Rock and Roll
Why researchers are taking Easter Island's famous statues for a walk
Almost 1,000 moai dot the rim of Easter Island, which lies 2,300 miles from South America. (Jim McMahon)
In the South Pacific Ocean, 2,300 miles from the nearest continent, lies one of the most remote locations on Earth—Easter Island. The Polynesian island, also known as Rapa Nui, is known around the world as the home of almost 1,000 huge stone heads called moai. Experts have long debated exactly how those statues were moved into place, and now researchers are testing out a new theory with their own hands.
Europeans discovered the moai when they first arrived on Easter Island in the 1700s. Since then, how the statues were put into place has been a great mystery. Scientists found that although the island had been filled with palm trees when Polynesians first settled the island, many trees were gone by the time Europeans arrived in the 18th century. That deforestation (loss of trees) led scientists to believe that a lost civilization created the moai in quarries, then chopped down the forest to make paths to move them. They theorized that the statues were laid horizontally on top of palm tree logs and rolled to ceremonial platforms.
But last October, a team of researchers came up with a new theory—that the massive structures were “walked” into place. The researchers doubted the rolling theory for various reasons, including that the heavy statues would have crushed the palm tree logs. This month, the team published a description of its walking theory in a scientific journal.
The researchers tested their walking theory by creating a 5-ton, 10-foot-tall replica of one of the moai. Eighteen people used ropes tied to each side of the structure to rock the statue along a dirt road in Hawaii. The movers walked the statue about 328 feet in 40 minutes.
“It [went] from something you can’t imagine moving at all, to kind of dancing down the road,” says Carl Lipo, one of the study’s leaders. He is an anthropologist at California State University, Long Beach.
Lipo and his colleagues say the builders gave the statues wide bases with curved bottoms so that they would lean forward. That made walking them easier. Then, when the statues reached the ceremonial platforms, the builders flattened the bases so the moai would stand upright. As for the island’s deforestation, the researchers believe that rats primarily caused it to happen by eating palm nuts before they could grow into new trees.
Some experts agree with the walking theory. They say that scientific evidence, satellite imagery of Easter Island’s roads, and physics support the theory.
But others aren’t convinced. They say that not all the moai have wide bases, that the roads on Easter Island were rougher and hillier than the Hawaiian road Lipo and his team used for their test, and that the walking method would not have worked for the larger moai, which weigh up to 75 tons.
The debate will surely continue, but Easter Island’s famous stone heads will remain a huge attraction for tourists from around the world.