The Mysteries of Easter Island - A Talk by Chris Parfitt


Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Chris to the Parish Room, to share his detailed knowledge of this most mysterious and remote island, and of its people and culture.

He began by telling us that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in Polynesian, is a province of Chile some 2,500 miles and 5 hours flight-time from the mainland, and more than 1,000 miles from the islands of Eastern Polynesia. Rapa Nui is a tiny triangular shaped island approx. 14 by 11 by 10 miles on its three sides, with a volcano at each corner; happily all are now extinct, with the last eruption occurring some 100,000 years ago. Thor Heyerdahl famously visited the island during the 1950s, doing investigative work and writing a couple of books; Chris said the books were good, but that his theories as to where the island people originated from had now been disproved by DNA testing - they originated from Polynesia and not Chile.

Map of Easter Island / Rapa Nui

Location map showing position of RapaNui – Encyclopedia Britannica

Jacob Roggeveen was a Dutch explorer sent to find Terra Australis and Davis Land; he didn’t find his target but instead found Easter Island, so called because he landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722; he was the first European to land and he reported seeing between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants. The island itself is rocky, with little land suitable for growing crops as it’s dominated by eroded lava fields; it’s a typical oceanic island formed by volcanoes rising from the sea floor. Chris told us there are no rivers or streams, just three small crater lakes that can dry up during periods of drought; in consequence fresh water is scarce. Rainwater sinks directly through porous bedrock, into an underground aquifer which then surfaces along the coastline as ‘coastal seeps’ - pockets of fresh water that trickle into the ocean. Anthropologists have now found that, in addition to harvesting fresh water from pockets of coastal seep, Rapa Nui’s inhabitants built underwater dams in the ocean to separate fresh water from seawater. There is enough water from the seeps so that it's basically fresh, albeit somewhat salty; wells were also constructed to redirect water from the aquifer before it reached the sea.

From radiocarbon dating, it seems that Polynesians settled Rapa Nui around 900 CE (current era). According to oral traditions recorded by missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a strong class system; an ariki, or high chief (see also Birdman ceremony below), wielded great power over nine other clans and their respective chiefs. The high chief was the eldest descendant through first-born lines of the island's legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. Stratification of society into factions of chiefs and commoners then split the island into multiple territories designated by giant stone statues or moai, most probably representing deified ancestors; however, with no written (see also Rongorongo below) and little oral history, it's now impossible to be certain.

Sadly the most striking story of the island is its almost complete collapse - Rapa Nui is one of the most extreme examples of deforestation in the world - the entire forest is now gone and all tree species are extinct. Evidence suggests that forest harvesting started around 900, peaked in 1400, and by the time Jacob Roggeveen arrived in 1722 Rapa Nui was completely deforested. This was a catastrophe; without trees the ecosystem collapsed, without ecosystem functions, food and fresh water quickly diminished, and without trees escape boats could not be built. With escape no longer possible resource infighting occurred, until only a fraction of the population remained - a most unsettling parallel to contemporary global ecological destruction.

Chris then told us that Rapa Nui's history is particularly sad, because in addition to the above catastrophe, slave raids in 1862 again reduced the Island's population - the few islanders who survived slavery, and were then returned home, brought with them small pox, tuberculosis and other diseases. These spread dangerously through the population, sparing perhaps just 100/150 individuals; happily the Rapa Nui survived, and today account for around 50 percent of the approx. 8,000 people living on the island. Less happily, the native language has been in serious decline for decade, as with 50% of the population hailing from Chile, Spanish has now become the de facto language, particularly amongst younger generations, hence the language decline.

Chris told us there were only two sandy beaches on the island, it being so rocky, along with two small harbours just big enough for fishing boats. Four cargo ships from Chile arrive each year, because the island is not self-sufficient, and roads were only paved 20 to 30 years ago, because all the road materials also had to be shipped in. There is however a fully paved runway, nearly two miles long, which has been a boon to tourism - NASA extended the existing runway to act as an abort site for Space Shuttles when polar orbital flights from Vandenberg Air Force Base were planned.

One of the two beaches

The Moai are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500. Nearly half remain at Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry (1), but hundreds were transported from there and set on stone platforms, called ahu, around the island's perimeter. Almost all moai have overly large heads, comprising three-eighths of the whole statue, which has no legs. Moai are chiefly the living faces of deified ancestors and gazed inland across their clan lands when Europeans first visited in 1722, but all of them had ‘fallen’ by the latter part of the 19th century - it seems they were toppled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of European contact or internecine tribal wars.

(1) A volcanic crater formed of consolidated volcanic ash located on the lower slopes of Terevaka, the largest, tallest and youngest of three main extinct volcanoes in the Rapa Nui National Park. It remained a quarry for about 500 years up to the early 18th century, and 394 moai in varying states of completion remain visible today.

Moai - Encyclopedia Britannica

A unique kneeling Moai with beard

Archaeologists believe the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians' ancestors as moai statues face away from the ocean and in towards the villages, as if to watch over the people. The exception are the seven Ahu Akivi (2) which face out to sea, to help travellers find the island - a local legend says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive. A study in 2019 concluded that ancient people also believed quarrying the moai might improve soil fertility and thereby critical food supplies.

(2) Ahu Akivi is a sacred place looking out towards the Pacific Ocean. The site has seven moai, all of equal shape and size, and is also known as a celestial observatory, which was set up around the 16th century. The site is located inland, rather than along the coast.

The seven moai of Aku Aikivi

In 1979, a team of archaeologists discovered that the hemispherical or deep elliptical eye sockets carved into moai heads were designed to hold coral eyes, with either black obsidian (a volcanic glass) or red scoria pupils. The discovery was made by collecting and careful reassembling the broken fragments of white coral found at the various sites; subsequently, previously uncategorized finds in the Rapa Nui museum were re-examined and recategorized as eye fragments. It is thought that moai with carved eye sockets were probably restricted to the ahu (stone platform) moai and other ceremonial sites.

Ahu Ko Te Riku moai

More recent moai have pukao (hat like structures or topknots) on their heads, representing the topknot of the chieftains. According to local tradition, the mana (or supernatural force) was preserved in the hair. The pukao were carved out of red scoria, a very light pyroclastic rock from a quarry at Puna Pau. Red itself is considered a sacred colour in Polynesia, so the added pukao suggest a further status to such moai.

A group of top knotted moai

Rano Raraku, the moai statue quarry, is firmly on the tourist trail as its possible to see nearly 400 moai, half of whom are completed and the remainder in various stages of completion. Many statues are buried halfway or more into the ground, which is where the misconception of calling the moai statues ‘Easter Island heads’ came from; they do all have bodies, even though sometimes only a head sticks out of the ground. The reason for this is due to the way quarry workers handled the incredibly heavy weight of the statues. Once they were detached from the rock in the upper portions of the volcano, by drilling holes in the keel of the statue after carving had been completed, they were slid down to the hilly, lower areas of Rano Raraku where there is soil. Here, a great pit had been dug, and once a statue reached its pit, gravity tilted it until it was fully erected. Using this clever technique, the quarry workers saved themselves the great labour of raising every statue by hand. When a moai was ready to be taken away, the soil in front of the statue was removed to create a path, which was possible because the buried statues were always at high ground.

Rano Raraku was chosen, not just for its location but also for its rock, called tuff (or sometimes tufa), which is simply compressed volcanic ash. This particular volcano spewed out huge amounts of ash during its eruption, and when this ash landed on the ground, it melded together to form the tuff material. Prevailing southward winds during the eruption was what gave the volcano its peculiar shape of a long slope. Tuff was found to be the far superior material when making statues - in the ancient Rapa Nui society there was no metal, and the tools used were nothing but simple rocks and timber, so it was essential the material was soft and therefore (relatively) easily carved.

Buried moai statues at Rano Raraku

Moai in the middle of the quarry trail

More moai at the Rano Raraku quarry

Te Tokonga, the largest statue ever started – absolutely colossal

Production and transportation of more than 900 statues is considered a remarkable creative and physical feat; the tallest erected, called Paro, was almost 33 ft high and weighs nearly 81 tons. The heaviest moai erected was a shorter squatter one at Ahu Tongariki, which weighs nearly 86 tonnes. However, one unfinished sculpture, if completed, would be approximately 69 ft tall and weigh between 145 and 165 tons(probably why it remained uncompleted); however, the average moai is about 13 ft tall, with an average width at the base around 5 ft, and usually weighs around 14 tons.

The largest completed moai, showing just how deep it was buried

Ahu Tongariki  is the largest ahu on Rapa Nui. Its moais were toppled during the island's civil wars, and in the twentieth century the ahu was swept inland by a tsunami. It has since been restored and now has fifteen moai, including the one that weighs 86 tonnes and the heaviest ever erected on the island. Ahu Tongariki is one kilometer from Rano Raraku (the moai quarry) and Poike (one of the three volcanoes) in the Hotu-iti area of Rapa Nui National Park. All fifteen moai here face sunset during the winter solstice.

Ahu Tongariki

One of the most famous motifs on Rapa Nui is that of the Birdman, half man and half bird, which is connected to cult events at the sacred site of Orongo - a narrow ridge with a 1,000 foot drop to the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other. A paramount chief, or ariki, held the original power, as was typical throughout Polynesia, but over time, his omnipotence declined and secular power on the island was seized by a warrior class, or matatoa, whose emblem was the Birdman.

The most sacred area at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in the annual egg hunt. The purpose of the birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui, so contestants had to descend the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swim to Motu Nui, where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant then had to swim back and present it to his sponsor, who was declared birdman for that year, an important status position. It was incredibly dangerous, with contestants often falling to their death, or being attacked by sharks when swimming to or from the islet. 

The importance of birds is manifested through the many allusions found in engravings, paintings, sculptures and legends throughout Rapa Nui history, which makes sense on a remote isolated island where there were no large mammals or reptiles - birds were the only living beings close to humans, also providing an interesting source of protein in their meat and eggs. There was also a belief that birds had a mystical relationship with gods, in particular seabirds, which united the earth, the sea and the sky. It is not known exactly how the cult of the manutara (the luck bird) and the competition of the birdman arose; the most likely bird, the white-tipped tern, arrived on the island every spring to lay its egg, though sadly no more as none have returned to the island for years. 

Motu Nui islet, part of the Birdman Cult ceremony – Kallerna

Manu Piri, the double birdman – Dennis Jarvis

\Next Chris posed the million dollar question: just how were the moai moved, often many miles from the quarry, and over a difficult landscape? He told us many theories had been postulated, beginning with Thor Heyedahl in 1955, who suggesed they were simply dragged by lots of men. In 197 William Mulloy postulated an inverted wooden beam, to both lift and drag moai forwards in a single repetitive action. However, Chris told us there was a longstanding local tradition that moai were “walked”, even though at first sight it seems crazy trying to walk 10 tons plus of statues many miles. Pavel Pavel joined forces with Heyerdahl in 1986, proposing a twisting motion with ropes top and bottom, and in 1987 Charles Love suggested a sled and wooden rollers were used, though again, the moai were not walking.

Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo then suggested a new approach, with just three small groups of men, two to rock the statue forwards, with one behind to stabilise the moai and prevent it toppling over. In 2011 18 people “walked” a 10 ft statue using this technique. We may never know for sure, but it’s clearly possible to move moai upright with very few people, as the National Geographic video ‘Walking with Giants’ clearly demonstrates - scroll past the first three images to the short video:


Lastly Chris talked about Rongorongo, a system of glyphs discovered in the 19th century which appears to be writing or proto-writing; however, numerous attempts at decipherment have been tried, with none successful. Although some calendrical and possibly genealogical information has been identified, none of these glyphs can actually be read. That said, if rongorongo does prove to be writing and proves to be an independent invention, it would be one of very few independent inventions of writing in human history

Sample of Rongo-rongo script

Chris’s superb talk was incredibly detailed, unbelievably interesting and hugely enjoyed by everyone present, and the time simply flew by.


Our next event will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on Wednesday 15th March, when Anne Folan will present a talk entitled “Did the sewers save lives?” I think we all now know the answer, but it will be very interesting to find out the history of our sewers and just why they were so desperately needed.

On Wednesday 19th April Stephen Poulter will talk about Suffolk’s lost heritage by looking at some of the buildings the county has lost over the years; I imagine this will be incredibly interesting and perhaps a bit sad given our collective loss.


We very much look forward to welcoming guests to the Parish Room Little Waldingfield on both of these dates.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                                                                                                                     19th February 2023