By Cristian Moreno Pakarati – Historiador

The Moai (statue) staring out to sea is one of the most evocative literary images of the Pacific isles. The idea that these statues were the guardians of a remote island and that their colossal size was meant to frighten off possible invaders has found echo in many of the thousands of visitors who come to Easter Island every year.   However, this concept of megalithic statues gazing at the horizon is contradicted by scientific discoveries and knowledge that has always existed among the Rapanui people. As innocent as it may seem, the idea that statues contemplate what lies beyond the ocean arises from Western traditions which should be considered within their historical and territorial context. 

In 1838, the French Captain Abel Du Petit Thouars, commander of the sloop Venus, had the honor of leading the last foreign expedition to see a statue standing on its ceremonial altar on Easter Island.  This statue faced toward the interior, as had all the statues seen previously by European visitors.  They were turned toward their people, toward their village and had their backs to the sea. Following the Venus, dozens of ships (mostly whalers) passed by the Island every year without spotting a single statue on the dark, irregular coast. The original concept had disappeared.   

With the arrival of French Catholic missionaries – the first foreign colonists – on Rapa Nui in the decade of 1860, the Island moved into a new phase.  By then, all the Moaiwere fallen. The only ones remaining erect were those in the quarry at Rano Rarakuand were found half buried. And where did these statues, the largest on the Island, seem to be staring?  At the foot of the slopes of Rano Raraku, the majority of these figures looked toward the plains of the southern coast and, beyond that, to the intense blue of the Pacific Ocean. The Moai of Rano Rarakubecame the image of the Island for nearly 100 years. These were the only stone effigies with their faces visible. And they “looked to the sea”.

Scientific ideas, developed as a result of the expeditions of Thomson, Routledge, the Franco-Belgians and the field work carried out over decades by Father Sebastian Englert, made clear that the fallen statues at the ahu (platforms) originally looked inland. Unfortunately, they were no longer in their original positions, unlike those seen a century or two ago by the European explorers. For the public in the Northern Hemisphere who read the books and looked at the black-and-white images of the Island in the first part of the 20th Century, it seemed certain that the Moaiwhen erect had “looked to the sea”. This concept was very clear in a poem published in 1928 by Robert E. Howard titled  “Easter Island”, as well as in many stories in the press of the time, which were published by journalists without any real knowledge and who had never visited the Island.

Some Moaiwere re-erected as decoration by the (Chilean) governor Tejeda in 1938, looking toward the sea in the area of Hanga Roa o Tai. One of them, the Moaia Hani was knocked down by a tsunami in 1946.  The other is still standing and welcomes the visitors who disembark at the quay at Hanga Roa.  Tejeda, just like the visitors of those days, was the victim of the false iconography of the Moailooking to the sea.


In October of 1955, however, things began to change. A large team of archaeologists arrived in the greatest archaeological expedition in the history of the Island, financed by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. This generated a great amount of media attention and, as never before, for six months part of the outside world was attentive to what was happening in this remote corner of the South Pacific. The most relevant event of those months occurred in the summer of 1956 when a group of Islanders re-erected a statue onto its ahu. A bet between Pedro Atán-Pakomio and at Anakenabeach, Thor Heyerdahl led to a dozen locals raising the Moaiat Ahu Ature Huki by using only logs and stones. Following several days of work, aMoaiwas again standing on its stone altar for the first time in 120 years … and it was looking inland.

That was the beginning of a change of paradigm and it set off a chain of events. The archaeologist and member of the 1955-56 Heyerdahl expedition, William Mulloy, returned to the Island four years later and applied the same method that he witnessed in 1956 to the archaeological restoration of Ahu Akivi.  This restoration also received extensive media coverage, but it did nothing to refute the myth that the Moai “looked at the sea”.  In spite of the inland location of the seven Moai of Ahu Akiviat 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the coast, the desolate, treeless terrain produced the illusion that these statues were looking toward the sea. While it is easily explained that a village was situated between the Moai and the ocean, many people even today still call them the “Seven Moaiwhich Look to the Sea”.
A second phase of archaeological restoration began in the second half of the 1960s with work undertaken at Tahai.  Three newly restored coastal platforms joined Ahu Ature Huki as sites where the statues clearly looked inland: Ahu Ko te Riku, Ahu Tahaiand Ahu Vai Uri.There was a third phase of restoration at the beginning of the 1970s which added the Ahuof Hanga Kio’eand two Ahulocated inland. At the end of the 70s, Sergio Rapu directed a fourth restoration of Ahu Nau Nauat Anakenaand Ahu Tautira at the bay of Hanga Roa.  The crowning moment was the restoration of Ahu Tongariki, the largest of all with 15 Moai, in the 90s. The thousands of visitors who arrive at Rapa Nui today can see both the restored Moaias well as those still fallen on their ancient platforms in their original orientation – that is, facing the interior.