The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors and were made from around AD 1000 until the second half of the seventeenth century, when the birdman cult became more central to the Easter Islanders.
When Captain Cook's crew visited Easter Island in 1774, William Hodges, Cook's artist, produced an oil painting of the island showing a number of moai, some of them with hat-shaped stone 'topknots'. Hodges depicted most of the moai standing upright on stone platforms, known as ahu. With the adoption of Christianity in the 1860s, the remaining standing moai were toppled.
This example was probably first displayed outside on a stone platform, before being moved into a stone house at the ritual centre of Orongo. It was collected by the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze, under the command of Richard Ashmore Powell, on their visit to Easter Island in 1868 to carry out surveying work.
Islanders helped the crew to move the statue, which has been estimated to weigh around four tons. It was moved to the beach and then taken to the Topaze by raft.
The figure was originally painted red and white, though the pigment washed off in the sea. The crew recorded the islanders' name for the statue, which is thought to mean 'stolen or hidden friend'. They also acquired another, smaller basalt statue, known as Moai Hava, which is also in the collections of the British Museum.
Hoa Hakananai'a is similar in appearance to a number of Easter Island moai. It has a heavy eyebrow ridge, elongated ears and oval nostrils. The clavicle is emphasized, and the nipples protrude. The arms are thin and lie tightly against the body; the hands are hardly indicated.
The back of the figure is carved with designs, believed to have been added at a later date. The back of the head shows a bird flanked by ceremonial paddles. The centre of the back is carved with a 'ring and girdle' motif, as carved on many wooden figures from Easter Island.