Saturday Art: Easter Island Maoi
Small Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean contains figures grouped through the whole land that have been a source of fascination to visitors for many ages. Solemn and monumental, they hover over the land with their mystery and majesty intact.
As the island became overpopulated and resources diminished, warriors known as matatoa gained more power and the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult. Beverly Haun wrote, “The concept of mana (power) invested in hereditary leaders was recast into the person of the birdman, apparently beginning circa 1540, and coinciding with the final vestiges of the moai period.” This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition. The god responsible for creating humans, Makemake, played an important role in this process. Katherine Routledge, who systematically collected the island’s traditions in her 1919 expedition, showed that the competitions for Bird Man (Rapanui: tangata manu) started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878, with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who formally arrived in 1864. Petroglyphs representing Bird Men on Easter Island are exactly the same as some in Hawaii, indicating that this concept was probably brought by the original settlers; only the competition itself was unique to Easter Island.
European accounts from 1722 and 1770 mention standing statues, but Cook’s 1774 expedition noted that several moai were lying face down, having been toppled in war.
The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is world-famous, were carved from 1100–1680 CE (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections so far. Although often identified as “Easter Island heads”, the statues have torsos, most of them ending at the top of the thighs, although a small number of them are complete, with the figures kneeling on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs. Some upright moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils.
Almost all (95%) moai were carved out of distinctive, compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash or tuff found at a single site inside the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. The native islanders who carved them used only stone hand chisels, mainly basalt toki, which lie in place all over the quarry. The stone chisels were sharpened by chipping off a new edge when dulled. The volcanic stone was first wetted to soften it before sculpting began, then again periodically during the process. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single moai took a team of five or six men approximately one year to complete. Each statue represented the deceased head of a lineage.
Only a quarter of the statues were installed, while nearly half remained in the quarry at Rano Raraku and the rest sat elsewhere, probably on their way to final locations. The largest moai ever raised on a platform is known as “Paro”. It weighs 82 tons and is 9.8 m (32.15 ft) long. Several other statues of similar weight were transported to several ahu on the North and South coasts. It is not yet known how they transported the statues. Possibilities include employing amiro manga erua, a Y-shaped sledge with cross pieces, pulled with ropes made from the tough bark of the hau-hautree, and tied around the statue’s neck. Anywhere from 180 to 250 men were required for pulling, depending on the size of the moai. Some 50 of the statues were re-erected in modern times. One of the first was on Ahu Ature Huke inAnakena beach in 1958. It was raised using traditional methods during a Heyerdahl expedition.
In 2011, a large moai statue was excavated from the ground, suggesting that the statues are much older and larger than previously thought.
These powerful figures represent ceremonial ancestors that protected their people, research has shown.
(Picture below courtesy of ndecam at flickr.com.)