It’s not just a bunch of stone heads.
For centuries, people believed the Sphinx was just a head sticking out of the ground too. Then they started digging and found there had been a body all along. Same for Easter Island – every one of the 887 statues or mo’ai (some of which are up to 30 feet tall) has a body, although often the body is buried underground. It is true, however, that the mo’ai heads are almost the size of the rest of their bodies. Most of the mo’ai face inland. Only a few gaze out across the Pacific.
Easter Island, a mere 63 square miles in size, is one of the world’s most remote islands. It is a territory of Chile, which is more than 2,000+ miles away. Its nearest neighbor is Pitcairn Island (where the HMS Bounty mutineers ended up), nearly 1,300 miles away. And yet approximately 100,000 tourists manage to visit every year.
By the time a Dutch explorer discovered this South Pacific island on Easter Sunday in 1722, its population was about 2,000-3,000 – down from an estimated 15,000 only a century before. Deforestation and destructive Polynesian rats may have been the cause of this decrease. The Europeans’ introduction of new diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis did not help the situation, and neither did the Peruvian slave trade of the 1860s. By 1877, Easter Island’s native population was down to 111.
When were the mo’ai created, and why? And how did these massive statues make their way to locations all around the island?
We can only guess why the mo’ai were created, but we know most were carved from volcanic rock between approximately 1100 AD and 1680 AD. Some experts believe the Easter Island natives “walked” the mo’ai to their various locations by having two teams on opposite sides loop ropes around the statues’ heads and then rock the statues from side to side, enabling them to waddle forward with little “steps.”
Perhaps Easter Island’s greatest mystery is how the natives got there in the first place. Were the ancient Polynesians skilled navigators? How else would they have happened upon a tiny Pacific island more than a thousand miles distant from any place else?