A statue discovered about a week ago on Easter Island in Polynesia resurfaced archaeologists’ long-standing questions about the Rapa Nui society. Found on February 20 in a dried wetland in Rapa Nui National Park, the new “Moai” statue intrigues researchers looking to understand the funerary practices of the Native Pacific Islanders who settled the island between 600 and 800 CE. The news was shared by the Ma’u Henua Indigenous Community, an organization that manages the UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a segment of Good Morning America.
Made of lapilli tuff, the newly identified figure bears recognizable carvings and shows signs of erosion, and is reportedly smaller than average (the heaviest Moai weighs 80 tons, while the tallest reaches 33 feet). But its location makes the statue especially significant. Recent wildfires that devastated parts of the island in October 2022 and increasing temperatures due to climate change dried out the lagoon in Rano Raraku, where the statue was found. Unprecedented access to the lakebed gave a team of researchers from the Heritage and Conservation Unit of Ma’u Henua, Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF), the University of Chile, O’Higgins University, and Andrés Bello National University a unique opportunity to uncover the Moai.
“The finding of a Moai in the lakebed provides evidence of past droughts and indicates that the lake didn’t provide an ample water source (like today),” Carl Lipo, an archaeologist studying the Rapa Nui people and a professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton University, told Hyperallergic.
Lipo said that this rare find surprised researchers and Native communities. “Each time we have traveled to the island, we find ourselves learning something new that alters our understanding of how its population thrived there prior to European arrival,” he said.
The Ma’u Henua says that more scientific research combined with community knowledge will help them understand how their predecessors dealt with droughts.
“This has made relevant the uplifting of the oral tradition — of our wise ones and our Honui who, through their history and ancestral chants, can provide better and greater knowledge on this wonderful discovery that fills our Rapanui community with joy,” a spokesperson for the Ma’u Henua told Hyperallergic.
Before the arrival of European colonizers, between roughly 1100 and 1650 CE, the Rapa Nui created approximately 900 statues to honor departed chiefs. The compressed volcanic ash was sourced from Rano Raraku, an inactive crater, and carved into sculptures using basalt picks. Afterward, the Rapa Nui would transport the statues across the island to the coast and place them on a platform (ahu), turning the Moai away from the water to face inland to protect their communities.
With the recent discovery, questions have also re-emerged around the methods the Polynesian people used to transport the statues from the volcanic crater to their final destination. Researchers have long debated how communities moved Moai across the island.
“Why is there a statue in the middle of the crater swamp?” asked Christopher Stevenson, an archaeologist teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the Rapa Nui since 1988, in an interview with Hyperallergic. To Stevenson, it seems unlikely that they would have moved the statue across the swamp unless the lake was dry (as it is now). He speculates that the Rapa Nui could have hidden the figure after identifying a flaw or purposefully placed it in the lake bed hoping ancestors would prevent the water supply from drying out.
Despite how the statue got to the bottom of a lake, Lipo marvels at how these Indigenous people found ways to live sustainably on a small isolated island in harsh conditions.
“While many outsiders are baffled by the ability of pre-contact Rapanui to move such massive figures, the plain truth is that they figured out an ingenious way to transport Moai using available resources and limited labor,” he said. In short, these people persisted and thrived — an important lesson, perhaps, as the island again faces unpredictable conditions.
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