There’s more to the Easter Island Heads than meets the eye. In fact, if you dig under them, you’ll discover not only complete odd-shaped bodies but strange, undecipherable symbols and petroglyphs etched into the statues’ 20-foot-tall torsos.
Located 2,000 miles west of Chile on the remote Easter Island, the mysterious over-sized heads (called Moai) sit with their backs facing the ocean. For decades, it was thought that the statues consisted solely of giant heads as most were buried in the hillside up to their shoulders. But in 2011, the Easter Island Statue Project completed its Season V expedition and released remarkable photos showing that the bodies of the statues go far deeper underground than anyone had imagined.
Considered one of the greatest achievements by Pacific prehistory, the statues are believed to have been carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island between circa 1250 CE and 1500 CE. Nearly half of the 887 known statues are still at Rano Raraku, the main Moai quarry, but hundreds were transported from the quarry and set on stone platforms called ahu around the island’s perimeter. Most of the statues were carved from tuff, a compressed volcanic ash, but 13 moai were carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from fragile red scoria. It is believed that after civilization collapsed on Rapa Nui (likely prefaced by massive deforestation as trees were required to build and transport the statues), the islanders themselves tore down the standing Moai, probably in anger, after their civilization broke down.
In 2011, excavations of the statues revealed not only hidden bodies but torsos covered in strange petroglyphs. Project Director Jo Anne Van Tiburg, PH.D. wrote:
“While many statues have individual petroglyphs, these and only one other statue—of over 1,000 we have documented—have multiple petroglyphs carved as a composition on their backs. 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.”
To date, the Easter Island Moai petroglyphs have remained a mystery.
Additional notes: For ages, Easter Island’s Rapa Nui community, quoting legend passed down through their forefathers, claimed that the original statue carvers were rewarded for their work with meals of tuna and lobster. This was confirmed when the Easter Island Statue Project team found tuna vertebrae near the bottom of a recent excavation. If the Rapa Nui’s oral tradition is that accurate, we have to wonder about their other legends including stories of cannibalism and visitors from above.
Check out the pictorial of the Easter Island statues, including several rare shots of unfinished statues in the quarry, in the photo montage below.