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Sacred Moai Statues on Easter Island

NOVA/PBS Online Adventures Travels to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Explore Ancient and Vibrant Civilization that Created Legendary Sacred Moai Statues

The statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are one of the great enigmas in archaeology. The haunting human figures, carved in stone, are considered the greatest sculptural achievement in all of Polynesia. Yet they're found in one of the most isolated places on Earth, a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific, almost 1500 miles from the nearest inhabited land. Nearly 1,000 of the moai dot the Rapa Nui landscape, some still standing on the slopes of the extinct volcano from which they were quarried, others lying abandoned along transport routes or toppled beside the ceremonial platforms upon which they once stood. They are all that remains of a civilization that flourished there for more than a thousand years.

Who were the people who carved these statues? Where did they come from, and how did they reach this barren outpost? What did the statues mean to them? And why did the civilization die out? These are some of the questions that have fascinated westerners about Rapa Nui ever since the island was discovered by a Dutch sea captain on Easter Sunday, 1722.

On April 17, NOVA/PBS Online Adventures travels to Easter Island with a Web site dedicated to exploring one of civilization's greatest enigmas. Secrets of Easter Island will take the Internet audience on a series of adventures, along the way attempting to unlock some of the islands well-kept and most enigmatic secrets. [www visitors get to see it first; the program is not expected to be broadcast over PBS TV sttions until some time in the fall.]

Each of these questions will be addressed as we paint a portrait of life in this vanished civilization. But our primary focus will be on a technological question, one that has mystified generations of scientists and explorers: How were the Easter Islanders able to move their giant statues -- some weighing as much as 80 tons -- across miles of rough terrain and then erect them on ceremonial platforms?

Over the years, a number of theories of have been proposed. Archaeologist Charles Mulloy suggested the islanders had suspended each stone figure by ropes from a huge inverted V made of logs, then inched it along by rocking it on its belly. Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer, attempted to walk one along by tipping it from side to side in an upright position. And geologist Charles Love stood a replica on a platform and tried pulling it on rollers. But none of these methods has met with great success. Love's statue came crashing to the ground, for example, and Heyerdahl's broke in transit.

The failure of these experiments inspired Jo Anne Van Tilburg, a research associate at UCLA's Institute of Archaeology and a leading authority on Easter Island, to seek her own solution to the riddle. Drawing on her painstaking measurements of more than 800 of the island's stone figures, she built a computer model of the Rapa Nui terrain, inserted a digital moai and tried out a range of transport methods on it. What emerged was a new theory -- that the ancient Easter Islanders lay each statue on its back atop a simple wooden sledge, then dragged it along on log rollers. Inside the computer, the approach seems flawless. But will it work in the field?

To test the theory, we will cast a concrete replica of a typical Easter Island statue -- 15 feet tall and weighing 15 tons. Under Van Tilburg's direction, a crew of 70 Rapa Nuians will then attempt to move the statue over the same rugged track their ancestors took more than 500 years ago to a site a mile away. There they will attempt to stand it upright it on a platform resembling the ceremonial ahu that held the original Easter Island statues. The crew's final challenge will be to cap the statue with a three-ton "top knot" like those worn by some of the moai on the island.

During breaks in the arduous hauling, a Rapa Nui sculptor will demonstrate the ancient carving techniques, showing how the ancients could have fashioned statues of such haunting beauty with only simple stone tools.

Although the statue-moving experiment is the program's central theme, the film will also examine the question of how the ancient Rapa Nuians reached their remote island in the first place. Van Tilburg believes that while ancient Polynesians first landed at Easter Island by accident, they were then able to use their legendary navigational prowess to return to the island and settle it permanently. But this theory, too, has never been tested.

In the last ten years, Pacific voyagers have built several traditional long-distance canoes and used the ancient navigational methods to travel to many of the Polynesian islands -- but never Rapa Nui. In 1998, as we are filming on Easter Island, a group of Maori canoeists will be making the first attempt, setting out from New Zealand with only the stars and the patterns of waves and currents to guide them. We will have a second camera crew documenting this month-long trip, from the pre-voyage preparations to the anticipated landing on Easter Island. In the final film, scenes from the ocean journey will be intercut with Van Tilburg's efforts to solve the mystery of the moai. If the canoeists succeed, their feat will strengthen Van Tilburg's theory that the ancient Easter Islanders used their navigational skills to remain in contact with other Polynesian islands.

But navigation wasn't enough. The ancient Rapa Nuians also needed a sophisticated technology for building ocean-going canoes -- a technology that, Van Tilburg notes, required many of the same skills and tools needed to carve and erect the large statues. The ancient double-hulled canoes were hewn from massive hardwood trees weighing six to twelve tons each. In moving those giant trees, the ancient Rapa Nuians relied on the same physical principles they used to move the moai: fulcrum and lever, pivot and balance beam. Stone chisels, strong ropes, carving and lashing techniques -- all these were equally applicable to the two tasks. Finally, both kinds of projects reveal what Van Tilburg considers one of the secrets of Rapa Nui technology: the ability to marshal human resources beyond the immediate family -- what Hawaiians call laulima: many hands working together.

Beginning in mid-April, Van Tilburg, several other experts, and a team of about 75 local Easter Islanders will have three weeks to put her theory to the test. Using only the types of tools available to the original Easter Islanders, the crew will attempt to transport a 15-ton, 14-foot high replica of a statue to its "Ahu" platform, erect it, and place a 3-ton "top knot" on the head.

Viewers can follow the action in real-time with daily updates of text and pictures from the field, send in their own suggestions on how to move and erect the statue, and explore suggestions from other contributors. Also available on this Web site will be permanent features on everything from ancient nautical practices, QuickTime VRs of the Island, and a Moai statue, theories on who the original Easter Islanders were, how they got there, and what happened to their civilization.

NOVA Online ( provides a companion Web site for each week's NOVA broadcast, program schedules, teacher guides, audience feedback, and links to related sites. In addition, NOVA Online joins with PBS to bring you images and reports from live expeditions around the globe. NOVA Online appears on PBS ONLINE (

In addition to Van Tilburg and the canoe paddlers, the other characters in the film will include a pair of argumentative Chilean ethnographers; Rapa Nui sculptor Raphael Rapu; American Martin Isler, a sculptor and expert on ancient technology, and engineer Zvi Shiller, who modeled Van Tilburg's moai moving theories in a computer.

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