The Island’s Ahu and Moai

Rapa Nui’s ahu (shrines) vary in size and form. There are at least 360 on the island. “Image ahu” are those with statues (moai). Ahu have consistent features: a raised platform made of fitted stones and rubble, a ramp that is often paved with beach cobbles, called poro, and a leveled court in front. Image ahu had from one to 15 statues standing on each platform. Statues were placed to look over a ceremonial area and village, their backs to the sea.

The appearance of stone statues on Easter Island is neither mysterious nor unexpected. Monolithic stone statues are found in the Marquesas, Austral Islands, and Tahiti. And, although each island group displays some variation in form and style, they are clearly related and spring from common belief systems and religious practices.

The exact number of moai on Rapa Nui is unknown because many lie buried in piles of rubble or beneath the soil at the statue quarry; the estimates vary from 800 to 1,000. Moai are found in nearly all localities around the island, although the greater number are in proximity to the main quarry, Rano Raraku, located on the south coast. Practically all the statues were carved from this volcanic cone.

The crater where they were fashioned is an extraordinary site filled with incomplete statues in all stages of carving. Great hollows in the cliffs mark places from which statues have been removed. More than 230 others were moved to various locations around the island and erected on platforms. Some lie broken and abandoned where they fell during transport.

Statues have a considerable size range, from 6 feet [2 meters] to over 30 feet [9 meters] tall. One giant moai still attached to the matrix of rock in the quarry is over 65 feet [20 meters] long, and has an estimated weight of 270 tons. Perhaps it remained unfinished when the carvers realized that it would have been impossible to move.

To walk around this remarkable quarry site, littered with statues in all stages of fabrication, is an unforgettable experience. Some moai lie on their backs; others are nearly vertical. As the carvers worked, the front and sides were carved first. When nearly finished, only a keel attached the back of the statue to the rock. Gradually it was pecked away, the figure was moved downhill, and stood up in a hole dug into the hillside. Then the back was completed and at last the moai was ready.

(All images on this page are courtesy of Paul Horley)