Where did you get that hat? Secrets of the Easter Island statues

Mystery of the giant headgear on the Easter Island statues has been solved by a team of British archaeologists

It is one of the great mysteries that has baffled explorers, archaeologists and anthropologists alike – what was the meaning of the giant Easter Island statues and what role did they play in the demise of this once-complex civilisation? But since the first non-islanders arrived in the remote archipelago half a millennium ago, another equally profound question has niggled away at the backs of their minds: where did they get those hats?

Now British experts, the first to work on the island since the legendary Edwardian archaeologist Katherine Routledge, believe they are a step closer to resolving the puzzle of the huge red boulders which sit astride the massive monolithic heads in the world's most remote inhabited place.

Dr Colin Richards from the University of Manchester and Dr Sue Hamilton from University College London have discovered the existence of a road used to transport the outcrops of volcanic rock leading to a previously unstudied "sacred" quarry where the material was mined. They have also found an axe believed to have been left at the quarry as an offering confirming the site's quasi-religious meaning to the ancient Polynesians. Dr Hamilton believes the "hats" may have represented a plait or top knot worn by the elite chieftains, who were engaged in a bitter struggle for prestige and power, which was symbolised by the building of ever-taller statues known as moai created in memory of their ancestors.

But while more than 1,000 statues have been found on the island only 70-75 hats have been discovered, suggesting the headgear was an added symbol of power – and perhaps even an early example of Pacific "bling".

As well as weighing several tons the "hats" are carved from a crater full of red scoria, a volcanic pumice whose colour symbolises high birth and status. They may have been later additions to existing statues to boost them beyond their rivals.

"Chieftain society was highly competitive and it has been suggested that they were competing so much that they over-ran their resources," said Dr Hamilton.

It is believed these elite leaders mobilised vast teams of workers to harvest the rock, which was then transported several miles on rolling tree trunks to the three-storey high statues, which were placed on special platforms to enhance their position of grandeur. Dr Hamilton said: 'The quarry is in a secret place which is invisible from other parts of the island and the noise of production would have been contained by the crater. These people lived in a successful and well-organised society – the Easter Island of 500 years ago was a managed living environment."

The academics, who will spend a month each year for the next five years investigating their findings, which include an obsidian adze – a seven-inch axe-like tool which was used for squaring up logs or hollowing out timber – believe the first "hats" appeared between 1200 and 1300. This coincided with a dramatic increase in the size of the statues across the island.

Situated some 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile, Easter Island, known to its indigenous people as Rapa Nui, has long been a magnet for adventurers. Katherine Routledge arrived in 1914 with her husband William as part of a pioneering British expedition to map the famous statues. With the help of a local man they excavated 30 figures and recorded the island's unique legends and oral histories. The exact cause of the dramatic decline of Easter Island, named by a Dutch explorer in 1722, is hotly debated but is agreed that it was brought on by a dramatic crisis possibly as a result of resource depletion, war or disease.

It was annexed by Chile in 1888 and in the 1960s was pressed into service by NASA as an emergency landing site for its space shuttles. Today Easter Island is a magnet for 20,000 eco tourists who are in danger of swamping the 3,500 native Rapanuins. But scientists working there are battling to keep the indigenous traditions alive. Each major excavation by the British team has been accompanied by a traditional "umu" ceremony with locals dressing up in white feathers and building ovens out of hot stones to offer cooked offerings to placate the island's spirits.

"We are excavating a living culture so we have to be very careful. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do and we have to respect them," said Dr Hamilton.

Dr Richards added: "It is clear that the quarry had a sacred context as well as an industrial one. The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living thing and after they carved the rock the spirits entered the statues."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable