The statues of Easter Island are definitely the most easily recognizable thing about the island to most people. These stone monoliths have transfixed many scientists ever since they were first encountered by Europeans thousands of years ago. What they were used for isn’t known for certain, but it’s theorized they were primarily used for religious traditions. It’s possible that they represented important figures in the island’s history or ancestors of the Rapa Nui. We do know that they were essential to the island’s culture, and whatever ceremonies they were used for were intensely important to the Rapa Nui.
If these were so important, then why aren’t they practiced now? That is most likely because, for a long time, the island was in complete anarchy. Disarray was the norm, and many of the statues were knocked down. Why were they knocked down? If these represented ancestors, then it might’ve been viewed as a threat to rival groups. If your ancestor’s statue was knocked down, then they couldn’t protect your kin group and you would be weaker against other kin groups. It could’ve also just been a byproduct of all the fighting. With that much chaos, it’s no surprise that some things were destroyed; and without a writing system, nothing of the past culture was written down.
These statues, for the longest time, were thought to be solely of heads. This was strange enough, but now we know that the statues were actually buried with their heads sticking out. These statues have bodies as well. This makes the statues even bigger than originally thought when just the heads were measured.
While most of the moai are on stone platforms called ahus, some were abandoned along the way because they were either unfinished, unneeded or the transport was interrupted for whatever reason. These statues dot the entire island, some completely submerged in the Earth and others on their side, destroyed at the bottom of the statue quarry.
Statues like this aren’t unique to Easter Island. They’re found all over Polynesia, specifically in the Marquesas, Austral Islands, and Tahiti. It’s possible that this was one of many large-scale Polynesian religious practices. Perhaps a specific group that migrated out of Southeast Asia developed this technique and took it with them as they explored these places. Perhaps one group developed this technique and later groups adopted them.
It’s theorized that the original Rapa Nui did not develop the moai and the ahu. It was the second group, the Long-ears, that did this. They brought the custom with them and forced the Rapa Nui to build these statues and platforms. After the Long-ears were mostly gone, the rest of the islanders continued to build statues. It’s not exactly known why that is, but it could be a sense of obligation as, by that point, they had probably been building these statues for many decades.
The exact number of statues isn’t actually known, but it’s estimated to be around 800 to 1,000. One giant moai is 65 feet tall and weighs 270 tons. It was unfinished because the builder realized it couldn’t be moved by humans. There are over 360 ahu shrines on the island.