At Ahu Tongariki, where 15 restored moai guard the Easter Island landscape


The 15 restored moai and ceremonial platform that comprise Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, are among the most famous and most photographed of all the island’s sights.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the second post about my adventures.

On the east-northeastern side of Easter Island is a picturesque broad inlet known as Hanga Nui Bay. No settlements remain nearby now, but evidence that this area was once a hive of activity is manifest by the 15 stone moai that make up the site known as Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial structure ever constructed in Polynesia.

The colossal, restored moai side by side by side at Ahu Tongariki are perhaps the most photographed and most famous of all the Easter Island statues. Their backs are turned on Hanga Nui Bay and the greater Pacific Ocean. Their rough faces and stout bodies show the effects of centuries of erosion. They stand only about a mile from Rano Raraku, the quarry in which they were carved.

Serene Hanga Nui Bay provides a glistening background for Ahu Tongariki. This photo was taken from Rano Raraku, the quarry where the majority of the moai were carved, about one mile away.

In person, one can only stand in spine-tingling awe of the magnificence of the scenery — natural and man-made — and the mystical energy of these stone giants.

Only one statue — second from the right — wears the red scoria topknot (called a pukao), believed to be an imitation of a male ancestor’s hairstyle. Originally, all 15 possibly sported a pukao, and the remains of some of the other red cylinders are scattered around the Tongariki site.

Archaeologists and anthropologists believe the islanders, as in other settlements around Polynesia, were ancestor worshipers. When an important tribal member died on Easter Island, a statue was commissioned to embody the deceased’s spiritual power, known locally as mana. Once erected in the tribe’s village, members believed the moai watched over and protected the people and their land.

Moai carving began possibly around A.D. 1000 and continued for about 600 years, with the figures becoming bigger, more well-defined and in some cases embellished as the craftsmen honed their skills.

The original Ahu Tongariki was also formerly a burial site — the longest on Easter Island — and measured almost 722 feet (220 meters).

The Tongariki 15 are not the best-preserved of the Easter Island moai. That distinction would likely go to four of the seven moai at Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach. I’ll discuss this site further in a future post.

Another view of Ahu Tongariki reveals the massive scale of not only the moai and platform but the surrounding site.

At least seven theories exist as to how the long-ago moai makers of Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, transported the gigantic statues from Rano Raraku to their destinations around this geographically remote island.

One school of thought believes they were upright and tethered by long ropes to teams amassed left, right and behind (roughly forming a triangle, with the trailing group stabilizing the operation) and rocked from side to side in an attempt to “walk” them.

At least two archaeological teams favor the idea that they were placed on a sledge — one camp says the moai were standing, the other that they were lying on their back — and pulled over a series of wooden rollers to advance. Research continues, but for now, no one can say for sure.

What is known is that by about 1840, no complete moai remained upright on their ahu (ceremonial platform). After they were pushed over — and again theories diverge as to the reason why, but intertribal warfare is likely — the moai rested face down in the earth. Many were broken, some into multiple immense pieces.

In this state, with face and eyes buried, the moais’ mana was negated.

The toppled Tongariki moai remained mostly undisturbed until a massive tsunami in 1960 pushed some of them and the platform stones hundreds of feet farther inland, quite a feat considering that some of the statues weigh more than 30 tons (or 60,000 pounds),

At about 7:11 p.m. on May 22, an underwater earthquake, the strongest ever recorded — 9.5 on the Richter scale — hit about parallel to Valdivia, in southern Chile. A towering wall of water possibly more than 26 feet high engulfed Tongariki, and many hours later came ashore as far away as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

The earthquake and tsunami left between 490 and 5,700 dead in Chile, more than 200,000 homeless and caused $550 million in damage, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Hawaii, 61 people died and damage was estimated at $23.5 million from the tsunami. In Japan, 139 died, and 21 in the Philippines lost their lives.

The tsunami from the 1960 Chilean earthquake pushed these red scoria pukao, or topknots, farther inland at Ahu Tongariki.

The impetus for restoration, which cost about $2 million, came from an unlikely source, thousands of mile away in Asia.

In November 1988, a former governor of Easter Island, Sergio Rapu, gave an interview to a Japanese TV crew. He remarked that a crane would be just the ticket to restoring the moai atop the ahu.

A program viewer with admirable motivation just happened to be an employee of Tadano, a Japanese manufacturer of trucks and cranes. An idea had taken root.

In April 1991, for testing purposes, Tadano constructed a moai that stood more than 12 feet tall and weighed more than 22,000 pounds. Next, company representatives did a site survey at Tongariki, assessing what equipment would be needed while at the same time ensuring that all archaeological procedures would be followed.

In February 1992, the Moai Restoration Committee of Japan was born, and teaming with the Ahu Tongariki Reconstruction Committee, the project was under way in earnest.

Archaeologist Claudio Cristino, in charge of the restoration, colleague Patricia Vargas and a team from the University of Chile, dozens of islanders, and specialists and experts from Poland and Italy and United States were also instrumental to the project.

(Cristino has written that he thinks the Tongariki site was no longer in use by 1770, citing the offshore visit of Spaniards led by González y Aedo. They used small boats to circumnavigate the island, making several maps, including Hanga Nui Bay. Cristino says it is inconceivable that intact, erect moai wouldn’t have been noticed, yet the visitors made no comments about them, so they must have be in ruins.)

By June 1992, a Tadano crane with a lifting capacity of 50 tons was disassembled and loaded onto a cargo ship in Kobe, Japan, heading for the port of Valparaiso, Chile, and then from there, another 2,220 miles or so west to Easter Island.

With the help of the Chilean Navy, the crane was offloaded at Anakena Bay in September, with islanders looking on. Site excavation and preparation took several months and turned up ancient tools, earrings made of whale bone, and other items that are now on display at the museum.

From the back of Ahu Tongariki, visitors get a better appreciation of how boulders were reset into place to form the ceremonial platform.

From March to July 1993, the ahu stone boulders were, like a jigsaw puzzle, painstaking restacked to complete a platform 321.5 feet long, 19.6 feet wide and 13.1 feet high (in meters: 98 by 6 by 4).

Before the first moai was lowered onto the ahu, heads were matched to bodies. Holes were drilled into the trunks and necks and carbon-cloth-wrapped stainless steel poles were inserted before the two pieces were joined. An epoxy resin further secured the mended statues.

A milestone was reached on August 7, when the first moai, covered in protective tarps, was lifted into place. It weighed 41 tons and stands 19 feet (5.8 meters) tall.

It took another nine months to restore the other 14 moai and place them atop the ahu. The finishing touches weren’t completed until September 1996.

For good measure, Tadano donated the crane and other equipment to the people of Easter Island. When the crane broke down in late 2003, damaged by seawater and salty air, Tadano declared it was beyond repair. A brand new model was dispatched, and it arrived by ship in March 2006.

The mock moai had a happy ending, too. It stands at Megi island, west of Tadano’s company headquarter in Takamatsu, Japan.

At a dedication ceremony at Megi island in November 1996, Chilean ambassador to Japan, Jaime Lagos, remarked: ”The moai statues are one of the seven wonders of the world, even now veiled in mystery. I hope this moai statue will be helpful to the children in filling up their imagination.”

Quick reference: To see a timeline of Tadano’s involvement with the restoration, go to It also has photos of the project.

See my first post in this series, from February 12: Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui: Beautiful, remote, mysterious and captivating


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