Carved centuries ago from volcanic tuff, the huge stone statues of Easter Island are believed to embody the deified spirits of ancestors. But how were they erected? The question draws scientists and tourists alike to this remote World Heritage site.
Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd, Alamy Stock Photo
Rapanui artisans carved the giant statues, called moai, centuries ago from volcanic rock at a quarry a mile away. By the 19th century all of Easter's moai had been toppled—by whom or what is unclear.
Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic Creative.
Tourists are forbidden to touch moai, but horses happily rub against them, wearing away the porous tuff. Though cars are now the preferred mode of transport, more than 6,000 horses and cattle still run free, relieving themselves on once sacred platforms.
Photograph by Michael Nolan, Corbis
The village of Orongo, part of the World Heritage site, has 53 stone masonry homes. Legend has it that the earliest Polynesian settlers hauled their canoes ashore on Easter Island a thousand years ago or so, after navigating more than a thousand miles of open Pacific.
Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic Creative
The moai on Easter Island were carved with stone tools, then transported without draft animals or wheels to massive stone platforms, called ahu, up to 11 miles away.
Photograph by Gail Mooney-Kelly, Alamy Stock
Some 2,000 Rapanui live on Easter Island, which belongs to Chile. They numbered only 111 in 1877, after slave traders and disease had decimated the population.
Photograph by Chris Schmid, Aurora Photos
Their backs to the Pacific, 15 restored moai stand watch at Ahu Tongariki, the largest of Easter Island's ceremonial stone platforms. In 1960 these moai were swept inland by a tsunami, which fractured some.
Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic Creative
Despite its remoteness—it's a five-hour flight to the South American mainland—Easter Island welcomes some 80,000 tourists a year. Its population is just 6,000.
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