many structures visible.  There is a large manavai (walled garden) in the middle distance and several pipi horeko (boundary markers – the small stone towers).


I wandered on to check out a structure on the skyline of the previous image.  It had an entrance to a small chamber.  Perhaps a tomb or a chicken house or a resting place under an observation platform; I’m not sure which and it could have changed over time.


This is the same structure from the other side, facing away from the sea.


Walking back to the ahu, I encountered Te Pito te Kura, after which the ahu is named.  This is the large stone, 1 metre in diameter, which according to legend was brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a from the original homeland.  It is however, Easter Island stone.    The four additional stones were not present in classical times.


The climax of the classical period

Ahu Tongariki, along probably with the Tahai Complex at the other end of the island, represents the peak of the classical period.  Presumably so does Ahu Te Pito Kura.  What then can we say about the society of the time?

There were around eight clans, based on an original ten mata or descent groups.  You can see Routledge’s 1914 map of the clans here, though later versions may differ and no doubt it changed over time.

Initially, Rapanui clan groups constructed an ahu in each major bay as the central ahu for their clan. This may have helped to control the scarce marine resources while the houses and cultivations of the ordinary people stretched out into the interior.  Over time, sub-groups built other ahus at adjacent locations on the coast and later, towards the climax of the classical period, there was a concentration into two main groups.

The moai were massive monuments to dead ariki so clearly it was a hierarchical society in which the ariki as well as the ancestors were highly important.  Ariki women could also be influential even though this was primarily a patriarchal society. There was also a paramount chief or ariki mau, based at Anakena, the original landing point.   The ariki mau was the person most closely descended from the founder leader Hotu Matu’a and was the spiritual leader for the island.  Even so, most ceremonies were performed by ivi atua (priests, literally “bones of the gods”) who were drawn from the nobility.

The matato’a or war leaders, who could be of noble or common ancestry, were influential as well as the ariki.  The common people were called hurumanu and there was a lower class kio of landless individuals and refugees.  Moai were carved by maori (experts, not to be confused with the Maori people of Aoteoroa) under the direction of a tangata honui maori (head carver).  Leading ariki commissioned carving of the moai and paid the carvers with costly foods including lobster, eel and tuna.

Estimates of population vary but the population probably built up to around 10,000. For eight tribes that corresponds to 1,250 per tribe. Assuming 60% of the population were children and the old, that leaves about 20% for fit young men, or 250 per clan, less in earlier periods.

Clearly this was a society with a substantial agricultural surplus. Food included chickens (called moa, which they brought with them), fish (diminishing as supplies of wood for canoes diminished), birds (diminishing as they were killed off) and numerous cultivated fruits and vegetables (kumara or sweet potato, yam, taro, sugar cane, yams, figs, bananas and ti or Tahitian cabbage tree). Early European visitors describe the cultivation as orderly and well laid out and as much as 85% of the land area was under cultivation.

Concerted communal activities by the clans first focused on agriculture, including preparing and organising land. Building ahus and moai could only be possible where there was a substantial agricultural surplus that did not require the labour of all the workforce at many times of the year.

Forty people can pull an average moai across level ground but they require another 300 to 400 in support, producing food, rope and other required materials. (Van Tilberg).  The average  moai  weighed 12.5 tonnes whereas  Moai Paro at Ahu Te Pito Kura weighed 82 tonnes.  This may have required 90 men to carve the moai and its pukao, probably taking about a year, 90 men to move it on prepared moai roads (or 1,500 to drag it, or 600 using rollers) taking around two months, then another three months to erect it. (McLaughlin/ Mulloy).  This presumably does not include construction of the ahu.

22nd April: Easter Island (Ahu Akivi and Ahu Vai Teka)

Ahu Akivi

Ahu Akivi was the first ahu to be restored, by William Mulloy in 1960.  It is 33 metres long and inland, north of Hanga Roa.  It contradicts the often expressed view that all ahu are on the coast and face inland.  This is simply because they typically face the village of their associated tribe or sub-tribe.

Ahu Akivi

Moving the moai here would have been a significant task because the ahu is nearly 15km from Ranu Raraku and the moai weigh up to 13 tonnes.

Google maps location.

Ahu Vai Teka

Quite close to Ahu Akivi is the much smaller Ahu Vai Teka with a single small eroded moai torso.  William Molloy restored this ahu at the same time as Ahu Akivi.  This appears to be the frontal view.  We are looking south to Hanga Roa with our backs to the road.

Ahu Vai Teka

This is the view from the back, looking towards the centre of the island.  The green circle on the right is probably a manavai (an area for growing plants protected by a stone wall). To the left of that is the ahu and the moai.  Behind and to the right of the moai are a couple of pipi horeka (boundary markers or possible observation platforms).

Google maps location.

23rd April: Easter Island (Tongariki revisited)

We returned to Tongariki on the 23rd to explore more carefully.  We visited there at sunset on our first day in Easter Island.

Ahu Tongariki

You can get an idea of the size of the ahu and the moai by the people who are standing at the middle left.  There is also a moai lying on his back at the far left.

Ahu Tongariki

This one gives you a feel for how large the ahu is itself.  There is a far greater volume of rock in the ahu than in the moai.

Tongariki over Time

The classical Easter Island culture slowly built up over a long period of time and the earliest confirmed date for construction of an ahu is 690AD.

Ahu Tongariki was rebuilt several times during its history.  We may well marvel at the carefully reconstructed ahu of the present but that does not completely represent what it was.  At the height of the classical period, Ahu Tongariki was probably the largest ahu on the island, around 220 metres long with as many as 30 moai.

The moia at Tongariki were already overturned and the ahu abandoned when the first Europeans turned up in 1770 and probably well before that.  The ahu remained relatively undisturbed until 1960 and many photographs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries recorded the layout in detail.

Then, on 22 May 1960, the ahu was overwhelmed by a tsunami, caused by an earthquake in Chile, the greatest earthquake ever recorded at 9.5.   The tsunami waves were up to 25 metres high in Chile and they raced across the Pacific, killing 61 people in Hawaii and 163 people in Japan.  At Tongariki, the wave was between 6 and 8 metres high and a huge volume of water surged in.  This threw the moai, which weighed on average around 40 tonnes, up to 600 metres inland and destroyed the ahu.

Between 1992 and 1996, archaeologist Claudio Cristino restored the ahu with the aid of a crane donated by Japanese company Tadano and with the support of the Chilean government.  This was obviously a massive undertaking, even with modern technology.

Moai heads

Behind the ahu we found these three moai heads left over from the restoration. What their original place was in the ahu I have no idea.

Rainbow behind Ahu Tongariki

… and a rather nice rainbow behind Ahu Tongariki late in the day.

22nd & 23rd April: Easter Island (Rano Raraku)

Ranu Raraku moai

Ranu Raraku is where the Rapanui made the vast majority of the moai. Most of the moai were made from volcanic Tuff, a form of compacted ash originating from a pyroclastic flow. Since they did not have metal, they worked the moai with stone tools, using the harder basalt. There were also some basalt moai, which must have been truly challenging to carve, and dressed basalt stones were included in many ahu.

On the afternoon of the 22nd, we turned up at Ranu Raraku but we did not appreciate that, as with Orongo, there were opening and closing hours, so we had half an hour or so only.

Google maps location

A moai staring out into the distance, late in the afternoon.  ….

On the morning of the next day we returned.

Here is a view on Ranu Raraku from the road in.  You can click on the image for a larger view – then click the bottom right icon for full screen and use icons or mouse wheel to zoom in and out.

You can see over 50 moai in the image. There are apparently 397 at Ranu Raraku, including some on the inside of the volcanic crater.

I understand that here are also some large holes carved into the rock at the top of the cliff, five feet deep and two feet in diameter. Logs fitted into the holes acted as levers in conjunction with huge quantities of rope made from bark to assist in lowering moai down the slope below.

Moai under archaeological excavation

First we headed off into the crater. Here we found a couple of moai under excavation by archaeologists. Many moai originally had carving of various designs on places like the back. This can be difficult to see where they are in the open air due to erosion and fungal attacks. Here we have some moai emerging from the earth with the carvings on their back intact.

Click on the image to see this in much greater detail. This actually takes you to a slightly different and very large image taken at the same spot and time. Once again, bottom right icon for full screen and use icons or mouse wheel to zoom in and out.

Towards the bottom of the back is a circle above three arcs, above an “M” symbol.  I have read that this represents the sun above a rainbow and rain underneath.

Moai under archaeological excavation

Here are those two moai from the front. While not an image that’s likely to end up on anyone’s wall, it usefully shows some of the context. The excavation holes are quite deep, say around three metres. This shows that a lot of sediment can be deposited over 600 to 1,000 years. It also might indicate that the volcano was originally forested and removal of the trees for mining and other purposes has accelerated erosion (and deposit of sediment).

There are also at least four unfinished moai lying on their backs. Such moai can often be hard to notice and no doubt there are many more buried under the soil at Ranu Raraku.

Behind the two upright moai are the holes where they were chiselled out and removed, though you can’t see that very well. They would have been moved downhill a short distance and then raised erect. There are also other places visible where moai have been excavated from the slope and removed.

The last stage in the chiselling out process was removing the “keel” under a moai, apparently by hitting the keel with logs.  The moia was presumably supported by a wooden frame or ropes but it still sounds rather dangerous.

Tukuturi with Ahu Tongariki in the distance

The image above shows the eroded head of the moai Tukuturi with the Poike Peninsula and Ahu Tongariki in the background. Unusually, this is a kneeling moai with a beard and is similar to other stone carvings from Eastern Polynesia. It is probably quite old. Thor Heyerdahl rediscovered it and re-erected it in 1955-56.

Moai in light rain

Here are some moai on the slopes of Ranu Raraku.  In the distance you can see a small pointed hill (Maunga Toa Toa) and the coast is just behind that.  The main moai road leaving Rano Raraku went just to the left of that hill.

The right-hand moai has a European sailing ship carved on his chest.  There is also a line from it that goes down to a turtle, just half visible near the grass.

Here is my travelling companion Greg, giving scale to two large recumbent moai.  They may be finished because they were probably never intended to go anywhere.

El Gigante

This is the largest moai, known as El Gigante or Ko Tetu Kena.  I might have been able to get a better image from closer, but you can see the sign – this is as close as you are allowed to get.

El Gigante is about 20 metres long and is estimated to weigh 270 tonnes.  It was probably never intended to move and it is difficult to imagine how this might have been possible.





A moai relaxing in the sea breeze


A trio of moai


Moving the Moai

The task of chipping away to construct a moai is awesome enough. The task to move the moai up to about 20 kilometres away over uneven terrain was probably much larger.

Of the 887 recorded moai, 288 were successfully transported to ahu.  Others were also erected beside the moai roads (or Ko te Ara o te Moai).  The average moai weighs 12.5 tonnes and stands 4 metres high.  The largest moai successfully transported to a ahu is nearly 10 metres long and is estimated to weigh over 80 tonnes!

How they moved the moai is not really known.  There have been many theories over the years:

  • Moving them on rollers, lying flat on their back, probably on a wooden frame
  • As above plus using wooden levers as fulcrums
  • As above but with the statues standing rather than lying down.  This is said to be possible due to a low centre of gravity of the statues
  • Because legends mention moai “walking” to the ahu: two groups of people tilting the statues and moving them forward, one side at a time
  • Use of round stones instead of logs, as though large ball bearings

There have been many field tests of the different methods.  Logs and levers proved viable but the test was on an even flat surface only.  “Walking” the moai proved viable but only for short distances or the base became damaged.  “Walking” might be viable as a final method for getting them the last metres onto an ahu which often backed onto a cliff.

It has long been known that there were moai roads, in fact quite a significant network over much of the island.   It was assumed that these were flat.  However, about a decade ago, Charlie Love excavated some of them and put many of the theories above in question by determining that the roads were in fact V-shaped or U-shaped.  The edges of the roads were also faced with stones.

This suggests (to me, at least) that the design of the roads was intended to minimise the risk of sideways movement while moving the moai.  Perhaps they mounted the moai on wooden frames that were designed to fit the contours of the roads.  Because the roads were not level, this seems to rule out the use of log rollers.  Two explanations occur to me:  (1) perhaps they laid split logs vertically along the road, plus some lubricant; or (2) perhaps they used round stones.  Either way, they wouldn’t need to line the roads with the logs/ stones because they could pull them out from behind and replace them in front as the moai moved.

Love also found holes at regular intervals on each side of the roads where there was a slope.  These were evidently to use logs as fulcrums to assist moving the moai or to help prevent them slipping back.  However the Rapanui did it, the organisation and effort required is hard to imagine.

21st April: Easter Island (Anakena)

On the afternoon of the 21st, we headed for Anakena, on the far side of the island, for sunset.  Anakena is a white sand beach, the only one on the island and is popular for swimming in the summer.


This is Ahu Nau Nau through the coconut palms at Anakena.  The coconut palms are not original Easter Island trees.  Though attempts were made to introduce coconut palms as early as 1877, these trees were mainly or entirely introduced from Tahiti in 1960.


Ahu Nau Nau, the ahu at Anakena with seven moai, was restored in 1978 and it was here that they found the lone surviving moai eye.  Replica eyes were then added to four of the moai, but later removed after protests from archaeologists.  After subsequent protests from the public, replica eyes were restored but only to the moai at Ahu Ko Te Riku in the Tahai Complex.

These moai clearly have much finer features than those at the Tahai Complex and many other ahu, probably because when they were felled it was onto sand.


Just behind Ahu Nau Nau (poking out from behind a coconut palm in the first image) is Ahu Ature Huki  (seen here complete with a bird sitting on the moai). This was the first moai re-erected in the “modern era”, by Thor Heyerdahl in 1956. It is 6 metres high, 3 metres wide, weighs 25 tonnes and took 12 people 18 days to re-erect it from its fallen position 12 feet away.


Ahu Ature Huki again, a little later.

Google Maps location.



According to legend, Anakena Beach is where Hotu Matu’a first landed on the island.  It is not known with any precision when that was, perhaps 700AD, probably between 300AD and 800AD.  The main period for construction of ahu and moai was about 1100AD to 1500AD. Then from 1500 to 1722, when the first European arrived, it all unravelled.  Wood became very scarce, civil war became intense especially around 1650 and food production was also disrupted.  By 1722, it seemed to have settled down to a stable society, now with the birdman cult and worshipping Make Make rather than the ancestors.

European visitors including whalers then brought chaos with the introduction of syphilis and other incursions.  In 1862 1,400 people, a third of the population, were kidnapped by Peruvian slavers.  After some time the Peruvian Government decided to repatriate the remaining 470 but only 15 made it back alive … and they brought smallpox with them, so that the current Rapanui population are the descendants of only 110 people.

Easter Island became a Chilean colony in 1888 and things got so bad the Rapanui revolted in 1914.  There were over 70,000 sheep on the island then while the Rapanui were confined to the village of Hanga Roa.  Yet they survive.  A few years ago, the Rapanui population (ie the Polynesians) regained the levels of 1860.  The current population of Easter Island is around 5,000, of whom about 60% are Rapanui.

21st and 22nd April: Easter Island (Tahai Complex)

On Thursday 21st April, our first full day in Easter Island, we got up at dawn to photograph the Tahai Complex.  This is just on the edge of Hanga Roa, the only town in the island, and shows many of the elements that made up a Rapanui village hundreds of years ago.


In the front above, you can see a sizeable stone boat ramp.  Fishing would have been an important activity as long as there was enough wood to make and maintain canoes.  Behind the boat ramp is Ahu Vai Uri with five somewhat eroded moai.  In the cove behind that, you can make out some of the buildings of Hanga Roa.  Out to sea is a small freighter.  Ships are the main source of outside supplies for the island, though there is no dock for them.


This is a hare moa, or chicken house.  The story is that the entrances could be blocked up at night and someone from another tribe trying to steal chickens would make too much noise to get away with it.

However, it may not be so simple and it seems they may have earlier been called tupa.  Germans excavated some in 1882 and were told by islanders that they were burial chambers for ariki (chiefs).  They had two doors so if bad spirits came in one door, the spirits of the ancestors could escape out the other.  After the period when the moai were toppled, ariki were buried under or near the ahu and the tupa became hare moa (or chicken houses).

Another theory is they may have been used to store plants (crops such as kumara, (sweet potatoes) perhaps?) so it is not certain how the Rapanui used these structures.

Note that the image above was taken with an ultra-wide lens and has perspective distortion which I have been only partially able to correct.  It is actually rectangular.


This is a small manavai, a stone enclosure for plants that protected against high winds and salt spray.  they were used in conjunction with lithic mulch, or using stones for mulch.

They may represent an adaption to more exposed cultivation conditions following deforestation and erosion.  Larger manavai could be up to 1.5 metres high and 10 meters in diameter.


I think this has to be an umu (or oven).  There appears to be a fireplace at centre left and in front of that a couple of large grinding bowls.  The area under the nearby overhang allow for cultivation of plants, as you may be able to see if you look closely.


This is an image from dawn the next day, when we also went to the Tahai Complex.  It shows a Hari Paenga, a house for an ariki.  The oval stone foundations have holes where the Rapanui inserted curved wooden poles as the basis for a thatched roof.  They have a single low door opening out to a crescent-shaped stone courtyard.  There are 3,000 such foundations around the island and some could sleep many people.  The largest is 40 metres long.


Here is an image that shows more of the context of the Tahai Complex.  At the front is the same hare paenga that we saw above.  To the right is a corner of the hare moa we discussed above.  The along the sea coast from left to right, we can see Ahu Vai Uri (with the five moai and probably space for more), the boat ramp, Ahu Tahai with a single smallish moai and behind that, Ahu Ko Te Riku with another lone moai.  We can also see that the door of the hare paenga opens directly towards the moai Ko Te Riku.


This is the moai Ko Te Riku, the  only moai in the island restored with eyes.  Originally, most or all of the moai had eyes but they were likely destroyed when the moai were overturned because the eyes would have been a prime source of the mana (prestige, power) of the moai.  Only one eye has ever been found and that is in the island’s museum, which is located not far from this moai.


There are many mysteries on Easter Island but who built the moai and the other constructions and what was their basic level of technology are not among them.  Easter Island was isolated for a long time and developed in a unique way but there are equivalents to the ahu throughout Polynesia and there are also stone sculptures in the Society Islands and the Marquesas.  No other cultures are likely to have had significant input and no aliens from outer space ever landed on Easter Island unless perhaps you count Erik Von Daniken.

However, that’s not to say Easter Island was completely isolated.  It is likely there were occasional voyages to other Polynesian islands, especially in the earlier period.  Also, the Rapanui do not appear to have possessed the kumara (sweet potato) when they arrived but acquired it later, probably between about 800AD and 1000AD.  This originated in South America and spread right across the Pacific, including to New Zealand and even New Guinea.  Since the Polynesians were very capable navigators with their ocean-going catamarans whereas the South Americans had reed rafts which would eventually sink, it may well be that a Polynesian voyage made it to South America and brought the kumara back.