EasterIslandstatue

University College London archeologist Sue Hamilton stands next to one of the fallen Easter Island statues. (Colin Richards, University of Manchester)

British archeologists are rejecting a 50-year-old theory of how Easter Island's famous stone statues were moved around the island.

Easter Island — a special territory of Chile in the South Pacific — is famous for its hundreds of moai, or statues representing deceased ancestors, built by the early Polynesian inhabitants.

Many researchers have long believed the island's complex network of roads was built, beginning 800 years ago, specifically to transport the moai. The theory was that statues found lying on their backs and faces near the roads were abandoned during transportation.

But archeologists with University College London and the University of Manchester said Wednesday the roads were built primarily for ceremonial purposes.

Manchester's Colin Richards and UCL's Sue Hamilton used geophysical survey equipment to pass electrical currents below the ground and measure its resistance. That allowed them to create subsurface maps that suggested the statues were not abandoned, but toppled from platforms with the passage of time.

The researchers also point to previous excavations that found the roads are concave, making it difficult to move heavy objects along them.

'We will never know'

"The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved," Richards said in release.

"What we do now know is that the roads had a ceremonial function to underline their religious and cultural importance. They lead — from different parts of the island — to the Rano Raraku volcano where the moai were quarried. Volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld and mythical origin land Hawaiki."

And as the roads approach the volcanic cone Rano Raraku, the statues become more frequent. Richards and Hamilton say that shows increasing grades of holiness.

"It all makes sense: the moai face the people walking towards the volcano," Hamilton said in a release. "The statues are more frequent the closer they are to the volcano — which has to be a way of signifying the increasing levels of importance."