stone heads of Easter Island
The stone heads
of Easter Island have cast an almost magical spell on anyone that
has seen them – if only in a photograph. Though often eyeless,
they still gaze along the shores of the island. What were they
built for and who were the artisans of these mysterious creations?
was Easter 1722. The Dutch Admiral Jacobs Roggeveen had discovered
a new island in the Pacific Ocean. He named it Easter Island.
Near the coastline, his crew saw small boats of the local people
setting off to greet his ship. Scanning the coastline of the island,
he saw gigantic heads. Roggeveen gave this description of the
heads: “the stone heads surprised us. We could not understand
how these people, who do not have load-bearing wood to make machinery,
or strong rope, succeeded in erecting these statues, statues that
measure ten metres in height and width.” Roggeveen had just
added one more entry in the growing list of mysteries: the more
Westerners travelled the globe, the more enigmas they came across.
Roggeveen arrived, there were two tribes on the island. The first
was the Ha-nau-aa-epe, which was distinct because of their long
ears. They were tall, white-skinned with red hair and ca. two
metres tall. The other tribe was the Ha-nau-mo-moko, which had
short ears. Though it is assumed that the statues were created
by the short-eared tribe, under the command of the long-eared
people, portraying the latter, there was also a massacre of the
long-eared people in 1760; apparently only three of them survived.
The massacre is normally interpreted as a revolt of the short-eared
people against their oppressive elite of the long ears.
type of “diplomacy” used when liaising with the local
people often meant that no further knowledge about the stone heads
was easily recorded. Roggeveen himself felt he had found a quick
answer to “his” mystery. He chopped off the head of
one statue, in the supposition that the heads were not really
made of stone, but of clay, covered with a coating of seashells.
His theory proved incorrect.
It lasted until 1770 before the Spanish decided to send an expedition
in search of this island that had been left to its own devices
for the past five decades. The expedition proved that the heads
were definitely made of stone.
The local population had to contend with great tribulations between
1770 and 1774, by which many statues had also fallen from their
bases. James Cook identified that the only hill on the island
was actually a volcano and identified it as the main cause for
the destruction that had occurred by 1774. Cook also concluded
that the current inhabitants of the island were not the creators
of the heads.
who was then? Two hundred years later, the Swiss controversial
author Erich von Däniken speculated that the statues were
the work of extraterrestrial beings. These beings were believed
to have been stranded on the island and with nothing better to
do, they had begun to erect these statues. Von Däniken argued
that the local population, with the primitive tools they had at
their disposal, were unable to create the heads.
His was just one opinion amongst several. Others believed that
the statues were millennia old, the last remnants of a lost civilisation,
Mu, the Pacific Ocean colleague of Atlantis. There were, however,
more conservative views. Cook and other expedition leaders concluded
that the platforms on which the heads stood were used for funerals.
The statues were also named after former rulers of the local people.
But no further information was learned from the local people,
if only because those were exported from the island as slave labour.
Indeed, by 1877, only 111 people were still living on the island.
The civilisation of Easter Island was eventually made famous by
the British pioneering expedition of Katherine Routledge, who
arrived on the island in 1914 and began what amounted to the first
serious archaeological campaign into the mysteries of the island
and – specifically – its enigmatic stone heads. With
help from the locals, she and her husband eventually excavated
thirty figures and recorded the island’s legends and history.
century onwards, the origin of almost thousand stone heads remains
nevertheless extremely difficult to assess. All statues gaze towards
the land, even though many of the statues stand very close towards
the sea. They measure between two and eleven metres high and all
have the same appearance: a long shaped head with an upper torso,
a chin and long ears, with arms along the body or arms that rest
on the stomach. Some statues still contain eyes, made in white
and red stone and coral. Only ca. seventy of the more than thousand
statues have a “pukao”, or “hats”, on
their head. The name originated from reports of the first visitors,
who had spotted certain local people with a headdress made of
red feathers. This small number of hatted heads has puzzled archaeologists
for many decades. The volcanic rock used for the hats came from
a sacred quarry inside a crater full of red scoria, a volcanic
pumice. The rock had to be transported for several miles on rolling
tree trunks. Sue Hamilton believes that the hats were, in fact,
a plait or top knot that was only worn by the elite chieftains.
20th century did provide an answer to their age. Archaeologists
learned that the first people had come to the island between the
4th and 7th century AD. The platforms were constructed shortly
afterwards, with the statues beginning to be erected after 1000
AD. No more statues were erected after 1680, the result of society
collapsing, caused by or resulting in warfare. Conclusion: the
statues were constructed over a 500 year period – meaning
that on average, two heads were erected each year.
The stone used for the heads originated from the inner core of
the Rano Rarku volcano. Indeed, there, hundreds of empty spaces
remain, though close to 400 statues also still remain inside the
quarry. This is an interesting situation, for it would mean that
there were enough statues being quarried for a century to come…
somewhat unlikely and suggesting more than two statues were erected
One unfinished statue is labelled “El Gigante”. It
measures twenty metres tall and weighs 270 ton. Even though the
outer layer of the quarry is very hard, the interior stone is
hardly more durable than chalk and thus easily modifiable. It
is this difference in stone that probably lead to Roggeveen’s
How were the stones quarried? Several pointed stones were still
in situ in the quarry; they seemed to be the likely tools that
had been used. The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl tried to
recreate the stone heads in situ. Six men worked for three days,
resulting in a stone head that was five metres high. It was argued
that it would take a team of six people one year to create a giant
statue – meaning that the entire production of the stones
could be the result of just twelve people – far from the
conclusions reached by the likes of Erich von Däniken.
traces of tracks from the quarry to the various locations of the
statues remain visible, some of them ten kilometres long. What
is equally clear is that the largest statues stand closest to
the quarry. Though it was no doubt because more effort was required
in moving them, at the same time, the statues were quite fragile
and might not have survived the longer journeys.
As to how the heads were transported: wooden rollers. The first
researchers believed that the island had always been without trees,
but more recent research has shown that trees were indeed present
on the island. Several possible techniques have thus been recreated
in an attempt to see how the statues could be moved. Using wooden
carriers, the heads were moved over a distance of fifty metres
in two minutes. Later efforts actually involved putting the statues
on their back, rather than moving them erect.
to where the artisans came from, that question was also posed
by Thor Heyerdahl. He doubted the general assumption that they
had come from the west and felt they originated from Southern
America – specifically Peru. However, archaeologists could
not support this theory, as they stated that the Peruvian people
did not possess sea-worthy craft that would reach as far as Easter
In his unique style, Heyerdahl wanted to challenge this argument
and in 1947 organised the Kon Tiki expedition, in which he used
a traditional Southern American boat in his effort to reach Easter
Island. Heyerdahl’s voyage lasted 101 days, covering 6000
miles, showing that the ship was definitely seaworthy –
contrary to the archaeological opinion. Nevertheless, Heyerdahl
did not make it to Easter Island, but ended up in Tahiti. Equally,
Heyerdahl was subjected to some critique, as the design used post-dated
the Spanish conquest of Southern America. Furthermore, the ship
had a sail and was dragged 100 kilometres from the shore before
it was allowed to sail on its own power. This was necessary as
the strong currents hitting the Peruvian shores did not allow
the ship to leave the coastal waters. The currents pushed the
ships northwards, towards Panama – not westwards, towards
Heyerdahl’s expedition was the first of a series, all intent
to reach Easter Island from Southern America. But all of them
ended up in Tahiti – not one ever made it to Easter Island.
it is true that a certain amount of plants on Easter Island have
a Southern American origin. It was in fact such evidence that
inspired Heyerdahl and others to argue for the Southern American
origins theory. However, subsequently, it has been shown that
at least one of these plants was taken to the island more than
30,000 years ago – by animals. Another plant had been spread
across the islands of the Pacific Ocean via it drifting on the
The only proof left to Heyerdahl for a human agent was the presence
of the potato on the island. Though it is enigmatic, there is
alas no proof that it was transported by humans. It might have
been transported by clinging on to birds. One anomaly is just
that: an anomaly, not proof positive that the opposite therefore
has to be true. As a result, it was clear that the likelihood
that Southern Americans had reached Easter Island became less
and less likely.
that the population of Easter Island did actually originate from
Polynesia was discovered on the island of Pitcairn, 2000 km west
of Easter Island. 1790 traces of a Polynesian influence were discovered
there – but the most important discovery was the presence
of giant heads, erected on platforms, suggesting a link between
Pitcairn and Easter Islands. Unfortunately, the earliest colonists
had destroyed these heads, which is one of the primary reasons
why this link is little known.
Indeed, when Heyerdahl proposed his alternative approach, little
was known about Polynesia as a whole. Heyerdahl lived under the
assumption that no technological awareness had ever existed on
those islands. Fifty years later, that situation is vastly different.
David Hatcher Childress is one of a growing number of authors
that has identified that major monuments exist on Polynesian islands.
These construction projects are on par to the stone heads of Easter
Island – though far less known.
The final breakthrough that the people from Easter Island came
from the West and not Southern America came when DNA research
of skeletons, dated from 1100 to 1868, revealed similarities with
Hawaii and the Chatham Islands, near New Zealand. Indeed, in the
end, Heyerdahl himself toned down the Southern American origin
many mysteries of Easter Island remain, like the enigmatic writing
known as rongo rongo. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans,
there was still a vast store of rongo rongo tablets and other
wooden artefacts covered with these hieroglyphs. They were kept
in covers made of reed, although few if any could still read them.
The language was first seen by a priest, Joseph Eyraud, the first
non-local person to settle on the island… and the one to
lit bonfires, so that all writings of the Easter Island population
Today, only 26 artefacts featuring rongo rongo remain, giving
us a total of 16,000 signs. Unfortunately, all attempts to decipher
the language have so far seem to failed, though there have been
some close calls. In 1886, the American sailor William Thomson
discovered two tablets and spoke to an 83-year old inhabitant,
who stated that he could read the language, but that he would
not: the Church had forbidden the active use of the language.
After a bribe, the elder person was willing to look at the tablets,
even though he was unwilling to touch them. After having read
them, the man, accompanied by a few other locals, sang a fertility
song. But because there was no confirmation possible that this
was indeed the contents of this text, Thomson’s statements
were received with the customary level of scepticism.
However, Professor Benon Z. Szalek of the University of Szezecin
is seen by some as the decoder of the rongo rongo language and
argues a similar case, namely that “the Easter Island writings
constitute sequences of short ritual formulas praising the avatar
– incarnation or son of the god. These texts do not contain
any genealogies, historical traditions or tales.” Ritual
formulas like fertility songs?
Additionally, Szalek believes that it were the Tamils from India
that brought their civilisation to Easter Island. “The
anthropological studies of the old skulls from megalithic graves
indicate an amazing fact, namely that around 60 percent of Easter
Island’s population was of Europoidal origin.”
Legends from the island state that the first king, Hotu Matua,
brought with him 67 previous tablets from his land of origins
in the west and that he also imported the religion of the “bird
man” and Make Make. This cult featured an annual race for
the first egg laid on the nearby islands of Motu Iti and Motu
Nui. The race selected a man, who for the next year became the
god Make Make’s personification, and bearer of the divine
force that was associated with Make Make. Throughout the year,
the man was kept isolated from his family, sealed off in a cave,
which would mean that the lack of sunlight made his skin whiter,
and hence, they argued, more god-like.
2011, in its fifth season of excavation, the Easter Island Statue
Project (EISP) uncovered two statues, which below ground had multiple
petroglyphs carved on their backs. The organization reported that
“Underlying these carvings is a complex symbol found on
less than 100 statues. It is referred to by previous researchers
as the ‘ring and girdle’ design, and sometimes said
to represent the ‘sun and rainbow.’ However, statue
RR-001-156 and some others have two ‘rings’ above
the crescent ‘girdle.’” First of all, the discovery
underlines that entire bodies of these heads sit underground,
but also that some of them have inscriptions that could clearly,
once decrypted, to answer part of the mystery of these giant heads.
It is clear that the mystery of Easter Island has lost some of
its enigmatic fringes in recent years. Nevertheless, the final
word has not been spoken about the meaning of the stone heads
– or any further details on the people that seem to have
emigrated ever further east, over many centuries – if not
millennia – from a homeland that might have been India.
As such, the stone heads of Easter Island continue to perfectly
illustrate that there remain many mysteries to be explored.
This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine
7.3 (May/June 2001) and has been adapted twice since.