Myth and math: How the Rapa Nui statues were transported
By Raquel Bagnol
Legend has it that over 500 years ago, a popular chief in Rapa Nui had such great magical powers that the giant statues obeyed when he ordered them to walk and choose the spots on island most convenient to themselves. That is just one of the myths surrounding the mysterious relocation of the statues from the quarry to the ahu or platforms.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in eastern Polynesia, is famous for its colossal moai statues. The island, often referred to as the most remote place in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the moais are protected.
Moai statues are monolithic human figures carved by the people of Rapa Nui between 1250 and 1500. They were built to honor and represent leaders and high-ranking people who passed away.
Nearly 1,000 statues are scattered all over the island. Several statues remain at the moai quarry, but hundreds have been transported and set on platforms called ahu, the rectangular tombstones on which the moai statues rest.
The tallest moai, Paro, is almost 10 meters (33 ft) high and weighs 80.7 tons. The heaviest moai at Ahu Tongariki is shorter but squatter and weighs 84.6 tons. One unfinished moai would have been approximately 21 meters (69 ft) tall. It would have weighed around 145 to 165 tons had it been completed.
The big question is, with their size and weight, how were these statues set up on the ahu or platforms? Many legends tell how the statues "walked" up from the quarry to the ahu.
According to the myths and legends of Rapa Nui, four different people possessed mana, supernatural or magical powers that made the statues walk.
One myth revolves around Makemake, the greatest god on the island, the creator of humanity and god of fertility, who relocated the statues with his mana. Yet another myth says that priests made the statues walk by continual chanting. When the priests stopped chanting, the statues stopped walking.
According to mythology, statues are scattered all over the island because an evil spell stopped them as they were marching toward their respective family ahu.
Here's another one: An old woman who cooked food for the men who sculpted the statues had supernatural powers. One day, the men caught an enormous lobster from the sea. They cooked and ate it all and didn't share or leave anything for the woman. The woman got angry and ordered the statues to fall down. The statue-makers scattered, and no more statues were made after that.
The legends are oral and wander between reality and fantasy as each storyteller or listener added their own embellishments over the years.
In a paper published last August on Academia’s website, author Wayne R. Tucker demonstrated how the moai statues could be carried across uneven terrain to their final location at the ahu platforms to satisfy the legend that the statues "walked."
Tucket noted that no one has offered a satisfactory method for transporting the giant statues across uneven terrain. Tucker's paper suggests a method that uses commonly used materials and technology for indigenous cultures. He said that almost all moai have overly large heads, which comprise three-eighths the size of the whole statue.
"The production and transportation of the more than 900 statues are considered a remarkable creative and physical feat," Tucker stated.
The idea for his equation came up when he was in the emergency room. He noted the method employed by personnel to transfer him from one gurney to the next using a slick blanket trick required limited labor. The ER staff couldn't give him a name for the technique, so he called it the "Salmon Creek Side."
Tucker said the idea was to place a palm tree rope-net, like they used for fishing, under the statue and have a bunch of people circle around the sculpture. Everyone then grabbed a piece of the net, and chanted the tribal song in unison, while lifting and carrying the statue across the landscape and up to the ahu.
To test the hypothesis, Tucker came up with this computation: The largest moai was 33 feet tall and weighed 80 tons. Convert to pounds: 80 tons x 2000 = 160,000 pounds. Next, compute maximum number of people who will carry the statue: (33 + 33) x 4 = 264 possible people.
If 320 people helped carry the statue, the load per person would be 500 pounds, or 320 x 500 pounds = 160,000.
Tucker said several methods have been tried, and none have stood the test of time.
"Experiments and research show that by using indigenous ideas, technology and materials, it was not only possible, but it was also quite likely," he said.
To this day, many Rapa Nui locals still hold on to the belief that the statues walked up to the ahu with the help of the mana.
Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org