Easter Island, situated in the southeast Pacific over 1,000 miles from the other islands of Eastern Polynesia and some 1,400 miles west of South America, is one of the most remote inhabited places in the world. Between 600 and 800 A.D., a group of colonists from an unidentified location in Eastern Polynesia settled on Easter Island after sailing in a southeasterly direction for many weeks. The name Easter Island originated with the European explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who first saw the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. Today, the Easter Islanders call themselves and their homeland Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui society was organized following the classic Polynesian pattern: an aristocracy composed of ranked hereditary chiefs (ariki) with political authority over the commoners, who constituted the majority of the population.
The art of Easter Island is distinctively Polynesian, much of it centering on the creation of religious images. The most recognizable art forms from Easter Island are its colossal stone figures, or moai, images of ancestral chiefs whose supernatural power protected the community. Between roughly 1100 and 1650, Rapa Nui carvers created some 900 of these sculptures, nearly all of which are still in situ.
The moai represent ancestral chiefs who were believed to be descended directly from the gods and whose supernatural powers could be harnessed for the benefit of humanity. The massive stone figures were generally erected on temple platforms (ahu) along the coast, where they faced inland to keep watch over the local community. Most were carved from soft volcanic tuff at Rano Raraku, an extinct volcanic crater that served as the primary statue quarry. The giant stone sculptures commonly weigh between 10 and 12 metric tons. Their average height is roughly 13 feet, but they range anywhere from 8 feet to an unfinished example over 70 feet high. Moai are characterized by long sloping noses, strong brows, deeply inset eyes, and prominent chins. Some examples also wear a hatlike cylinder made of red stone on their heads, which may represent a headdress or elaborate hairstyle.
Each moai was commissioned by a specific individual or group and created by a team of expert stoneworkers under the direction of a master carver. As many as fifteen people began by quarrying a large rectangular block using basalt picks (toki). Once the figure was roughed out, the master carver and his assistants added the fine details, usually beginning with the head and face. Afterwards, a team of workers used ropes and levers to move the sculpture down the quarry slope. It was then set upright and the remainder of the carving was completed. The finished sculpture was then moved to its final destination using a wooden sled or rollers. Experimental re-creation of this feat by modern archaeologists suggests that it required approximately 40 individuals to move an average-sized moai, and roughly 300 to 400 people to produce the rope and food required.
By the time Europeans first reached Easter Island in 1722, the moai tradition was already in decline. Early explorers reported many moai still standing, but by the mid-nineteenth century, all had fallen due to neglect or warfare. Many have since been restored by archaeologists.
Other art forms on the island include petroglyphs, many depicting birdmen and other fantastic creatures, as well as a variety of wooden sculptures. One type of wooden image, the naturalistic male figures known as moai tangata, may depict family ancestors. Although their imagery is conventionalized, they may be individual portraits. What appears to be hair on the top of their heads is actually a low-relief carving depicting fishlike creatures with human heads and long flowing beards, possibly representing shark-human spirits (nuihi). In a number of respects, the moai tangata bear a close formal resemblance to the larger stone moai. With their enlarged heads, frontal orientation, prominent stomachs, and arms that extend down the sides of their bodies, both types of image embody a classically Polynesian conception of the human form.
Easter Island art also includes barkcloth images, wooden ornaments, and featherwork. Apart from the stone figures and petroglyphs, virtually all surviving works from the island date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1984.526).
Kjellgren, Eric and Jennifer Wagelie. “Easter Island.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eais/hd_eais.htm (October 2002)
Kjellgren, Eric. Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.
Métraux, Alfred. Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1940.
Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.