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Easter Island and the mysterious giant heads


Photo credit: mayumine on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

There are places so special that they get the official designation of World Heritage Sites. These spots, because of their history or landscape, are protected for future generations — but you can visit them now! Let’s check out one of these unique places — Easter Island!

Why is it called Easter Island?

man with white body paint on his face and torso

A man in traditional Rapa Nui body and face paint. (Photo credit: OREALC/UNESCO Santiago on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

Easter Island goes by many names. The first people to arrive were Polynesian, thought to be from islands in the Pacific Ocean, and they named the island Rapa Nui. Then in 1722, Dutch explorers arrived on Easter Sunday and called the island after the holiday. These days the island is part of Chile. A Spanish-speaking country, they call it Isla de Pascua, which also means Easter Island.

Where is it?

large lush green crater filled with water

Rano Kau, a 324-metre tall extinct volcano that has formed a crater lake in the southwestern end of Eastern Island. (Photo credit: MastaBaba on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC).

Easter Island is far away from just about everywhere! It’s in the southern Pacific Ocean, over 3,500 kilometres from the coast of South America. Polynesians likely sailed even further to discover it, sometime between 700 and 1100 AD. The island isn’t that big at only about 163 square kilometres, and it’s pretty rocky, with three extinct volcanoes.

What are those mysterious giant heads?

a row of 15 stone heads

The 15 stone moai statues of Ahu Tongariki, a spiritual site on Easter Island. (Photo credit: jzielcke on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND)

So what makes Easter Island special enough to be a World Heritage Site? Well, it’s because of the dramatic artwork that can be found all over the island. There are nearly 900 statues of what look to be giant heads! These big stone carvings — the tallest is almost 10 metres and weighs 82 tonnes — are made from volcanic rock. Called moai (say "moe-eye") they made Easter Island one of the most mysterious places on Earth! The Rapa Nui people who still live on the island aren’t sure as to what the statues were for — they may have been made to honour ancestors or for religious purposes.

Easter Island head sunk into the hillside

Photo credit: OneEighteen on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Visitors couldn’t figure out how the heavy moai were moved from the quarry where they’d been carved to places all over the island. Remember, this was a time before cars and trucks. So how did the moai move? The Rapa Nui have legends of the statues walking to their resting spots. It may be that ropes were attached to the moai and that people pulling on them were able to rock the statues from side to side, moving them forwards, one step at a time!

Are these heads the only things to see here?

petroglyphs carved into rocks on a mountain top

Petroglyphs in the rock. (Photo credit: Herbal Gerbil on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND)

The moai are definitely impressive, but they have more to them than just the heads. The statues actually have carved bodies as well. The torsos are often buried in the ground so that only the long faces on top are visible. And the moai aren’t the only artwork on the island, there are thousands of petroglyphs — stone pictures carved into rock. There are carvings of turtles, fish and birds made many centuries ago. All evidence of Easter Island’s amazing and unique history!