Secrets of the Stone Statues
Scientists find new clues behind the mystery of Easter Island’s ancient statues.
TOP PHOTO: Katherine Routledge nicknamed this moai ”Papa“ in 1914. (Easter Island Statue Project / Jo Anne Van Tilburg)
BOTTOM PHOTO: Over the last few years, researchers with the Easter Island Statue Project dug up the bottom half of ”Papa“. (Easter Island Statue Project / Jo Anne Van Tilburg)
MAP: Easter Island lies about 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile. (Jim McMahon)
Each year, more than 50,000 people travel to a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Easter Island. There they marvel at hundreds of huge stone statues, known as moai (mow-EYE). For centuries, people have wondered what purpose the statues served. Now, a team of researchers say they have uncovered new clues in the ancient mystery.
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui (RAH-puh NOO-ee), has fascinated people since European explorers first landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722. It lies about 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile. Experts estimate that the island’s first inhabitants arrived around the year 400 from other islands in the Pacific Ocean. Those settlers carved the huge stone statues about 500 to 800 years ago.
DIGGING UP CLUES
Most moai we see in photographs look like they’re just heads. In fact, they also have bodies! Over the centuries, about 150 of the statues have become partially buried as dirt washed down from the hills above them. Researchers with the Easter Island Statue Project have spent most of the past two years excavating, or digging up, two of the partially buried statues.
The dig has brought researchers closer to solving the statues’ mystery. The team carefully studied petroglyphs, or rock engravings, that cover the backs of the statues. They found a crescent-shaped symbol repeated in the carvings that they think represents a canoe. They believe that the moai may have been built to honor ancestors (members of a family who lived long ago), and that the symbol is a type of signature.
“Perhaps they indicate a family, perhaps they indicate an artist or a carver,” says Jo Anne van Tilburg, the director of the project. The team plans to excavate other statues in hopes of finding out more about the link between the canoe symbol and the statues. “We haven’t learned all that the sculptures can teach us,” van Tilburg says.