What do the Moai Statues Represent?

Discover the iconic monuments of Rapa Nui

The Beach of Anakena in Rapa Nui Behind a Moai (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

What are the Moai?

The ahu (platforms), with their moai (statues) are the iconic monuments of Rapa Nui. 

Alan Haoa uses laser scanning to document the lone moai of Ahu Ature Huki (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Over a period of four to five hundred years, the Polynesian settlers created open air temple complexes – the ahu platforms and their associated plazas – similar to the marae and courtyards found throughout eastern Polynesia, but distinctive in their form and scale. 

Human figures carved from stone and wood were a feature of the sacred platforms and courtyards found in many Pacific islands including the Marquesas, Hawaii, the Cooks, and Pitcairn. 

A Moai Overlooking the Island of Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArCyArk

What do they represent?

Only in Rapa Nui did the creation of statues – the moai – reach such a scale and magnificence. The ahu and moai are sacred to the people of Rapa Nui today, a source of mana – power and spiritual energy, and also tapu – sacred with implied prohibition.

Ahu Nau Nau in Front of the Anakena Beach in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Where can they be found?

There are approximately 900 moai or statues and over 300 ahu or ceremonial platforms, most of which are located along the coast...

Rock Art in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

...as well as thousands of other archaeological sites and monuments, including rock art panels.

Collecting Aerial Data of a Moai in Rapa Nui Using a Drone (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

What was their function?

The ahu comprises, on the landward sides, ramps which often have burial cists built into them.

Using a Drone for Aerial Photogrammetry of a Moai in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Surmounting the ahu are the moai, fragments of moai were also incorporated within the ahu make-up as the structures were rebuilt over time.

A Line of Moai in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

Further burials are often found at the edge of the ramps. A variety of structures are situated on leveled areas - plazas- relating to ceremonies associated with the ahu, such as dance platforms and boat houses.

Rapa Nui wallCyArk

The seaward side of the ahu, and therefore most eroded by wave action, were built as vertical walls created from basalt facing slabs.

Panoramic View of the Crematorio in Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

What are the Crematoria?

Typically situated behind the wall and therefore closest to the ocean are crematoria, often stone built platforms where deposits of cremated bone were deposited and can be exposed. Also behind the wall are cremation burials, either deposited within cists or as surface spreads.

Rapa Nui - rising sea levelsCyArk

Unusual for Polynesia, cremation was the dominant burial rite during the ahu-building era. This practice has the potential to allow researchers to learn about the beliefs of the society and the population in general.  

Rapa Nui shore erosionCyArk

How is climate change impacting the Moai?

The majority of them are located immediately on the coast, and are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion with many collapsing into the sea.

Moai Scattered Across the Landscape of Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

The ahu and moai remain sacred to the Rapa Nui people and are central to identity; they are also central to the tourism economy. The loss of this unique cultural expression would have a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of the community.

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Discover how CyArk uses 3D documentation to empower local experts.

Find out more about ICOMOS' efforts to increase engagement of cultural heritage in climate action here.

Credits: Story

Professor Jane Downes, ICOMOS Working Group on Cultural Heritage and Climate Change, and Archaeology Institute Director, University of the Highlands and Islands UK.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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