Archaeologist digs up another twist on Chile’s Easter Island

Years of study reveal another secret of the enigmatic stone heads – or moai – constructed by the Rapa Nui people.

The iconic moai statues of Easter Island guard many secrets – their placement and construction continue to puzzle archaeologists and anthropologists, and no one has yet to solve the riddle of how the ancient Rapa Nui people moved the giant stone statues from the inland quarry to their perches on the coastline.
One secret, however, is being diligently uncovered by U.S. archaeologist, Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has spent the last 12 years in a painstaking effort to uncover the buried body of a moai.
“It’s the first time that one has been excavated in such a way that the documentation was complete and scientific,” Van Tilburg told
“Those statues which are the most photographed are standing in the quarry. They’re buried up to mid-torso level. So it’s understandable that the general public didn’t have a clue that those statues had bodies,” Van Tilburg said.
The director of the Easter Island Statue Project and long-time expert on Easter Island’s fascinating archaeology, Van Tilburg oversees a binational team of three California archaeologist and ten Rapa Nui experts. The sixth dig is scheduled on the island for October-November 2012.
So far, the meticulous excavations have uncovered the remains from ceremonies and human burials, as well as traces of paint used on the statues and possibly even the workers’ bodies.
The team uncovered tools – including over 500 stone tools in a variety of styles and functions. “The statues were carved with different types, big heavy picks and finer basalt and obsidian tools to finish details,” Vin Tilburg said.
And perhaps most intriguingly for some, the archaeological dig revealed deep holes, just wide enough for a tree trunk, which might have been used with ropes to swing the statues upright – addressing one of the oldest questions about how these moai came to be transported across the island.
“It’s always important to get beneath the surface of things,” Van Tilburg said.
Still, Easter Island raises more questions than it answers, inspiring generations of local residents, tourists and students to keep returning to its allure. For more ways about how to get involved on Easter Island, check out our guide to volunteering on the island and the rest of Chile.