Last week, a fire spread through Easter Island and caused permanent damage to the area’s iconic statues, called moai. The blaze spread through some 250 acres of the Unesco World Heritage site, and photos shared by officials on Facebook show several of the stone statues charred or collapsed.
The fire’s cause is still unclear. Pedro Edmunds Paoa, Easter Island’s mayor, says he believes the fire was “not an accident,” telling local broadcaster Radio Pauta that “all the fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings.”
“The damage caused by the fire can’t be undone,” Paoa adds. “The cracking of an original and emblematic stone cannot be recovered, no matter how many millions of euros or dollars are put into it.”
The land around the Rano Raraku volcano sustained the most damage. The area contains over 300 moai, as well as the volcanic rock quarry they originated from. Chile’s National Monuments Council is still evaluating the site and attempting to count how many of the statues were scorched by the fire.
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean—and one of the most remote inhabited places in the world. Polynesians settled there around 300 C.E.; Chile annexed it in 1888.
Como Subsecretaría estamos colaborando en el trabajo intersectorial para avanzar en la protección del patrimonio de #RapaNui. Luego del incendio de esta semana, @Monumentos_cl realizó un informe preliminar de daños junto al equipo de la comunidad que administra el Parque. pic.twitter.com/7vLPZFyurh— Carolina Pérez Dattari (@caroperezdattar) October 8, 2022
The moai, monolithic stone statues standing all over the island, have long been a subject of curiosity and study for travelers and researchers alike. Polynesians sculpted the colossal statues between roughly 1100 and 1650. They represent ancestral chiefs, who were believed to be descended from gods, and were given supernatural powers to protect their community. In recent years, researchers discovered the giant statues had bodies buried under the ground, which they began excavating in the early 2010s. In 2019, another study theorized that early Polynesians purposely placed the statues to mark sources of precious fresh water on the island.
Archaeologists have documented over 800 of the towering statues, but as many as 1,000 may exist on the island. Most were carved from volcanic rock and range from 6 to 30 feet tall (though one unfinished statue is over 70 feet tall).
According to Unesco, the Polynesians on the island established a “powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence,” such as the “erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivaled landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.”
The fire’s high temperatures have likely sped up the moai’s degradation process. “As the stone cracks, with a heavy rain or with time, it loosens, falls and ceases to be stone, and becomes sand,” Paoa tells Radio Pauta.
The remote island, whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism, is now closed to the public while authorities assess the fire damage. It had only reopened to visitors three months ago, after shutting due to the pandemic for nearly two years.
Though the damage to the ancient statues cannot be reversed, local authorities are hoping to put a plan in place to avert future disasters. “To prevent fires, we need to have permanent guards at the sites,” Paoa says, calling on Unesco and the Chilean government for funding. “Resources are required for its care.”