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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine