Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island

Missing Bodies of Mysterious Easter Island Heads Discovered

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
Terrence Aym's image for:
"Missing Bodies of Mysterious Easter Island Heads Discovered"
Caption: Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
Image by: Aurbina
© This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Aurbina at the English Wikipedia.

Since the discovery of Polynesian Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the southeastern Pacific Ocean by the Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday 1722, explorers and researchers have puzzled over the missing bodies of 887 mysterious and massive heads—monolithic stone figures resembling humans that stand as mute guardians along the coastline of the most remote, inhabited island in the world.

Since the 18th Century adventurers, slave traders, missionaries and others have been awed and mystified by the gigantic heads that the islanders call mo‘ai, that dot parts of the island's rugged coastline. Many theorized that some or all of the heads had bodies, but no one was able to find definitive proof.

Now Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the director of the Easter Island Statue Project who first came to the 63-square-mile island in 1981 and stayed because she fell in love with the statues, has acquired photographic proof that virtually all the mo‘ai have bodies attached. The bodies were gradually covered up over the centuries, primarily by wind and rain storms blowing in from the sea.

Most people are unaware that the statues—Van Tilburg claims there are actually close to 1,000 of them—have bodies hidden deep beneath the ground. Thousands have photographed the statues, particularly in the quarry where they were made, but all the statues have their torsos hidden, many buried up to their necks.

The researcher spent her early years on the island exploring and studying. From 1992 on she began her real research, cataloging and documenting each individual statue. She even tracked down and verified a few of the statues that were shipped of to museums in other parts of the world during the 20th Century.

After her initial data gathering she then began the slow, Herculean task of piecing together the background on the creation of the mo‘ai, how the islanders made them, and how they moved the heavy statures as long as 30 feet and weighing more than 80 tons, to their final resting place staring dolefully out towards the eternal sea.

Van Tilburg is a fellow with The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, a part of UCLA. Each year she returns to the island to advance her field work. During 2012 she's scheduled to return and continue her work during October and November.

Paint, the graves of native statue artisans, and more than 500 stone tools have so far been discovered by Van Tilburg and her team. She's currently working with three other researchers at UCLA and ten island natives on site. She believes the statues were originally painted, but exposure to the elements has eroded all the paint.

After 12 years of painstaking work, Van Tilburg has obtained proof that the mo‘ai have bodies.

“It’s the first time that one has been excavated in such a way that the documentation was complete and scientific,” she told

Yet despite all the intense research, no one is still sure why the statues were built and taken to the locations they now occupy.

The answer probably lay in the many records of the islanders' history and religion. Unfortunately, the history of the natives was destroyed by overzealous missionaries who considered the records pagan. They burned them all in the latter 18th Century.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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