Easter Island Moai

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By: Sarah Hinojosa

Overview

Referred to Polynesian societies as “The End of Land,” Rapa Nui is an island located in between South American and the Philippines and eventually became a territory of Chile as of 1888. The island itself is very famous for its adornment of larger-than-life statues of human heads. These large carvings are better known as Moai, which means “statue” in Spanish.

Discovery

The island of Rapa Nui is better known to the world as “Easter Island,” was named by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen after he spotted the island on Easter Day in the year 1722. [1]. Rapa Nui was originally discovered by the Polynesian people, as concluded by DNA testing of skeletons on the island. The Polynesian people were known for their vast knowledge of navigation, known to the modern world as one of the greatest seafaring cultures in all of human history. [2]

Purpose and Creation

The Moai of Rapa Nui are speculated to have been created to honor important ancestors or chiefs though the intention of their creation is unclear since the island has no written histories and the existence of little to no oral histories, leaving it up for speculation. The people of Rapa Nui at the time began constructing the Moai around 1,000 C.E. Construction of the Moai lasted well into the second half of the seventeenth century. Around 887 Moai existed on the island, though the number drastically decreased upon the adaption of Christianity in the 1860s and many Moai were destroyed as a result since they held prior religious significance to the people of Rapa Nui. Today, only about 400 Moai are left standing, all in various stages of completion. The Moai are made from volcanic tuff, while a lesser few are made of basalt [1]. The Moai themselves are usually depicted as just stone heads, though they have been found to extend into the ground with a buried torso, making the Moai anywhere from 13 feet tall and 80 tons and 3 to 4 stories in height. [3].

Designs and Positionality

Moai are positioned with their backs to the sea, facing the island. The reason being as to why Moai are placed in this position is due to the fact they are believed to be guarding or watching over the island. After 1,400 C.E., Moai were often found with carvings/reliefs adorning their backs. Ceremonial purpose is the reason why some Moai’s backs were carved into. As an example, a Moai brought to Great Britain in 1886 for further examination called Hoa Hakananai'a ('lost or stolen friend’) had multiple carvings on his back. Two birdmen were carved into his back, an honor for the birdman cult’s annual ritual for strength and endurance. [1]

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Anti-Archaeology Narratives

The most common belief among pseudo-archaeologists and scientists regarding the Easter Island moai is that aliens aided the people of Rapa Nui in the construction of these colossal statues. Following Erich von Danniken’s belief that the “ancient aliens” were almost god-like, pseudo-archeologists also fall under the assumption that the moai were made in the image of the extraterrestrials that apparently came to walk amongst the people of Rapa Nui. With these larger than life statues weighing in anywhere from an average of 13 to 14 tons, modern day skeptics tend to side with the theory that it is humanly impossible for people of a technologically “regressed” society to have been able to pull off the construction as well as transportation of these statues.[4].

Another theory that ties into the pseudo-archaeological narrative of alien life on Rapa Nui is based on French artist Pierre Loti’s observation and exploration of Rapa Nui. Upon his arrival to the island, Loti noticed that Rapa Nui was terribly barren and almost completely deserted, leading him to believe that the moai were the remaining imprint of a “lost race”. Loti deemed his observations as an enigma, though they were eventually used by pseudo-archaeologists to prove to people that alien life did once exist on Rapa Nui. The evidence of a barren Rapa Nui led pseudo-archaeologists and scientists alike to believe that the people of Rapa Nui displeased the extraterrestrials, eventually encouraging the “god-like" aliens to eliminate the Rapa Nui almost entirely. This theory became more popular in Erich von Danniken’s book, “Chariot of the Gods”[5]. Though this is a less adapted argument for extraterrestrial presence on Easter Island, it can be seen in pseudo-archaeological claims and theories supporting that aliens did in fact help the people of Rapa Nui construct such wonderful pieces of artistry.

Deconstruction of Pseudo-archaeological Narratives

The pseudo-archaeological claims behind extraterrestrials aiding ancient civilizations in the construction of larger than life sites and artifacts is not a new idea. Oftentimes, such claims can be tied back into the themes of ethnocentrism (the observation of another culture through the standards, values and beliefs of one’s own culture), nationalism and sometimes religious motivation. To begin collapsing the first artificial assertion that aliens helped build the moai, archaeological evidence must be observed. In the film, Easter Island: Unsolved produced by National Geographic, several pieces of solid archaeological evidence easily dismantle the above claims.

The first piece of evidence is described by Carl Lipo, an archaeologist. Lipo observes the presence of ancient palm tree roots in excavation spots all over the island, indicating that contrary to the barren land today, Rapa Nui used to be extremely lush and full of flora. This existence of strong archaeological evidence for plenty of flora is supported by Lipo and Terry Hunt’s survey of ancient roads. These ancient roads hold proof of complicated rope and wood rolling systems used to transport the colossal statues. In other words, palm trees were often cut down and laid out on the ground for the Rapa Nui to quite literally roll the Moai with the assistance of ropes to their final resting place. This method of transportation is a great sign of engineering prowess, though some accidents occurred. Fortunately for archaeologists, these accidents better support the claimed transportation skill of the Rapa Nui. Depending on where the Moai were being taken (either up or downhill), some were found fallen in the position in which they were being pushed. For example, a Moai being transported uphill that fell inevitably landed on its face, showing to us that these magnificent pieces of ancient work were not in fact being lifted and moved as the alien narrative suggests, but being pushed by the available technological advancements of the time.

Lastly, pollen expert John Flenley absolutely eliminates any possibility of a sterile Rapa Nui being a punishment for upsetting the “gods” (aliens). Flenley collected various samples from pools and lakes on Rapa Nui and tested them for ancient pollen. Flenley conveys that he found extensive amounts of pollen in his samples, indicating to us the Rapa Nui was in fact once a very lush island. With the support of the first deconstructive sample, palm trees were cut down for modes of transit for the Moai, homes and the clearance for gardens since other archaeological evidence suggests that the Rapa Nui were a strong agricultural community. Being such an agriculturally driven society, the vast forest on Rapa Nui only meant one main thing to its inhabitants: taken up garden space. This rapid deforestation eventually led to drastic ecological changes on the island. While the Rapa Nui removed trees for gardens, they also hunted. Birds were speculated to be a main source of protein on the island. Archaeologist Pat Kirch concludes through the excavation of middens (ancient dumping grounds for bones or waste) that bird bones were a frequent find. The bird’s fecal matter was a vital nutrient for the island’s soil, and with the over-hunting of the birds, the soil was not fertilized. With the deforestation and lack of nutrient rich soil, no new trees could grow, resulting in the near collapse of the island’s ecosystem. The now arid island, through archaeological and biological evidence, is not a result of punishment via aliens, but a result of human error. [6].

Conclusion

With the lack of more modern tools, the Moai are something that turned heads in our time. Though with the absence of such tools, it would be almost foolish to ever doubt the capability and skill of humans at any point in time or history. The pseudo-archaeological claims listed above are not exclusive to the people of Rapa Nui but are seen in other ancient societies such as Native Americans and the mounds, Egyptians and the pyramids, the Maya and their temples and so forth. The parallel between non-European societies and the claim of aliens can easily be tied back into the theme of ethnocentrism. It is plenty easy to claim something out of this world is the reason behind these archaeological wonders, but harder to delve into the realm of excavation and knowledge and observe the truth. With the support of many notable archaeologists, geologists and biologists, it is safe to say that the Maoi are the direct result of a society that was extremely technologically advanced for its time.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 [1] Easter Island Moai
  2. [2] Easter Island: Unsolved
  3. [3] A Guide to Easter Island, Chile
  4. [4] Ancient Aliens: Archaeological Evidence
  5. [5] A Parable of Self-Destruction
  6. [6] Easter Island: Unsolved