Home to some of the most recognizable faces in human history, the remote Chilean Easter Island lies quietly in the Southeastern Pacific Ocean with its surface marked with 887 rock carvings of heads. The heads are called moai, and they stand up to 30 feet tall and weigh up to a staggering 82 tons. They were carved by the Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500 CE to deify ancestors, and positioned to gaze out over ancestral lands. They were carefully and delicately carved out of solid stone, and incredibly moved to their final locations. But, as impressive as all of that is is alone, the heads hold deeper secrets.
Just below the surface, where you would expect the carvings to end, they continue deep into the ground – many of the heads are part of complete bodies. The bodies aren’t seen simply because they have been buried over the many centuries since their creation. These hidden bodies are covered in petroglyphs, images created by removing part of a rock surface, that can’t be deciphered.
When new, the statues would have also been decorated with eyes made from white coral. The eyes of the statue below have been reconstructed. It’s believed that the inhabitants of the island would have been able to identify who the statue represented when it was built.
While most moai rest near the coast and look over the water, the particular group below lies inland. The significance of these heads are yet unknown as well.
These still standing rock carvings represent a once thriving culture. Sometime around 1500, construction of the moai suddenly stopped. The people’s religion shifted, too, from ancestor worship to a religion that worshipped a half-man, half-bird figure
By the time of the of European arrival in 1722, the introduction of the Polynesian rat and overpopulation led to gradual deforestation and extinction of natural resources which severely weakened the Rapa Nui civilization. They were further crippled by fighting between clans.
The island’s population reduced to around 2,000–3,000 from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.
The introduction of European diseases and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population to a low of only 111 inhabitants in 1877.
Today, the island is still inhabited and stands as one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. There are currently around 5,800 residents, of whom some 60 percent are descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui. Because of the rapid decline of the population and an influx of Christian missionaries who repressed native traditions, much of the information about the history of Easter Island was lost. Researchers continue to work to put the pieces back together, but there is much they may never fully uncover.