I’ve been reading about Rapa Nui (formerly or aka Easter Island) lately. Apart from the stone heads posted around the island, I didn’t know much about Rapa Nui. Then a news story circulated last month about how petroglyphs were found on the torsos of stone statues. I was surprised by two things in the story: (1) there are petroglyphs on the statues and (2) the statues have bodies, not just heads. I was further surprised to learn that my being surprised is about 100 years too late. Archeologists have known the torsos have markings since the Mana Expedition of 1914.

So, I won’t be posting about how cool this new discovery is because it’s not new (though still immensely cool). Instead, I thought I’d share what I have learned about Rapa Nui, the statues and the petroglyphs in my attempt to catch up on 100 years of archeological history.

Rapa Nui located on The Oracle (Google) maps. Click to enlarge image.

Location, Location, Location

Rapa Nui is one of those places I’d heard about but could not place on map mentally. I’ve always imagined it near-ish to Hawaii because the stone heads struck me as Polynesian. I wasn’t right, but I wasn’t wrong, either. Rapa Nui is considered one of the most remote places on Earth. It’s about 1,400 miles west of Chile’ and in 1888 was annexed by that country. Still, the island is considered Polynesian (not South American) because it was most likely settled by inhabitants from the Gambier Islands and/or Marquesas Islands** (now of French Polynesia) sometime between 800 and 1400 years ago (based on carbon dating). Anthropologists believe Rapanuins are descendants of these islands because the Rapa Nui language is 80% similar to the islands in French Polynesia.

Detailed topographic map of Rapa Nui.

A Unique Form of Ancestor Veneration

The story behind the stone statues is believed to be one of ancestry….royal ancestry to be exact. And you know how we princesses love a royally good story! *wink* The monolithic statues are called “moai” (pronounced [MO eye]) and were carved from volcanic rock between 300 and 900 years ago. All 887 statues were originally erected to face inland, but over time have been moved or toppled. Why the statues were erected seems to be largely conjecture, though most theories are tied to ancestor veneration. They may have been commissioned by individuals or families as a status symbol of lineage. They may have ancestral totems to protect the island. How they were erected is now well-documented. A master carver and assistants created the statues at a quarry, then transported them to their permanent location for erection using wooden sleds or rollers. The heaviest moai on records weighs 86 tons. Moving this was quite a feat in ancient times!

“The moai represent ancestral chiefs who were believed to be descended directly from the gods and whose supernatural powers could be harnessed for the benefit of humanity. The massive stone figures were generally erected on temple platforms (ahu) along the coast, where they faced inland to keep watch over the local community.” – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Moai Body Art

Recently excavated moai reveal petroglyphs on the backs of the statue torsos. As I said earlier, this is not a new find, but the images from the recent digs are clearer and more defined than other moai (excavated a long time ago). This isn’t because the craftsmanship varied on these new excavated moai, it’s because these moai have been buried under naturally occurring sediment for hundreds of years. So the petroglyphs being catalogued now haven’t been eroded by wind and sand. The volcanic rock used to form the maoi is soft and easily eroded.

“Petroglyphs (also called rock engravings) are pictogram and logogram images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, and abrading. Petroglyphs are found world-wide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples.” – Wikipedia entry on petroglyphs

Petroglyph of the God of Birdmen.

Petroglyphs are not unique to moai in Rapa Nui. They can be found all over the island. Some archaeologists think these carvings represent totems, important events or people, and territorial claims. Others believe they represent status or clan symbols, offerings, or ceremonial sites. A common theme in the petroglyphs on Rapa Nui are images of birdmen. Birdmen were winning contestants in a traditional competition to find the first egg of the season on the neighboring islet Motu Nui. Chosen contestants appointed emissaries to find the first egg and return it to the ceremonial village. The emissaries’ trek was difficult and perilous; many drowned, fell to their deaths or were killed by sharks. The winning contestant was granted the title of “birdman” along with special privileges. The way the story is presented on Wikipedia makes it hard to tell who was actually “crowned” birdman — the contestant or the emissary. I couldn’t find other sites to corroborate this story. (Please share if you know!)

There is much more for me to learn, but so far Rapa Nui is fascinating. What about you readers? What island(s) do you find enchanting?



*My most recent memory of these statues is from the movie Night at the Museum (2006). A silly, but cute movie that has no real relevance here except that it got me to wonder, “Is there really a Rapa Nui statue in the Museum of Natural History in DC?” Yes, there is. It was acquired by the museum in 1886. [Side note: Holy moly! The Museum of Natural History first opened in 1881!] As I’ve written before, my thoughts on artifacts and where they should be housed are mixed. I think native peoples should be shepherds of their own history, but only if they can demonstrate that is viable long-term.

** Now I have the song “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Still and Nash stuck in my head because there’s a line about the Marquesas Islands, “Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas…”  It’s a terrific song, but still…you know how it goes when you get a song stuck in your head. If you’d like to here it, check out this video.

+ Featured image, the Ahu Tongariki — a line of moai restored by a Japanese research team in the 1990s.