We examine the island’s history and explain some of the most interesting Easter Island facts. This remote Pacific island is not only beautiful but full of mystery
First thing’s first, Easter Island is far. Very, very far.
In fact, it is one of the most remote communities in the world. Its closest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn, 2,000km (1,200mi) to the west while the nearest continental land lies in Chile at a distance of 3,700km (2,300mi). In short, it’s not a short hop.
And so the question one must ask is: are the Easter Island statues worth the slog? Are these great hunks of rock worth the expense of a long voyage?
Having spent five days on the heart-stoppingly beautiful island, we can answer with a resounding yes.
Not only are the Easter Island statues magnificent to observe, their intriguing history also makes them one of humanity’s enduring travel mysteries. Here are six interesting Easter Island facts.
1. No-one knows how the statues were moved
Of all the interesting Easter Island facts, the transportation of the island’s statues (“moai”) is considered remarkable given that they were moved 18km (11mi) across the island without the use of wheels, cranes or large animals.
Scientists have tested several theories most commonly concluding that islanders used a combination of log rollers, ropes and wooden sledges.
In 2011, however, Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach worked with National Geographic to prove that a mere 18 people could move a 3m (10ft) moai replica weighing 5 tonnes a few hundred metres with just three strong ropes and some practice.
It’s unclear if this method would have worked on Paro, the tallest moai erected at almost 10m (33ft) in height and 82 tonnes in weight, or indeed the heaviest moai which weighs a whopping 86 tonnes.
2. The huge heads have (huger) bodies
Archaeologists have known since the earliest excavations in 1914 that the Easter Island statues have bodies. The public, however, widely referred to them as ‘Easter Island heads’ because the most commonly photographed moai were those buried up to their shoulders.
In 2012, photos of an excavation led by the Easter Island Statue Project coupled with a photo taken in the 1950s began to circulate, illustrating just how big the statues actually are. The sight was so striking that several national publications ran a story about it.
View all the photography from the excavation on the Easter Island Statue Project website.
3. A Finnish tourist once stole a moai ear
In 2008, a Finnish tourist was found on Anakena beach hacking an ear off a moai. An islander saw Marko Kulju, 26, fleeing from the scene with a piece of the statue in his hand. She reported the incident to the Police who identified Kulju by the tattoos on his body.
The Finn was placed under house arrest and fined nearly 17,000 USD – light punishment given that he was facing up to seven years in prison. Kulju issued a public apology through a Chilean newspaper shortly after his capture.
As a consequence of the incident, there are tighter controls on tourist access, with one quarry being cordoned off far from the main attraction.
Thanks a lot, Marko!
4. The statues may have been an antidote to leprosy
Dr Anneliese Pontius, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has a theory that islanders created the statues to counter the effects of leprosy.
According to her hypothesis, the shock of seeing deformity on the features most important in social interaction (face, hand, fingers, arms) may have driven islanders to ritually ‘undo’ the damage by creating moai with over-corrected features.
These efforts to reverse leprosy may have been in lieu of banishing the affected to other islands as they had been elsewhere (e.g. Hawaii, Molokai).
The symptoms of leprosy vs. their over-corrected moai equivalents are listed below, as described in Dr Pontius’s paper Easter Island’s Stone Giants: A Neuro-Psychiatric View.
- Leprosy’s destruction of the nose cartilage is countered by pronounced noses and stylised nostrils.
- Downward placement of the mouth with lower hanging lip and bared teeth (due to facial nerve paralysis) vs. moai’s upward placement of the lips. No teeth visible.
- Lips retracted and swollen vs. pursed upward and thin.
- “Claw hand” vs. extended fingers in a straight fashion. The elongated fingers lie in a horizontal line across the abdomen.
- Disturbances of fingers and nails vs. moai’s well delineated fingertips and nails.
5. There is an ugly duckling that no-one can explain
This is perhaps the most curious of all the interesting Easter Island facts. All the statues on Easter Island have distinctive elongated features and follow a certain aesthetic. Tukuturi, however, seems far more human. It is far smaller than the other moai and seems to be in a kneeling position with its hands on its legs.
Tukuturi’s head is round and more human-like and appears to have a small beard. What’s more, while the other moai were carved at the stunning site of Rano Raraku, Tukuturi was made from a different material (the reddish stone of Puna Pua) and then brought to Rano Raraku. No-one knows why it’s so different.
6. The statues were toppled by angry islanders
No-one argues that at one stage in its history, Easter Island went through a devastating deforestation. The prevailing theory has long been that the islanders felled (or burned) trees to clear land and carve canoes to serve the growing population, and possibly to transport the moai.
More recent theories suggest that the wide-scale deforestation was the work of Polynesian rats that came over with the first canoes. What anthropologists do agree on is that at some point in the 1700s, there was a rebellion or rioting by the islanders.
Tired of dwindling resources, clans began to clash, tearing down each other’s moais. It’s reported that by 1868, there were no upright statues on the island apart from the partially buried ones on the outer slopes of Rano Raraku. Many have of course since been re-erected.
Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island includes a comprehensive guide to Easter Island, ideal for those who want to both explore the top sights and take the road less travelled.