Easter Island: Why Are There Giant Statues on a Mysterious Pacific Island

In the Southern Pacific Ocean, a remote volcanic island looms out of the sea with giant stone statues. The Easter Island Statues.

So who put these giant stone heads on Easter Island and what was their purpose?

Mark is on the trip of a lifetime to discover where this isolated civilization came from and where they went.

The Mysterious Easter Island Statues

Rapa Nui

Easter Island (Rapa Nui in Polynesian) is a Chilean island in the southern Pacific Ocean famous for it’s stone head statues called Moai.

When you first see a Moai statue you are drawn to its disproportionately large head (compared to body length) and that is why they are commonly called “Easter Island Heads”.

easter island statues
Easter Island Statues

But once you appreciate the size and scale of these massive stone sculptures you begin to wonder;

Who put them here? What purpose do they have? How did they transport them across?

How to Get to Easter Island

The only way to get to Rapa Nui is by plane.

LATAM Airways (formerly LAN) operates flights from Santiago (Chile), and it is a 5-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean.

Stepping foot on the island you will find most accommodation offerings in Hanga Roa, a short drive from the airport.

Hanga Roa is the only town on the island and you will find that public transport is non-existent here.

How to Get Around

easter island statues cars
Driving around Rapa Nui

The best option for getting around is to hire a car, and you can arrange this with most hotels or guesthouse owners.

I strongly recommend this as opposed to a tour bus; after all, this is one of the most remote islands in the world.

I find that sense of remoteness central to the Easter Island travel experience.

Once you’ve got your vehicle, collect a map from the ranger station (along with the park entrance fee) and the whole island is laid before you to explore.

I chose to drive anticlockwise, heading east along the southern coast road.

You can easily circumnavigate the whole island in a day. You can view my Easter Island map here.

Moai Nursery at Rano Raraku

easter island statues moai heads
Moai Manufacturing line at Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku is known as the “nursery” of the stone head Moai statues.

As you approach the site from the road you will begin to see the giant heads dotted along the hillside.

Look closer and you will find examples of  Moai at each stage of development; much like a manufacturing line.

There are statues only partially carved out of the slopes of this volcanic crater, and others fully complete ready for transport to their final destinations.

All but 53 of the 887 Moai statues were carved from this tuff (compressed volcanic ash).

The mind boggles that humans from a stone-age civilization could carve such massive statues from rock and transport them around the island, one thousand years ago.

A stunning archaeological discovery was made in May 2012, where archaeologists excavated around the statues to discover the Easter Island heads have bodies!

Moai at Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku, the Moai “Nursery”

You can climb to the top of the crater from where you will get an almost 360-degree panorama of the island.

Ahu Tongariki

A short drive away and you will arrive at Ahu Tongariki, which is the most photogenic of the statue sites.

Ahu” are village burial sites defined by a large flat stone platform with a seaward vertical wall.

You will notice that the statues here all have their backs to the sea; they’re all facing inland.

Why?

easter island statues heads
Moai at Ahu Tongariki

Well, let’s answer the first question:

So who put the statues Here?

It was the Rapa Nui people, Polynesians who sailed here from other pacific islands.

Although other theories suggest that they could have arrived from South America.

The colonization of Easter Island began around 1000AD, although dates differ from archaeological evidence versus radio carbon dating.

What purpose do the statues of Easter island Have?

Archaeologists suggest that the statues were a representation of the Polynesian people’s ancestors.

The Moai statues face away from the sea and towards the villages, by way of watching over the people.

easter island statues tongariki
Easter Island Heads Tongariki

So here at Ahu Tongariki these Moai look over a flat village site.  But not all Moai face inland, and we’ll get to an example of this later on our journey around Rapa Nui.

Pukao Topknots

Pukao” are the hat-like features or topknots which are on top of some statues.

They were made from a quarried red volcanic stone. 

These are actually later additions to the statues, possibly as late as the 16th century.

easter island statues field
Moai Ahu Tongariki

The reason for these hat-like additions is not known but some theories suggest it gave the statue an expression of power.

The “Top Knot” reflects a male hairstyle which was common on Rapa Nui. These have been re-erected here at Ahu Tongariki.

You might think the statues here at Ahu Tongariki have stood here since they were originally erected, but they have an interesting story to tell; All of the Moai here were toppled over during the island’s civil war.

And later in the twentieth century a tsunami hit the coastline and swept them inland.

Volcanic Coastline of Easter Island
The volcanic coastline of Easter Island

The “statue-toppling” occurred in the 1750s by tribes locked in civil war.

Historians know roughly when the toppling took place because in the 1700’s the first European visitors reported seeing only standing statues, but then by Captain James Cook’s visit in 1774 many were reported toppled.

Anakena beach

easter island statues beach
Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena Beach

Continuing our circumnavigation of the island, takes us west along the north shoreline to Anakena beach.

This white-sand beach flanked with swaying palm trees is one of my favourite beaches in the world; Rugged, remote and restful.

The focus of your attention as you walk down to the beach is Ahu Nau Nau, a group of 7 Moai silhouetted in front of the calm turquoise waters of this secluded bay.

Ahu Akivi

moai ahu tongariki
Moai Ahu Tongariki

Venturing towards the west coast now, we arrive at Ahu Akivi, which is unique because these Moai are the only ones to all face towards the sea, although it does overlook a village site too.

A theory suggests these Moai looking out to sea are to help travelers find the island.

Ana TePahu – Cave Dwelling

easter island statues lava tunnel
Lava Tunnel Cave close to Ana TePahu

Just close to here is Ana TePahu, which once was a cave-dwelling.

Access has now been restricted because of the risk of collapse, so I was fortunate to visit it before the restriction.

This cave is actually a lava channel, formed from the volcanic eruptions that led to the creation of Easter Island.

This lava tube runs the length of 7km.

Ahu Akapu Moai have Eyes

Moai with Eyes
Moai with Eyes at Ahy Akapu

You may have noticed that most Moai statues have just plain faces.

Some we learned have the “Pukao” topknot hats.

But interestingly a discovery was made from broken fragments of coral found at many of the Moai sites.

Archaeologists reassembled these fragments to form these white coral eyes with black or red coloured pupils.

These fit into the eye sockets designed for this purpose.

How did they transport the statues around the island?

The answer is no one really knows. There are various theories that revolve around the use of wooden rollers or sledges and ropes to pull the statues along.

Google “easter island aliens” and there are some interesting theories of alien spaceships transporting the statues!

Rano Kau Crater

Finally, no visit to Easter Island would be complete without visiting the volcanic crater at Rano Kau.

Rano Kau Crater
Rano Kau Crater

The Orongo Ceremonial Village,  sits on the slopes of this extinct volcano crater. The stone dwellings here are from the “Birdman” era.

The annual Birdman competition (Tangata Manu) was held here. Competitors had to climb down the cliffs and swim out to the small island at Motu Nui.

easter island statues ocean
Motu Nui and Motu Iti and the isolated sea stack of Motu Kau Kau

They would have to collect a fresh egg from the manutara bird and then swim back and climb the cliffs to the village.

The winner of the competition was the first person to return with an intact egg. This winner would then become the King for the year.

Easter Island as an example of human frailty?

exploring the mystery of easter island
Moai

Could the vulnerability of Humanity be expressed through the history of Easter Island?

Here we have a remote civilization that overexploited their natural resources to destruction, as one theory suggests.

However, another theory suggests that the arrival of the European settlers introduced disease and slavery, bringing about their downfall.

I’m inclined to believe the second of these theories. Professor Stephen Hawking said this about the downfall of civilizations:

“If you look at history, encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.”

Professor Stephen Hawking

For more about Chile, read Why Chile is the perfect adventure travel destination.

Do you have a question about flying you’ve always wanted to ask an airline pilot?

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About Flying and Travel

Mark is an Airline Pilot who is on a mission to inspire and inform you about his two passions; Flying and Travel.  He is here to help you travel the world with inspiring destinations and expert flying and travel tips. Follow on Social Media at Facebook / Twitter

Leave a Comment

40 thoughts on “Easter Island: Why Are There Giant Statues on a Mysterious Pacific Island”

  1. This is an awesome place to travel and the sunset looks too good in our camera shots.
    We want to celebrate our festival on this again!

    Reply
  2. Just purchased a Moai replica for our pool area in Mexico. After reading this great web page we have decided that Easter Island is a MUST SEE destination! Thank you for the inspiration.

    Reply
  3. There’s another theory that states that the 7 statues looking away from the island come from an island 3,000 miles away in which they had to escape from the natives that were cannibals snd believed that by eating them, since they were much more intelligent, that they would acquire all their knowledge.
    Lots of similarities snd ideas that make sense from 2 islands 3,000 miles apart…
    A lot to think about….

    Reply
  4. A very captivating and informative blog, I will surely visit Christmas Island one day, awesome place of wonder and curiosity..

    Reply
  5. Nice blog for kids who are interested in archeology and it would make young archaeologists and evn they may solve the mystery behind these huge rock’s which had an ancient carvings in it t may even be clue that aliens lived in ancient Egypt may even have some signs under earth about the first known alien starch child

    Reply
  6. i’m really got surprised to see that how could be this be possible that a statue of human faces are located …i thought that these are the landmarks of ancient time’s and the author really did a brilliant job to let the whole world know about these specific attributes

    Reply
  7. Very Informative blog, gain a lot of knowledge from it and the pictures are truly inspiring.But I am a bit confused about the mystery of Easter Land, Could anyone explain in detail about it ?????

    Reply
  8. I think I may have a good idea off the statues purpose. They are all ona volcanic island, the have bodies buried in the ground. Maybe they were used to measure the lava flow. That could be why they are facing the flat city. They are the warning to leave if the volcano ever blew…

    Reply
  9. Interesting Article. I wondered the same in my younger age for the Easter Island Statues. But, it was really an unveiling of a mystery when I got to know the real reasons. Chile is a beautiful place for such wanderers like us. I have also read an another article as interesting as this one. https://tango.tours/12-exciting-reasons-visit-south-america/ It was a great source of information for learning more about South America and especially about Chile. 🙂

    Reply
  10. Easter Island is on my bucket list! There is something about the Pacific Islands that I just cannot get enough! I wish it was easier to Island Hop here, but we will get here with the kids soon! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  11. Really interesting article.
    I had no idea it was even possible to travel to Easter Island. The impression I get from documentaries was one of a tiny uninhabited rock.
    I’m adding it to the bucket list.
    Pete

    Reply
  12. Hello,
    The information given in this blog is great but we often read this on many travel websites. But he discuss some new things about the island. The quality and quantity of pictures about Easter Island are awesome too. The author brings more interest of readers when he includes the Anakena beach. In short it is a good post having great collection of pics. I Love it.

    Reply
  13. Hey, me here. :^ )

    I was always really wondering how the easter statues had managed to get to this island, and how they were formed. It’s marvellous to finally find out the history behind them. As a year 8 high school teacher, I’m sure my students would love to hear about something like this as it has been discussed in class quite a lot in the past few months or so. I’m very appreciative to discover new things on this incredible website, and I’m glad you’re here to help contribute to it as it’s both mine and my class’

    Thank you so much Mark for the information here! I really do appreciate it.

    :^ )
    -Mrs Turner

    Reply
  14. Great post and beautiful pictures. The Statues looks amazing, surely an interesting place to visit. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  15. Great, that place is looking so beautiful and statues are one of the best attraction. that place is full with natural things and so stunning photos you shared.

    Reply
  16. Discovered a new & mysterious Island through your amazingly crafted blog post. What else I could say? It is not only written beautifully but these professionally taken pictures make me feel like I am the part of the environment.

    Reply
  17. Easter island is still mistery and yes it should be on anyone travel wishlist. The photo that you were taken are stunning and by just looking at your picture it make us all want to visit it one day.Driving along the island will surely become new experience and someone who do it may feel like lost in somewhere you don’t know. Thank you for sharing very useful post, and if we never visited that place at least we have seen it through your photos.

    Reply
  18. This is definitely a place I would like to visit some day. Those images of Easter Island just make me want to go there and explore. Very cool.

    Reply
  19. Hi Renuka, Thank you. Easter Island should be on everyone’s wishlist, it’s such a magical Island, and somewhere you can genuinely feel remote and isolated from the world; Which itself instils a sense of purpose, wonder and awe about the world we live in. I believe that’s what the first Polynesian settlers discovered a millennium ago. Too bad the arrival of the Europeans brought about the downfall of their isolated civilisation. Mark

    Reply
  20. Oh! what place and how nicely you described the place. I really want to visit this place. Thanks for this awesome, excellent and very helpful post.

    Reply
  21. Beautiful photos and an interesting account. Easter Island looks really fascinating, and I’d definitely like to visit it someday.

    Reply
  22. This was one of the most useful reads I have ever come across. All the images of statues and information was wonderful. I was just surprised how much information you packed into one blog post. Awesome article and amazing way of writing…

    Reply