Nearly three hundred megalithic statues were at one time erected on ceremonial platforms on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the vast majority along the almost 60 km (37 miles) of coastline around the Island. All of them, carved until the 17thCentury, did not look toward the sea, but kept vigil inland over a village or a settlement, transmitting their Mana (supernatural power) from respected ancestors and revered by the entire tribal community. Those three hundred statues that were on their altars in the villages were different from other Moai (statues) in several aspects, but especially in the deep oval eye sockets carved into their faces. The German ethnographer and linguist, Thomas Barthel, felt that the addition of eye sockets gave the statues the look of a cadaver which would have been apt for representing someone who was already dead. Folklore always emphasized the existence of eyes on the Moai but, until the end of the 1970s, what the archaeologists of the world understood to be “eyes” were the mentioned eye sockets … and nothing more.
The reports from the first Dutch navigators who reached the Island in 1722 confirm that idea. What amazed the visitors were the enormous megalithic monuments which were described by every expedition which arrived on the Island in the 18thCentury – the Dutch in 1722, the Spanish in 1770, the British and the Germans in 1774, the French in 1786. For all of them, the eyes of the Moai were the sockets resembling cadavers which gave these figures a ceremonial, funerary look. Shortly thereafter, the gradual overthrow of the Moaiduring inter-tribal conflicts or for political reasons left the monuments in ruins, waiting for new scientific expeditions to come and study them. Visits by Gana, Geiseler and Thomson, in the 19thCentury, didn’t note any differences in the ceremonial platforms from the descriptions in the earlier reports. The faces of the fallen Moai held only empty eye sockets.
Considerably later, the Belgian archaeologist Henri Lavachery noted the odd presence of fragments of coral underneath some of the fallen statues, but nothing indicated to him that they could have anything to do with eyes. Coral was often used to polish the surface of carved rock and to smooth the statues. It was Thor Heyerdahl in 1955 who was the first to speculate on the possibility of eyes having been within the exposed eye sockets, after considering the presence of eyes of bone and obsidian in the sockets of wooden statues made on Rapa Nui.
From where did the coral eyes that we see today on replicas of statues and on the Moai at Ahu Ko Te Riku in Tahai come? In 1978, during the restoration of Ahu Nau-Nauat Anakena, Sonia Haoa and other members of the excavating team found an oval object made of white coral with a hole in the center in which a piece of polished red scoria could fit – the iris. Sergio Rapu-Haoa (the archaeologist who led the restoration and the then-director of the Anthropological Museum) noted that this piece fit perfectly within the eye socket of one the Moai of the Ahu (platform) and identified it as an eye. This seemed to confirm what had been recorded from the elders José Fati and Leonardo Pakarati, well-known conservators of the oral traditions, who swore that they had seen objects like that before and that they were, effectively, eyes of Moai.
Six more eyes were found during the same campaign to restore Ahu Nau-Nau. In following years, the statues of this Ahu were decorated with replicas of coral eyes for special occasions. In the early 1980s, the statue at Ahu Ko Te Riku in Tahai received permanent replicas of coral eyes, sculpted by Juan Haoa-Veriveri. The decision to do so was taken by the Council of Elders at that time with the intention to show the appearance of a Moai complete with eyes; this Moai already had a Pukao (a type of hat or hairdo made of red scoria stone) which was not original, but had been placed over the statue in the 1960s.
In the 80s, another expedition led by Thor Heyerdahl found remains of six more eyes at Anakena, almost all on the back side of Ahu Nau Nau behind the retaining wall. Other pieces of eyes had been taken away by the original Norwegian Archaeological Expedition in the 50s, before anyone had any idea of their true function. They were identified in Europe by Helena Martinsson-Wallin in 1989 and 1990. There after, more eyes and irises of Moai were found in other sites, in the areas of Vinapu and Tongariki. With all these discoveries, both the local community and the scientific world could agree that at some point in time all these Moai had eyes made of coral. So why didn’t the early European visitors see them? Because the eyes were removable and, without a doubt, were purely ceremonial objects which were used on special occasions. By the time that the Europeans arrived, the cult of the ancestors was dying or was already finished.
However, we also have proof that not all the Moai had eyes. Some statues, apparently from an early period, lack eye sockets that are well enough defined to have held coral eyes. In addition, various statues which were transported and erected on platforms in different periods didn’t have their eye sockets carved out. There are the four Moai at Ahu Oroi, two at Ahu Hanga Tetenga, one at Ahu Hanua-Nua-Mea, among others.
In 2012 the coral eyes were used by a group of Islanders for the ceremonial reception of the crew of two traditional Polynesian catamarans which had arrived from New Zealand, navigating by the stars and not with modern instruments. The eyes were replaced in one of the Moai of Ahu Nau-Nau so that the ancestors could again participate in such a magnificent event.