The Role of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Statuary as Territorial Boundary Markers

Article excerpt


Polynesia's easternmost landmass, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), has attracted archaeological interest for more than a century. Although territoriality and monumental statuary have been addressed extensively in the past, spatial analysis of a new survey of 702 moai (statues) on the island offers a new insight into a possible role the statues may have played in the island's prehistory. Previous research interpreted the statues' significance largely through the context of ceremonial centres including ahu (platforms) upon which some statues once stood. In contrast, the analysis presented here is based primarily on the spatial locations of the statues.

Recently, Stevenson (2002) has suggested the potential role of ahu in marking territorial boundaries. Stevenson's territorial divisions were derived from statistical analyses of formal variability in ahu design and preconceived notions about territorial divisions in Polynesian islands. In contrast, the analysis presented here identifies a strong correlation between an inland subgroup of the surveyed statues and territorial boundaries already established historically by ethnologist Katherine Routledge ninety years ago. While imprecision in Routledge's work renders rigorous statistical testing difficult, the correlations observed oblige us to consider their implications in future research.

The statues: interpretation and classification

Extensive archaeological investigation has made the moai of Rapa Nui one of the most recognisable collections of artefacts throughout the world. Fieldwork regarding the statues began more than a century ago, and is still underway. Descriptive studies have attempted to thoroughly document the statues on the island and those in overseas museums (e.g. Englert n.d.; Routledge 1919; Sepulveda et al. 1991; Thompson 1891; Van Tilburg 1986). Accumulated data suggest that more than 1000 statues were constructed in prehistory (Liller 1993).

Some statues, particularly those located along the coast, were erected upon ahu until early historic times. Subsequently, however, all statues that were once upon ahu have fallen. Evidence remains unclear as to whether the statues were purposefully toppled by islanders amidst social upheaval or if they fell due to natural causes such as earthquakes (see Edwards et al. 1996). The vast majority of all statues (96 per cent) were carved from the tufa slopes of the Rano Raraku volcanic crater in the southeastern part of the island (Figure 1). However, a small number of basalt, scoria and trachyte statues were also fashioned outside of the Rano Raraku quarry.


Based on the most extensive research ever completed on the statues, Routledge (1919) and Van Tilburg (1986, 1994) have focused on various aesthetic styles in the moai. Their field research has produced no shortage of interpretations regarding the megaliths. Perhaps most abundant are interpretations of the moai in terms of symbolic and cosmological significance (e.g. Bahn 1993; Raphael 1988; Van Tilburg 1986, 1994). Some studies have identified a phallic appearance in the moai (Raphael 1988; Van Tilburg 1994), and Van Tilburg has associated this sexual imagery with the concept of fertility.

Upon consideration of ideological values in the island's prehistory, Van Tilburg (1994) has suggested that the moai played an important role protruding directly upwards from the earth to the sky--connecting the living world with the spiritual world. On a more mundane level, Bahn (1993: 84) and others have suggested that the rate of moai construction escalated over time with kin groups 'trying to outdo their neighbours in the scale and grandeur of their religious centers and ancestor figures', as a possible indication of relative competitive ability.

Sahlins (1955) proposed an intriguing adaptationalist hypothesis for the abundance of moai on Rapa Nui, and recently archaeologists have begun to suggest evolutionary explanations for the persistence and variability of the moai in Rapa Nui prehistory (e. …