By Hannah Bloch
“The statues walked,” Easter Islanders say. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how—and whether their story is a cautionary tale of environmental disaster or a celebration of human ingenuity.
On a winter night last June, José Antonio Tuki, a 30-year-old artist on Easter Island, did one of the things he loves best: He left his one-room home on the southwest coast and hiked north across the island to Anakena beach. Legend has it the earliest Polynesian settlers hauled their canoes ashore at Anakena a thousand years ago or so, after navigating more than a thousand miles of open Pacific. Under the same moon and stars Tuki sat on the sand and gazed directly before him at the colossal human statues—the moai. Carved centuries ago from volcanic tuff, they’re believed to embody the deified spirits of ancestors.
Sleepless roosters crowed; stray dogs barked. A frigid wind gusted in from Antarctica, making Tuki shiver. He’s a Rapanui, an indigenous Polynesian resident of Rapa Nui, as the locals call Easter Island; his own ancestors probably helped carve some of the hundreds of statues that stud the island’s grassy hills and jagged coasts. At Anakena seven potbellied moai stand at attention on a 52-foot-long stone platform—backs to the Pacific, arms at their sides, heads capped with tall pukao of red scoria, another volcanic rock. They watch over this remote island from a remote age, but when Tuki stares at their faces, he feels a surge of connection. “It’s something strange and energetic,” he says. “This is something produced from my culture. It’s Rapanui.” He shakes his head. “How did they do it?”
To read the rest of this story and see the video, visit NationalGeographic.com.