Moai with “hats”. Picture by Marc Pelissier.
The Chilean Easter Island has always been an object of curiosity and it is well-known for tourists due to its monumental statues. There has been controversy and confusion concerning the origins of the Easter Islanders, Thor Heyerdahl proposed they would be Peruvian descent, but archaeological evidence indicates that Polynesians discovered the island at about 400 AD.
The island, with the native name of Rapa Nui is located 3500 km West of South American continent. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Chile, last February 27th, there was a tsunami warning and people were ordered to evacuate the coastal areas, to move to the highlands. The warning expired and the island weathered the tsunami with no major damage.
But, regardless the earthquake, Easter Island’s statues are at risk, as weathering imperils them continuously.
The following text is taken from Kristin Weichman’s article “Easter Island’s Statues at Risk” for National Geographic Magazine, November 2005:
Moai. Picture by Cliff Wassman.
“The great stone faces are showing their age. For some six centuries, beginning a thousand years ago, the Rapa Nui people of Easter Isaland carved images of their ancestors into the island’s soft volcanic tuff. The sculptures –called Moai- probably started wearing away soon after the statues were dragged from the tuff quarry to their platform sites, some of which are miles away. But years of exposure to wind, water and human activity have sped the deterioration.
At Ahu Tongariki, largest of Easter Island’s moai sites, the 15 statues have already been through a lot. Feuding Rapa Nui began toppling and breaking the figures, which weigh as much as 98 tons, in the 17th century, and a 1960 tsunami washed the scattered stones hundreds of feet inland. When archaeologists started reconstructing Ahu Tongariki in 1992, it was a rubble pile. They hoisted the broken pieces upright, then cemented them together. Recently the mended moai were covered with tarps to allow them to dry. A water repellent was then applied to prevent further erosion –but the coating is expected to last only a few years.
“It’s sad but unfortunately true that existing methods cannot preserve all the statues,” notes UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg. Since 1981 she’s complied more than 12,000 images, along with historical, ethnographic, and excavation records, of the island’s 887 moai. “The Rapa Nui community and their scientific advisers have some hard choices to make,” says Van Tilburg. “Statues containing the most valuable scientific or historical information can and must be saved.”