Uncovering Easter Island's secrets

Easter Island is one of the most isolated places on Earth and the statues stand at over 40 feet, but how did they get made?
07 April 2015

Interview with 

Professor Sue Hamilton, UCL Institute of Archaeology


To its inhabitants, it's Rapa Nui, but here in Europe we know it as Easter Island -Easter Island Heads one of the most isolated places in the world. It's a tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the coast of Chile and home to some of these famous and mysterious statues in the world. Built around 800 years ago, these distinctive giant stone figures stand watch over the island's inhabitants and are still an important part of their ceremonial life today. But what do they mean and how on earth did the early islanders manage to make and move them? To find out, Kat Arney went to meet Sue Hamilton, director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology...

Sue - It's about 5.5 hours across the Pacific and all you see is blue sea, blue sea, blue sea, and then you'll find a little triangular dot that's about 16 km by 23 and that is Rapa Nui. As you come down on it, you might actually think it was Scotland; it has no trees, lots of water. But when you get out, it's very hot. It's subtropical.

Kat - You called it Rapa Nui but obviously, we sometimes know it is Easter Island. Where did that name come from?

Sue - It was discovered on Easter day or discovered to Europeans on Easter day, 1722 by a Dutchman called Jacob Roggeveen. So, he went right across the Pacific to Chile and on his route back, he found Easter Island.

Kat - Where did these incredible statues come from? What do they look like? Who made them?

Sue - Well first of all, it is in Polynesia. So, it's a tradition of Polynesia to make effigies or statues which are put on ceremonial platforms. They're often considered to represent ancestors. But Easter Island is so remote that it developed a way of doing things of its own. It became quite extreme. So, the statues on Easter Island are far, far bigger than anything else in Polynesia, some up to 40 ft. high. What are they about? Nobody really knows for sure, but some of them are placed on ceremonial platforms which have burials around them and they're considered to represent the ancestors. The statues are also placed on these platforms near the sea. They face inland so they're also overseeing the landscape and the living. But some of them are never actually removed from where they were carved and they're carved out of a volcano known as Rano Raraku. Maybe 250 leave Rano Raraku and many, many more stay there, attached to the rock, set up around the rock, very much part of creating decoration of that place. So, we suggest that where the quarry is, is equally meaningful as the places that statues were taken to.

Kat - You've mentioned that these statues can be about 40 ft. high. You've shown me a picture where someone's standing next to one that's on its side on the ground. They are massive.

Sue - I think that's really important. The head of a statue is bigger than me. I'm not that big, but - I'm 5 ft. 2 for anyone who wants to know. Some of them have red hats on them. The hats are bigger than me. So, they very much oversee the island and when they were standing, they would've been a quite dramatic presence.

Kat - These statues have been built in a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They're made of stone. They're absolutely enormous. How on Earth did they build them and move them?

Sue - So, they're carved in the quarry and that's quite accessible because you move along it as you carve it out. What's more dramatic is how you detach them from the rock. Some of them were detached, others are not detached. But volcano craters are very, very steep. So, as they detach, they're very vulnerable. They're kept on keels so they just detach by a little bit of stone until they're ready and then they would've been slid down the volcano, possibly on big wooden rollers from tree trunks.

Kat - What happens to them on their journey from the quarry to be setup by the sea?

Sue - In the quarry, the statues have no eyes. The position where the eyes would've been is marked out. Those that leave the quarry and we have found en route between the quarry and the sea, they have no eyes. But when they get to the sea and they're setup on platforms, big eye sockets are carved in their faces, and coral eyes are set in which have red or black pupils based on different rock materials they use. So, there's something to do with the animation of the rock, some ideas about when the statues are active.

Kat - They're kind of waking up when they get to the sea.

Sue - Yes. And of course, they're overlooking the island. So, those aggregate cultural activities and other activities on the island, you have the statues looking at them.

Kat - We think of these statues maybe something historic from the past - you know, that were made hundreds of years ago. Do they have any role on the island today?

Sue - They're completely central to the island. They're part of the belief systems of the island. So, I think that's very important because in Europe, we often look around monuments, as if there's something separate whereas these are very much understood as part of the world of the present. I'd also say, they're very important because they create tourism. There's not much that Easter Island can do to earn a living bar bare subsistence, but tourism is very important on the island. Of course, that is also important in terms of managing it. It's a tiny island. How do you manage a lot of tourists and how can you train those tourists to see that these things are meaningful in the present and should not be abused, but should be treated with care.


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