Mystery of Easter Island’s ‘Moai’ unraveled by new discovery

The meaning of Easter Island's mysterious Moai, which have stood on the remote Polynesian island for hundreds of years, has long been a source of interest for researchers.

Carvers in ancient Rapa Nui created the nearly 1,000 Moai on orders from the ruling class because it was believed that the statues would produce agricultural fertility and critical food supplies, according to a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg and her colleagues believe they've found evidence of this previously hypothesized meaning by studying two Moai that were excavated over five years ago in the Rano Raraku quarry on the island's eastern side.

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View from downslope of two Moai during excavations by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and her team at Rano Raraku quarry, Rapa Nui.

View from downslope of two Moai during excavations by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and her team at Rano Raraku quarry, Rapa Nui. (Easter Island Statue Project)

"Our excavation broadens our perspective of the Moai and encourages us to realize that nothing, no matter how obvious, is ever exactly as it seems. I think our new analysis humanizes the production process of the Moai," Van Tilburg, who has been working on the island for 30 years, said in a statement.

Their study showed that in addition to serving as quarry and place for carving statues, Rano Raraku was the site of a productive agricultural area.

Van Tilburg and her team estimate that the statues from the inner quarry were raised by or before A.D. 1510 to A.D. 1645. Most production of Moai had stopped by the early 1700s due to Western contact.

“This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry,” Van Tilburg said. “That is, these and probably other upright Moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The Moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapanui belief their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”

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Hoa Hakananai'a, from Orongo, Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

Hoa Hakananai'a, from Orongo, Easter Island (Rapa Nui). (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

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The remote Pacific island, located more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, continues to be a source of fascination for historians. In 2018, researchers, including experts from Binghamton University, worked out how ancient islanders were able to place massive stone hats on the statues.

Earlier this year, in fact, a team of experts used spatial modeling to figure out the relationship between the construction of ahu, the platforms on which the Moai rest, and natural resources on Easter Island. They discovered that the ahu were built near freshwater sources, which are limited on the island.

In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with most of its sacred spaces protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Fox News' James Rogers contributed to this report.