The gargantuan stone figures gaze across Easter Island through eyes hooded in shadow, eyes that veil an ancient, mysterious past. The place where they stand floats alone in the South Pacific, about 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile. It is the most remote inhabited island on Earth.
The statues, called moai, average 23 feet tall, with the largest one measuring an incredible 69 feet. Many of the figures originally stood on stone platforms, and some wear topknots of reddish stone, which some archaeologists believe represents a male hairstyle once common on the island. The huge topknots weigh as much as two elephants, yet they were somehow set in place atop the figures.
Scholars believe that Marquesas islanders migrated to Rapa Nui (the island's original Polynesian name) before A.D. 400. According to local legend, however, there were two groups of early settlers -- known as the Long Ears and the Short Ears -- that came from different directions.
It isn't clear which group carved the moai, but conflict between them led to the extermination of the Long Ears and damaged many monuments. Later, rival clans that owned the statues toppled the moai to offend and anger each other. Today fallen statues lie scattered around the island. In the 20th century some were restored to their upright positions.
Of the island's 887 moai, nearly half are partially carved figures that still remain in the island's quarry, lying horizontally, face up. Shaping even a medium-size statue probably took two teams of men at least a year. Each figure was then detached, lowered down a cliff, and somehow moved a great distance to its site -- perhaps hauled on a tree-trunk sledge, transported on wooden rollers, or rolled on round stones. Finally, the immense figure had to be raised upright on an elevated platform.
Originally, the statues of Easter Island did not have the blank, empty eyes seen today, but orbs of inlaid coral and rock. Upon what lost world did they gaze?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.