When most people imagine Easter Island, they immediately think of the Moai. Moai are immense human figures carved from rock between the years of 1250 and 1500 on Easter Island, a Polynesian island several hundred miles off the coast of Chile.
Many myths and legends are attached to ancient Polynesian cultures, including the Easter Island Moai culture as well as the tiki gods found elsewhere in Polynesia. Many apply the term ‘Tiki’ to any carved human figures originating in Polynesia. In fact, the Moai are often referred to as the “Easter Island Tikis” because of the stylistic similarities between these figures and the tiki found elsewhere in Polynesia.
As found in America, popular Tiki culture combines elements that are actually found in distinct cultures, including Hawaiian, Polynesian, Maori from New Zealand, and the culture of Easter Islande. Many do not realize that tiki culture has such varied roots. In the United States, these distinct cultures have been blended into popular tiki culture. However, upon visiting the islands themselves, the differences become apparent.
The oversized heads of the Moai are often confused with the tiki gods from elsewhere in Polynesia due to their minimalist style. Both Moai and Tiki carvings portray human faces or humanoid forms, often with a very small body if one is carved at all. Like the tiki figures, the Moai have relatively flat faces and very large and elongated heads when compared to their bodies. Similarly to popular tiki imagery, the Moai – the Easter Island statues on Easter Island have large, broad noses.
Carved wooden and stone statues were created all over Polynesia as far back as 1500 BC. Over time, the style became varied between the different islands of the region. This, perhaps, accounts for the minor stylistic differences between the Moai figures of New Zealand and tiki carvings found on other islands.
There are certainly many superficial similarities between the two types of carvings, but what about the symbolism? On many islands, the Tiki myth is connected to a legend about the first man. Later, tiki statues became representations not only of this first man, but also other spiritual symbols, such as tiki gods. Moai statues represent the living faces of powerful former chiefs, ancestral spirits, and mythological beings. It has been argued that Moai statues, carved in the shape of gods, served to house the gods’ spirits. Many find similarities between the legends behind the creation of Moai monolithic heads and that of Tiki statues.
This popular tourist attractions are considered a remarkable feat, similar to the pyramids in Egypt. The tallest moai on the island, known as Paro, measures over 30 feet tall and weighs 75 tons. It is believed that there were once over 900 of these large statues. Today, groups of the Moai still exist in several locations around the island. Many are found on Polynesian ceremonial sites known as Marae. Throughout the Polynesian world, both moai and tiki traditions evolved at these Marae sites. Both tiki and Moai statues were used to mark the boundaries of sacred sites. One such place on Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui, is the location of a famous example of Moai stone figures set in a ring.