Easter Island is a cultural and architectural wonder unlike any other on the planet, most famous of course for its ubiquitous moai: monolithic stone figures that have puzzled and fascinated visitors for centuries. Known as Rapa Nui to the Polynesian society that settled there in 300AD, the name “Easter Island” comes from the Dutch explorer Jaboc Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722.
The more than 900 moai known to date are believed to be the living faces of the community’s ancestors, facing away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over their descendants. Only the seven moai of the Ahu Akivi face the ocean, as oral tradition has it that these are the seven scouts sent ahead by the legendary King Hotu Matu'a to await his arrival. Generally, the anatomical features of the backs are not detailed, but sometimes bear a ring and girdle motif on the buttocks and lower back. Except for one kneeling moai, the statues do not have clearly visible legs. The average height of the moai is about 13 ft, with the average width at the base around 5.2 ft. These massive creations usually weigh in at around 13.8 tons each.
The production and transportation of the moai are considered remarkable feats of creativity and engineering. The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 33 ft high and weighed 90.4 tons. The heaviest moai erected was a shorter but squatter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 94.8 tons.
The ceremonial platforms known as ahu vary considerably in size and form; the most colossal is the Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and a levelled area in front of the platform.
According to some studies, the depletion of natural resources had brought about an ecological crisis and the decline of the ancient Rapa Nui society by the 16th century, which led to the spiritual transformation in which these megalithic monuments were destroyed. The original cult of the ancestor was replaced by the cult of the bird-man, evidence of which is found in fascinating detail throughout the ceremonial village of Orongo, located at the Rano Kau volcano. Fifty-four semi-subterranean stone-houses remain in this sacred place, profusely decorated with bird-man petroglyphs.
Colonization, the introduction of livestock, the confinement of the original inhabitants to smaller areas, the dramatic effect of foreign diseases and, above all, slavery, reduced the population of Rapa Nui to little more than a hundred. Currently, the island is inhabited by descendants of the ancient Rapa Nui people as well as immigrants from diverse backgrounds, accounting for a significant mixed population.