Easter Island 'arson attack' causes 'irreparable' damage to sacred moai statues

Many of the carved figures, known as moai, were left charred by the forest fire.
Many of the carved figures, known as moai, were left charred by the forest fire. (Image credit: Rapanui Municipality/AFP/Getty Images)

A suspected arson attack on Easter Island created a wildfire that caused "irreparable" damage to some of its famous stone-carved monumental heads, authorities have said. 

The blaze left a number of the stone heads, known as moai, "totally charred" after it consumed more than 247 acres (100 hectares) of the island's Rapa Nui National Park. Hundreds of the heads are located in this area, alongside the quarry from which the stone to make them was excavated.

Easter island, also known as Rapa Nui, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most remote inhabited island. It is a Chilean dependency lying roughly 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from the coast of South America, and contains nearly 1,000 statues, up to 13-foot-tall (4 meters) originally statues carved by the island's Indigenous Rapa Nui people.

Related: How did Easter Island statues get Their massive 'hats'?

Ariki Tepano, the director of the Indigenous Ma'u Henua community, which manages and maintains the park, said in a statement in Spanish on Facebook that the damage was "irreparable and with consequences beyond what the eyes can see." He added that "the moai are totally charred, and the effect of the fire is visible above all else." (Translation by Live Science.)

On Friday (Oct. 6), Rapa Nui Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa told the Chilean broadcaster Radio PAUTA that the fire wasn't an accident.

"This was created by a human being, it's not an accident," Paoa told Pauta in Spanish. "All the fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings."

He said that half of the heads located at the Rano Raraku quarry, the site where more than 800 of the statues were made, had cracked due to the fire.

"As the stone cracks, with a heavy rain or with time, it loosens, falls, ceases to be stone, and becomes sand," he explained, adding that the statues that weren't semi-buried in the earth were the most badly affected. The mayor said that a "shortage of volunteers" meant park officials had struggled to get the fire under control. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the island, whose main source of income is tourism, received 160,000 visitors a year, but tourists were banned from arriving from March 2020 until its reopening three months ago, on Aug. 5.

The first statues were made and placed on the island by Polynesian seafarers around 1,000 years ago, and the practice continued for around 600 years. The reasons for the carvings, believed to represent the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people, have long been a mystery, although one recent study suggested that the stones were placed at the sites of freshwater springs.

This isn't the first time the statues have been mistreated. In 2020, a resident of the island was arrested for damaging one of the sacred statues with a pickup truck. The man left the truck with a rock wedged under its front tire to compensate for a broken parking brake, but the truck freed itself and rolled downhill and smashed into a statue's ceremonial platform. 

Another moai statue, known as Hoa Hakananai'a and on display at the British Museum in London, is at the center of a controversy over its return to the island. The statue was taken from the island after British sailors led by Commodore Richard Powell, Commander of HMS Topaze, landed there in 1868. When Powell arrived in England, he gave it as a gift to Queen Victoria and she later donated it to the British Museum. In 2018, island officials and the Chilean government requested that the statue be returned. 

"Give us a chance so he can come back," Tarita Alarcón Rapu, the island's governor, said after meeting with museum officials at the time. "I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him. We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul."

In June 2019 two museum representatives, an anthropologist and the curator of the Oceania section of the museum, visited Easter Island. The museum has also appointed a curator charged with researching the history of its entire eight million artifact collection.

"It is not the purpose of this role to examine the specific histories of contested objects,” a museum spokesperson told the Art Newspaper, but the new curator Isobel MacDonald’s work "will cover areas of the collection that include contested objects," including "issues such as the role of the slave trade and empire."

Among the most controversial objects in the museum's collection is the Rosetta Stone: a stone dating to 196 B.C. which enabled the first translation of hieroglyphs and the founding of Egyptology; and the Elgin Marbles: a frieze of classical marbles sculptures ripped from the walls of the Parthenon, and the subject of a repatriation controversy between the U.K. and Greece since 1983. On Thursday last week (Oct 6.), U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss refused a Greek proposal to return the marbles.

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.