Amazing Places

How Did the Mysterious Easter Island Heads Get There?

Easter Island is a remote Chilean Island in the Pacific Ocean with a mysterious past. 887 enormous stone heads speckle the 64 square miles (166 square kilometers) of land. Standing at heights of 3–33 feet (1–10 meters) and weighing in at roughly 13 tons apiece, the sheer size of the statues has fascinated scientists for centuries. Still, the biggest question has remained: how in the world did they get there?

Get Movin'

The Easter Island statues, or moai, are carved from volcanic tuff from the Rano Raraku quarry. While volcanic ash is fairly easy to carve, it's exceptionally heavy to move. For this reason, scientists have struggled to understand how these behemoth statues ended up scattered across the island 11 miles from the original quarry site.

Various theories have circulated through the scientific community over the years, many of which have since been tested and refuted. One seemingly plausible idea was put to the test in 1986 by a Chech Engineer, a Norwegian explorer, and 17 assistants. They believed that humans could have transported the statues via a twisting method in which a rope was tied to the head and another tied to the base. Ultimately this proved unreasonable due to the rough terrain and the fact that the team damaged the base of the statue during the experiment.

A more popular theory was that the indigenous Rapanui dragged the moai around via wooden sleds carved from palm trees — providing an explanation for the deforestation on Easter Island. This theory, too, was invalidated over time, in this case because of the workload required. If it took a modern team of 180 people to move a 10-ton statue, they estimated it would take 1,500 islanders to move the largest moai statue that weighs 82 tons. At least they were getting their exercise!

Rock and Roll

As of late, the most plausible theory is that the moai were transported via a system of ropes and a rocking technique. Groups of islanders held ropes on either sides of the moai and teetered the sculptures along. On the backside of the statues, a third group held an additional set of ropes to keep the statues upright. If true, that's some brilliant engineering from a civilization that came into existence more than 12 centuries ago.

Not only does this theory make the most sense to scientists, but it's grounded in evidence from the statues themselves. It's believed that the moai were designed to be transported via the rock-and-roll method. Fat bellies allow the statues to easily tilt forward, and D-shaped bases allowed the islanders to rock them from side to side. Researchers have performed experiments that prove this transport method is definitely possible, as a group of 18 people easily and quickly maneuvered a moai replica of a similar size.

While the moai's method of travel remains a mystery and an area of intrigue for the scientific world, indigenous Rapanui of Easter Island have their own answer with certainty — the statues walked, of course.

Written by Ashley Gabriel July 28, 2017

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