When the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen landed at Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1722, the tiny island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean only had an estimated 1,500–3,000 inhabitants, but it also housed over 800 monumental statues of simplified human figures. Whoever created the moai, as they are called, quarried the stone for the totemic figures at the volcanic crater Rano Raraku, carved the statues on-site, then transported them over land to stand along the coast, looking inward across the island.
This represents an extraordinary undertaking, as the moai are 13 feet tall and weigh, on average, 14 tons each. Several hundred still exist in some unfinished state in the quarry, with the incomplete “El Gigante” topping out at 72 feet tall and approximately 145–165 tons.
When the British explorer James Cook brought a Polynesian crew member to the island, he was able to communicate roughly with the Rapa Nui and discovered that the statues commemorated deceased high chiefs, though these monuments almost certainly convey additional significance or meaning.
Scholars concerned with the mystery of how the Rapa Nui transported the massive moai from quarry to shore have a more difficult time. For years, theories that ropes were used by teams of people to pull the moai over logs or on wooden slides held the greatest sway, though the archaeological record has now convinced many scholars that the statues were (amazingly) erected at the quarry and “walked” to their locations by rocking them side to side and pulling them forward with ropes.