Tour of the Moai: The Heads of Easter Island

Updated August 10, 2020!

It’s Moai Monday! If you’ve been following along on Facebook or Instagram @quickwhittravel, you know we just got home from a Trip of a Lifetime to Easter Island, Chile! So what are those big heads all about? Do they have bodies? How did they get there? Read on to find out!

What is a Moai?

Moai is the Rapa Nui name for the stone sculptures that are all over Easter Island (more accurately known as Rapa Nui). They are symbols of power to the Rapa Nui people because they represent each of their chiefs from around 680 A.D. to 1680 A.D. Most are in the form of men, but archaeologists have found at least 10 with female features as well.

More here: What to Know Before You Visit Easter Island

What Did The Moai Look Like Back Then?

All the Moai were roughly the same body shape, with black and white eyes and a red topknot (not a hat–a topknot is made of hair). Here is the only example with its eyes. The eyes are not original, but they are replicas made with the same materials.

The only remaining moai with replaced topknot and eyes
More here: What to Pack for Easter Island: Ladies Edition

Who Made the Moai?

The Rapa Nui people made the Moai–not aliens, not nature, not something else unexplainable. We don’t know a whole lot for certain, but we do know the Rapa Nui people did make the Moai! Here are some of the materials:

Volcanic Tuff for the Sculptures
Basalt used for making their tools
Red Scoria for the Topknots
Obsidian for the pupils of the eyes
White Coral for the whites of the eyes
Keep reading: Ruined: Beauty in the Broken Places

Where and How Did They Make the Moai?

All the Moai were carved from the quarry called Rano Raraku. This is the only place on the island with the right kind of stone. Many Moai are still in the quarry and look like they are buried in the ground. Well, that’s only half right. The artists would carve the front of the Moai, then chisel it away from the mountain and put it into a shallow hole in the ground in order to carve petroglyphs on the back. Because many of the Moai never made it out of these shallow holes in the quarry, 330+ years of erosion has caused them to be covered with dirt and allowed grass to grow, so it does look like it’s just a head sticking up out of the ground. Don’t worry–they all have bodies at this phase!

Want to see more? Take a look!

Heads in the ground
Nose to nose
This one was much smaller, and they went to the trouble of carving its bottom!
Two of the most famous Moai heads!
Read on: What to Pack for Easter Island: Men’s Edition

How Big are the Moai?

The largest one is still in the ground at the quarry! The Moai are anywhere from 3-21 meters long (10-70 feet), and they can weigh up to 70 tons, or maybe more! The first Moai were on the smallish side compared to the later ones that were created 1000 years later. As the Rapa Nuis’ technology and skills improved over that 1000 years, the Moai got larger and larger.

Here’s one on the side of the cliff
Here’s one “sleeping” under a rock!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit Easter Island

How Did They Move the Moai?

This is the thing no one knows for sure! There are several theories floating around, and the oral tradition on Rapa Nui says that the Moai walked to their places on the ahus or platforms that they stand on! The Moai were probably moved using trees that used to grow on Rapa Nui; scientists know the island was deforested by the 1650s, so it makes sense that the Moai carving stopped just 30 years later.

Have the Moai Always Been Standing?

Nope! The different tribes on the island would fight with each other, and a show of disrespect and conquering another tribe was to topple another tribe’s Moai. This was such a show of disrespect because the Moai were placed on an ahu, or platform, which was a place for ceremonies, burials of tribal leaders, and was considered holy. Also, the Moai themselves each represent a tribal leader, and they always (with one exception) face inland to watch over their tribal descendants. By toppling the Moai backward or forward, the conquering tribe show that they were more powerful. Many of the Moai have been replaced on their ahus since the 1960s, but some are still in their fallen positions.

Several toppled Moai
Decapitated Moai
Read on: How to Spend 5 Days on Easter Island

How Many Moai are There?

There are close to 1000 Moai! Some are upright on an ahu, some are knocked over at their ahu, some fell during transportation and were left where they fell, some are still in the rock in the quarry, and many of them are “buried” in the grass and dirt at the quarry awaiting transportation that never came.

Want More Pictures?

Here are the best shots I got of the most famous Moai!

Ahu Tongariki
Ahu Nau Nau
Ahu Akivi: The only Moai facing toward the sea instead of inland!
Ahu Tahai
Ahu Tongariki at Sunrise
Don’t miss this: How to Experience Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki

I hope you are now inspired to visit the Moai for yourself! Stay tuned this week for more about the Moai and Easter Island! And find everything you need to know about visiting on my Chile Page.

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8 responses to “Tour of the Moai: The Heads of Easter Island”

  1. […] Moai: These are the big heads! Yes, they also have bodies. They were chiseled from a special type of stone at a quarry on the island from around 680 A.D. until 1680 A.D. At one point all the currently standing Moai were knocked over. Find out more in yesterday’s post all about the Moai! […]

  2. […]  3. Next up: Moai! We continued down the road from the museum, and found what we were looking for. We stopped over at Hanga Kio’e and Ahu Tahai, which are locations of several Moai (the big heads on Easter Island). […]

  3. […] This is the most intriguing, most photographed, most mysterious, and most mesmerizing part of Easter Island. This is why people come–it’s what made us want to go! For all the details, check out Moai: The Heads of Easter Island! […]

  4. […] to get the full effect, and don’t forget to look behind you. While the sunrise though the Moai is beautiful, it’s also creating beauty at first light on the mountain at Rano Raraku just […]

  5. Great post.
    Very interesting.
    Nice pics.
    Keep it up.

    1. Thank you so much!

  6. […] Keep Reading: Ultimate Guide to the Easter Island Moai […]

  7. […] Rapa Nui people of Easter Island were once prosperous, numerous, and highly skilled. These Polynesian people had their own language, […]

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