An article entitled “The Walking Statues of Easter Island” caught my fancy this week. I think most people are familiar with the monoliths found on Easter Island, even if it is only in pictures. They are iconic, to put it mildly, and have fascinated all who see their lonely images. However, the idea that they “walked” to their current positions is something that has probably not occurred to most people, including me.
There are 887 monoliths, or moai, scattered across Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as the islanders call their Island home, and 15 stand on the Ahu Tongariki plinth, the largest ceremonial structure on the remote Chilean isle. They have overly large heads, legless torsos, weigh up to 88 tons, and were constructed at least 900 years ago.
Scientific theory has tended to explain how they arrived at their present locations by referencing other ancient monumental construction projects like Stonehenge and the pyramids. Multitudes of laborers with wooden rollers being the most popular explanations. However, on Easter Islands, neither of these two requirements existed.
Scientists have a tendency to work with theories they understand, or have been proven in other situations. They are less likely to listen to legends, myths or local oral traditions.
The word “neke neke” which, in the Rapanui language (the local native tongue) translates to “walking without legs”, and refers to how the moai were moved across vast distances without any machinery. It is part of local oral tradition. Rapanui childhood nursery rhymes also tell stories about the statues walking; and legends say that a chief with mana, or supernatural power, helped the moai to walk. However, although locals have long spoken of them walking, it took foreign scholars more than two centuries to accept that this was the way of transporting they were moved.
Almost all the statues were created in the volcanic quarry of Rano Raraku before being transported to stone plinths (known as ahus) at different points on the isle’s coastline, some of them 18 kilometers away. So how were they moved? 88 tons would have crushed any logs and the manpower just wasn’t available anyway.
It seems that the secret lies in the marriage of ingenious design and flawless sculpting, which enabled these humanlike statues to stand upright and rock forward from side-to-side while being guided by ropes, granting the statues the ability to “walk”. The movement would have been similar to the shuffle of a refrigerator being moved in a standing position, with each side inching forward one at a time. The Rapanui engineers went beyond that concept and actually carved the base of the statues and added certain angles to enable “walking”.
Unfinished statues in the quarry have wider bases relative to shoulder width compared to the statues standing on the ahus. They also, significantly, lean forward by around 17 degrees, causing the centre of mass to be positioned just over the rounded front bottom edge. These adjustments allowed the statue to roll from side to side.
These features indicate that the moai were modelled after our own way of walking. When we walk, we rotate our hip and, basically, fall forward. The Rapanui essentially created a structure that could do the same thing. As the statue leans forward, it falls and moves across the front to take a “step forward”.
The walking moai would have been supported and guided by ropes, with a group of Rapanui people on each side of the statue leading the steps and a small group behind steadying the movement. The ancient roads leading out of Rano Raraku were concave, which aided and supported the moai’s side-to-side rocking movements.
Once the statue reached its ahu, or permanent plinth, stone carvers would chisel in eyes and reshape the base to adjust the centre of mass, allowing the statue to stand upright by itself. However, not all moai made it to their ahus – some lost balance along the way and tumbled off the roads. Visitors to the quarry will see the ruins of dozens of abandoned statues littering the outer slopes and roadsides. These were obviously the results of the trial and error “walking” development program.
Reading the article, I let my imagination run a little wild. I saw a line of 88 ton moais waddling across the landscape on their way to their specified locations as a celestial chant filled the air. A much more enticing picture than thousands of slaves rolling logs!