The 887 giant moai statues on Easter Island have turned one of the most isolated islands in the world into one of the most well known—and most mysterious. With each year, more theories arise concerning the island, the statues, and the Rapa Nui people who once lived there. Here are some of the most fascinating ones.
10 • The Moai Walked
A longstanding point of contention over the years has been just how the moai statues on Easter Island got to their final resting places. The tallest of the statues, “Paro,” stands at almost 10 meters (33 ft) and weighs in at 74 metric tons (82 tons). All of them are immensely hard to move.
In the early ’80s, researchers tried to recreate some of the statues and move them using only tools that the islanders had to their disposal. They found this almost impossible to do. Then in 1987, American archaeologist Charles Love managed to move a 9–metric ton (10 ton) replica. He put it on a makeshift vehicle consisting of two sledges, and he and 25 men rolled the statue 46 meters (150 ft) in just two minutes.
Ten years after this feat, Czech engineer Pavel Pavel and Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl built their own statue of the same size. They tied one rope around its head and another around its base. With the help of 16 people, they rocked the statue from side to side. They cut the exercise short because they were damaging the statue, but Heyerdahl estimated that they could otherwise have moved the statue (or one twice as big) 100 meters (330 ft) per day.
Americans Terry Hunt and Carl P. Lipo have recently investigated the sensational theory that the Rapa Nui people tied ropes around the massive moai statues and moved them into place with a walking motion. Their team managed to move a replica 100 meters (330 ft) in this manner. They also argue that this explains Rapa Nui folklore, which tells of the statues walking, animated by magic.
9 • Ecocide
A well-known theory states that the island natives cleared large forests to make room for agriculture, mistakenly thinking the trees would grow back fast enough to sustain the environment. The growing population just added to the problem, and the island eventually just couldn’t support its inhabitants. This theory was especially popularized by Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by UCLA geographer Jared Diamond. Diamond names Easter Island as the most prominent example of resource misuse destroying an entire society.
Now, however, a new theory suggests that there is very little evidence this happened. The Rapa Nui people were in actual fact very intelligent agricultural engineers. Intensive study shows that the islanders’ agricultural fields were deliberately fertilized by volcanic rock.
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, in their continuing study of Easter Island, also theorize that even though the islanders cleared most of the forest, they replaced it with grasslands. The pair do not believe that any self-inflicted catastrophe killed the islanders. Anthropologist Mara Mulrooney supports Lipo and Hunt in the matter. Her radiocarbon data indicates that Easter Island was inhabited for many centuries, and its population only dropped after Europeans started frequenting it.
8 • The Rats Did It
Lipo and Hunt offer an alternative explanation for the population drop. The lack of predators and an overflow of food on the island have provided a paradise for rats hiding in the canoes of the island’s earliest settlers. Though the natives cut and burned trees, it was the rats that prevented regrowth by feasting on the new plants.
But while rats may have hurt the island’s ecosystem, they gave the islanders a new food source. The discovery of rat bones in rubbish dumps on the island indicates that the natives dined on the rodents. This kept them fed while they worked at building their fields to sustain themselves long-term.
7 • Alien Transport
A popular goofy theory about the Easter Island moai says that the massive statues were created (or, alternatively, influenced) by aliens.
Author Erich von Daniken helped spread this theory with his book Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Daniken also believes the ancient Egyptians could not possibly have built the pyramids by themselves as they lacked the intelligence and strength. Similar theories explain the Mayan pyramids and the Nazca line drawings.
The stone used to build the moai was actually taken from the island itself, from an extinct volcano on the northeastern side, not from another planet. There’s no actual mystery about who built the statues. The only real mystery is why they did so. Many island researchers fully believe that each of the statues represent the head of a family. This, however, remains speculation.