Easter Island Heads: Walk, Don’t Run


A lot of people have probably heard of the fascinating statues of Easter Island known as moai, though more often called Eastern Island heads. These megalithic structures on the island first discovered (by westerners) by Jaob Roggeveen in 1722 on Easter Sunday (hence the name) are around 15 tons (the largest standing one is about 80 tons). Believed to have been created in what for Europe was the Late Middle Ages, these statues have brought about much speculation as to their creation, creators, and purpose. Most fantastically they are connected with, would you guess, aliens who happened to get stuck on the island and to pass the time built the moai. Besides being unlikely and without a shred of proof (von Daniken’s allegation of the lack of trees was uninformed by knowledge of prehistoric conditions of the island), we have much better ways to explain how these great structures would have been moved.

The trick is that the island was not as vast in resources, human or natural, as say Egypt and it’s ancient empire, so archaeologists have had to figure out how the natives of the island would have done their task, and all without written records (unlike, again, Egypt). There are folk stories which may have limited value, but researchers have wondered how much stock to put into the legend of how the moai “walked” out of the ground and to their destinations. Perhaps this is later fantasy, but perhaps it’s a clue to how the great statues were moved.

One hypothesis has been that the natives tied ropes about the head of the statue, leaned it forward (with another rope to prevent it from falling), and shimmied it so it would “step” forward a little bit at a time. That hypothesis recently had a new publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Noting details about the location of the center of mass of the body along with the oral legends of the natives (recorded by others over a century ago), they did a pretty much full-sized experiment in moving the statues.

Not a bad soundtrack either.

And as with any hypothesis where the evidence is unclear, there is reasonable skepticism. As noted in the Nature News page, the test was not definitive; it was not in the same context as on the island, the shape of the statue was not the same as the moai of the island, and there are other hypotheses to content with, such as a sort of sled on tracks.

What advantages does the walking statue have other than conforming to oral histories? One this is that it requires little wood, something that is very sparse on the island today, though it was more plentiful in the past. Some have suggested that the island was deforested by the natives in the building of the statues (which would support the rolling-the-statues hypothesis), but that line of argument is also coming under fire by the authors of the new archaeological study.

While I am no expert in this, I would think one thing to help indicate the walking moai hypothesis would be to look for statues that fell either on their back or (more likely) faces on their way up to their destinations. With hundreds of surviving moai, a least a few had to have failed to make it because someone slipped. So, I would suspect that one or two would have fallen down into the ground. With the rolling hypothesis, then more likely the statue would have done off the track and the paths taken, and their orientation would have been less likely on their faces. But I don’t know the details of what mistakes are thrown about the island, but that seems a way to distinguish these two methods.

Obviously this isn’t an easy verdict, and little in history is (especially in prehistory). Nonetheless, we have a reasonably good grasp on which theories are plausible, and aliens just isn’t one of them. And why introduce such things when we know ancient humans (and not just Europeans) were innovative and motivated?

Oh, and one thing also unknown until recently: the moai had hats and eyes!

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

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