Moving The Moai

The Cover of National Geographic Magazine for July 2012

The July 2012 edition of the National Geographic magazine features a cover story on Easter Island’s statues and how these enormous 33 feet tall and 80 ton statues or moai came to existence. Just how the moai were constructed, transported and erected on Easter Island remains a mystery, one leading to a lot of speculation.

To my count, there have been five or so earlier theories on just how the moai were moved. In 1955, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl lead an experiment on Rapa Nui where he and 180 men tried to erect a 13 foot, 10 ton moai on a tree trunk and drag it. A Rapa Nui onlooker informed him how, “totally wrong,” he was.  He published two large volumes of scientific reports titled Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific and later Heyerdahl added a third to the collection, The Art of Easter Island.

William Mulloy, an American anthropologist, theorized in 1970 the erection of the maoi using a desktop model. He thought he could swing the moai forward in steps while hanging the statue by the neck from an inverted wooden V structure. A photo of his model in deployment can be found on the Wikipedia page outlining his time on Rapa Nui. Sixteen years later, in 1986, Czech engineer Pavel Pavel along with Heyerdahl and 17 assistants walked on of the real 13 foot, 9 ton moai by using a twisting motion, and not a rocking motion. In doing so, they damaged the base, but the Wikipedia page on his efforts indicate success.

Within a year of Pavel’s trials, archaeologist Charles Love showed much more success. He and a team of 25 people stood up a replica 13 foot, 9 ton on a wooden sledge and then hauled it on rollers. In two short minutes they moved the replica 148 feet. Another American archaeologist, Jo anne Van Tilburg, gave it a shot in 1998. She and her team of 40 volunteers laid a 13 foot, 10 ton replica also on a wooden sledge. They were able to move the statue 230 feet, using a Polynesian wood ladder.

In the cover story, If They Could Only Talk, archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo bring up a new theory one that is potentially plausible; three small groups of people balanced the statues on its base and transported it by guiding and waddling it along with ropes.

© Photo by Sheela Sharma
Three teams, one on each side and one in the back, manage to maneuver an Easter Island statue replica down a road in Hawaii, hinting that prehistoric farmers who didn’t have the wheel may have transported these statues in this manner. The experiment was led by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo and is reported in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The video below shows just how they do it:

The article also offers up a larger context and reinterpretation of the Easter Islanders, one which describes them as adaptable and sustainable,

“…based on their own archaeological survey of the island, they think its population grew rapidly after settlement to around 3,000 and then remained more or less stable until the arrival of Europeans.

Cleared fields were more valuable to the Rapanui than palm forests were. But they were wind-lashed, infertile fields watered by erratic rains. Easter Island was a tough place to make a living. It required heroic efforts. In farming, as in moai moving, the islanders shifted monumental amounts of rock—but into their fields, not out. They built thousands of circular stone windbreaks, called manavai, and gardened inside them. They mulched whole fields with broken volcanic rocks to keep the soil moist and fertilized it with nutrients that the volcanoes were no longer spreading.”

Additionally, Hunt & Lipo describe how the Rapanui people were the victims of genocide, decimated by disease introduced by Western explorers and 19th century slave trading, an idea that resonates with many other indigenous populations. Both ideas are at odds with the prevalent idea that the Rapa Nui people are one of the prime examples of ecocide, by exploiting their environment to the point of no return, as explained by Hunt himself in 2005 and supplemented by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

These new ideas are thought-provoking and will fuel the discussion for years to come. If you would like to read more, be sure to pick up a copy of the article or check it out online. There is also an iPad app where you can read the paper and interact with multimedia features.

5 thoughts on “Moving The Moai

  1. Is there any studies out there to show how the human muscle mass has changed since the invention of the wheel and horse domestication (< 4500 yrs BC) ?

    I've red a document about a wrestling chimp, who was toured in the fairs and a good tuft of dollars were offered to him who was to win her. As it was a female chimp and so not very big at all, the men came to the ring deeply convinced they'd win the ape.
    An average man to accept the challenge was clearly taller and otherwise bigger than the chimp.

    But when the wrestling started, it was only a blink of an eye and the chimp had flied her competitor "across the air" straight to the floor.

    Of course, chimps have much longer arms with the muscle mass and build-up we could never imagine we had (or have had) .

    Now that we know that the Homo S. Neandertals (who evidently had bigger muscles than Homo S. Sapiens ever), cross-bred to a certain amount with the latter. What if these workmen who actually built the massive ancient monuments had more Neandertal -ancestry and so were capable to do the work ?

    The Paebo -study on the cross-breeding proved that humans (except the sub-Saharan people) do have up to 4% Neandertal inheritance of their genetic material .

    Anyway it seems the humans of the past were physically much stronger than we modern people . Presumably we will lose more of our muscle mass in the forth-coming thousands of years.

  2. I’m fairly sure this information has been around for a while, but it is great to see the video. Some time back I read that the Easter Islanders had orginally claimed that the statues had walked to where they are now. Of course Europeans thought that was obviously impossible but it turns out to have been the correct explanation all along.

    “Both ideas are at odds with the prevalent idea that the Rapa Nui people are one of the prime examples of ecocide, by exploiting their environment to the point of no return, as explained by Hunt himself in 2005 and supplemented by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”.

    I would guess that some level of genocide and disease helped though.

    “Cleared fields were more valuable to the Rapanui than palm forests were. But they were wind-lashed, infertile fields watered by erratic rains. Easter Island was a tough place to make a living”.

    But the island was forested when humans arrived. But rats that had come in with them ate the seads and so forest was unable to regenerate.


    Back to Easter Island after thirty years

    In 1986-1988, Heyerdahl organised archaeological excavations on Easter Island.

    During his first stay on the Easter Island experiments were conducted by the Czech engineer Pavel Pavel who shed light on the century old mystery of how the colossal stone statues had been moved.

    Using ropes fastened to the head and to the lower part of the statue, it was possible for a small group of men to move a 15 tonne heavy stone giant in an upraised position by first tipping it on its edge, and then swinging its opposite side forward.

    Following his final stay on Easter Island in 1988 Heyerdahl wrote the book: Easter Island: The Mystery Solved.

    A bit more here.

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