While Easter Island is thought to have been first discovered and inhabited by Polynesians (probably coming from the Marquesas Islands, north of Tahiti), around AD 300, it is believed by most mainstream archaeologists that the time of the excavation and movement of the statues was between AD 1100 and 1680. This is based on radio-carbon dating of wood, bone, and shell found buried in and around the statues and the quarry of Rano Raraku. However, we do not know how deeply these objects were buried. Indeed, the dated material might well have been placed there long after the statues had been carved.
Currently, 887 statues of various sizes (some gigantic) have been inventoried, and most are still around the quarry. Many of these are leaning over or fallen. Often they are buried under dozens of feet of “shifting soil.” But where all this shifting soil originated is a still a big question. These statues, after all, are up against the sheer cliff walls of the quarry and virtually devoid of soil. Has soil been swept to the spot by a tsunami? When one of the large moai statues was completely uncovered in 2011, many archaeologists were astonished to learn the moai were not just heads, but had even larger bodies beneath the soil. This naturally got bloggers and others speculating on just how old the statues could be. Were they a mere four hundred years old as is conventionally believed or were they actually thousands of years old—buried by the dust of time?
While native people may have been near these statues five hundred years ago, leaving all sorts of datable material for later analysis, these people did not necessarily create these statues. The moai may have been standing there then, just as enigmatically as they stand today. Perhaps a fragment of a coke bottle from 2013 will be dug up by archaeologists in the future who will similarly misinterpret their find.
The Rongorongo Script
Little is known of the island’s strange written script, which includes pictographic and geometric shapes; often the figures are of a birdman with his arms and legs in various positions. The rongorongo script, as it is called, was written in the unusual boustrophedon pattern where the successive lines are read (“as the ox plows”) left to right and then right to left. Certain older forms of Greek, such as Doric Greek, were written in the boustrophedon manner, as were Etruscan, Sabaean, Safaitic, Hittite, and possibly Indus Valley writing, such as that from Harrapa or Mohenjo Daro.
The writing was first reported by Eugene Eyraud, a French missionary on the island, in 1864. Eyraud recognized then the significance of a written language on a tiny, remote island in the South Pacific—contradicting all accepted theories of the time—so he sent specimens to the Archbishop of Tahiti. It was generally thought that only peoples in contact with higher cultures could rise to a level that included written communication. At Easter Island, it was then surmised, was a culture isolated from the development of writing, art, megalithic construction, etc., which are found throughout the rest of the world. The notion that a few hundred people should create all that without the aid of the outside world was astounding then, and still is.
At the time of Eyraud, a few of the island’s “royalty” were still capable of reading the rongorongo tablets, but they were quickly dying out. Some were taken to the guano islands in Peru. The French author and archaeologist Franis Maziere claimed in his book The Mysteries of Easter Island that the last initiate of the rongorongo tablets died of leprosy and had once told him: “The first race invented the rongorongo writing. They wrote it in stone. Of the four parts of the world that were inhabited by the first race it is only in Asia that the writing still exists.” The native was apparently speaking of the Indus Valley culture and the writing at Mohenjo Daro and other cities.
Moving the Statues
The once orthodox theory that Easter Island’s massive statues were moved to their places by the use of wooden rollers or sleds clearly has some problems: one is that the island is so rocky, it would have been impossible to roll any logs across it, with or without statues on them.
In his 1975 book, The Mysteries of Easter Island, Jean-Michel Schwartz says he believes the statues were not moved by wooden rollers or sleds but rather by using ropes which “walked” the statues in the same way one might walk a refrigerator; by tilting it first to one side, and shifting the airborne portion forward, before setting it down again. By this method, the statues could be made truly to walk in a waddle fashion around the island.
Later, a Czech mechanical engineer named Pavel along with Thor Heyerdahl re-created the method. With 20 other men, they tied ropes around a statue and leaned it from side to side while pulling it forward with the rope, a slight variation on Schwartz’s method. It worked but was excruciatingly slow. It is an ingenious theory which takes into account the legends of the walking statues, but was it the actual method used?
Essentially, we can put modern archaeological explanations of how the statues moved into two categories: 1) moving the statues on their backs or stomachs on sleds or 2) moving them while they are standing up, like a refrigerator. All the proposals are clearly based on these two schools of thought, and Thor Heyerdahl is a leader in both, having jumped ship to the Schwartz-Pavel theory in the early 1980s.
But clearly, all the early investigators, when confronted with the problem of moving 5-ton statues all over the island (not just a few hundred yards), saw that, when you consider the crude methods supposedly available, moving them on backs and bellies with some sort of sled would have been the easiest way to do it. So, dragging them downhill and across fields on sleds seemed like something that could have been achieved on a good day with a bunch of geniuses in control and lots of available manpower but not necessarily on a slick rainy day. Moreover, the island is very rocky, so roads and cleared pathways would have to be made.
But, this theory didn’t really jibe with what the Rapa Nui folk were saying about their history. They were saying that the “statues walked.” They weren’t saying the statues slid into place and then got stood up—they were saying that they walked. It is worth noting that mainstream archaeologists are saying that this was only a few hundred years before the first civilized contact, so memory should be fresh in their minds, historically speaking.
So, the “walk-like-a-refrigerator” theory seems like the one to go for, and it does explain the walking part. However, the Mulloy theory of rocking the statues would not seem to work for taller statues that are very tall and thin. The walking of such 30-foot-tall statues around the island with ropes may be possible, but it would certainly be slow going. Dragging them on sleds, on the other hand, would be faster. Evidence indicates that they were completely finished, with all decorations, including ankh-like designs on their backs, before they left the quarry to go “walking.”
So, the question that naturally arises is, why are primitive people even trying to move gigantic statues that weigh at least five tons and are more typically 20 to 40 tons?
One moai that Heyerdahl excavated in 1956 has a masted ship carved on its stomach. Heyerdahl believed that this was an ancient sailing ship used by explorers who came from Peru. Others say the ship is an early representation of a European ship that visited the island. The problem with this explanation is that the carving was only discovered after Heyerdahl had dug the soil surrounding it away. It seems likely that the several feet of soil that had amassed over the drawing would have taken centuries to accumulate.
The statues seem originally to have been standing just as they are found today and were typically 40 to 50 feet tall. Indeed, some stood as tall as a seven-story building; and the largest, still in the quarry, was more than 70 feet long. Therefore, it would seem that the carving of the ship on the belly of a statue would be far older than the discovery of the island in 1722. The statue itself must be centuries older than that.
I was struck by the fact that the statues around the volcanic crater were quite different from the moais and ruins around the rest of the island. While the moais erected on platforms around the edge of the island were, apparently, put there to protect the island, the purpose of those around the crater was something else. Many researchers believe that those near the crater were just waiting to be moved out, to “walk” as it were, to their ahu-platform somewhere on the island. Looking around, I thought not.
Something else to consider were the large lichen spots on all of the statues. Lichen eats living rock and grows very slowly—fractions of an inch over hundreds of years. Ages of rocks are sometimes estimated by size of lichen patches on them. A large lichen patch would suggest that these statues were millennia old. In an effort to check this out, I measured lichen patches on uncut rock. They were only slightly larger than those on the statues themselves.
A partially destroyed wall with megalithic construction that is basically unique to the island, but not unique in the world, can be found at the Vinapu site. The main wall consists of enormous slabs very skillfully laid. I was genuinely amazed at the construction which was not just similar, but identical, to that at Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo in the high Andes of Peru.
Like those constructions, the wall at Vinapu is fitted perfectly together with irregularly shaped stones possessing rounded edges, and small triangular stones filling in gaps. One could describe the construction in the Andes the same way; polygonal blocks that were smoothed and rounded, perfectly cut and fitted together, with small keystones placed in the wall to help make it earthquake proof. It is the most sophisticated stonemasonry technique in the world, essentially unduplicated today. It is often said that the construction at Vinapu is identical to that of Tiwanaku, although Tiwanaku lacks the pillowed walls, which are mainly found around Cuzco. However, pillowed or rounded walls can be found at the ruins of Sillustani and Cutimbo, both on mesas—flat topped mountains—near Lake Titicaca, which are usually said to be of Tiwanaku origin.
The confusion probably arises from the general consensus that Tiwanaku is of pre-Incan construction and is thousands of years old. The massive ruins found in Peru, many in the vicinity of Cuzco, a still-living city, are usually said by academics to have been built by the Incas a few hundred years ago. That the ruins at Vinapu on Easter Island are identical in construction then raises the unlikely notion that the Incas built the platform.
The answer may be simpler than usually thought. While the Incas did indeed construct large cities and were excellent stonemasons, their construction technique was to use small rectangular blocks that were perfectly fitted together. This type of construction can be seen in Cuzco and elsewhere on top of the earlier and larger, polygonal construction. The construction therefore that I am speaking about, found at Easter Island and the Peruvian Andes around Cuzco—both places called “the navel of the world” (coincidentally?)—are apparently built by the same mysterious people, who were pre-Incan. Considering the lichen growth on the wall at Vinapu, I would venture to say they lived thousands of years ago.
The Incas undoubtedly inhabited those ancient cities high in the Andes. They are still inhabited today, but not by the Incas. Construction of this type is so robust it will easily outlast most empires and civilizations. When a wandering culture happens to discover the gigantic walls of an uninhabited city still standing, it seems only natural to move in, put a roof over the structure, and call it home. This, say many archaeologists, especially Peruvian ones, is what happened with the Incas. The many phases of construction are obvious, and the most superior are the oldest.
At the time of European discovery, Easter Island was undeniably a culture in decline. When the first explorers reached the island, the natives were living in reed huts. Yet, someone had constructed megalithic, stone block walls of incredible perfection. Was the precision stonework at Vinapu the result of power tools, as some surmise, were used at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku? Was the written language of the Rama Empire the same written language called rongorongo? It seemed fantastic.
What of the great cataclysm that had affected Rapa Nui? Had some tsunami tidal wave hit the island—burying the statues in many meters of mud and muck? Had it struck thousands of years ago, or only centuries ago?
Here are the basic time-line alternatives for the cataclysm of Easter Island: 1) Easter Island was part of a now sunken Pacific continent and the statues are on a mountaintop from a cataclysm of perhaps ten thousand years ago or more. 2) Easter Island may have been somewhat larger and an early base for Sumerian and Rama Empire navigators, circa 3000 BC. A cataclysm destroyed Easter Island (and maybe Tiwanaku as well) circa 2000-1000 BC. Trans-Pacific voyages continued to occur and by AD 300 Polynesian colonizers arrived. They began to re-erect the statues and built such post-megalithic sites like Orongo and many of the smaller ahus. Still, many statues remained buried as they are today. 3) Polynesians arrived circa 300 AD and began the many megalithic constructions on the previously uninhabited island. A tsunami hit the island circa AD 900-1200 and buried the statues. Some statues were re-erected around the edge of the island, facing inward, to “prevent” other cataclysms. The war between the long ears and short ears takes place shortly afterward.
When one is on Rapa Nui, there is a feeling that things are incredibly ancient. The strange rongorongo writing and its connection to ancient India made me think that number two was the most likely scenario. Some cataclysm had hit Easter Island thousands of years ago, perhaps 9000 BC. Later Polynesians had arrived and other catastrophes occurred—some induced by humans—but others by the awesome power of Mother Nature. Easter Island must have been hit by a number of typhoons and tsunamis in its thousands of years. The question is: how many destructive cataclysms have these gigantic statues seen? Perhaps more than one.
Nov/Dec 2013 – #102