On one of the world’s remotest outcrops, a team of archaeologists has dug beneath two of the most enigmatic statues that history has ever seen. All across the treeless landscape, the mysterious heads of Easter Island stare out over the bare terrain. But when the researchers finally look beneath the large heads, they discover something that may just leave the rest of the world in shock.
Ever since Europeans first arrived on this tiny South Pacific island in 1722, the statues – known as moai – have been a source of fascination. And while the civilization of the Rapa Nui people ultimately collapsed around them, these monoliths have largely survived intact. Now, hundreds of years after they were built, they still lend an air of mystery to this remote spot.
But what can these strange statues tell us about the people who once thrived on Easter Island – and exactly how did they go about building close to 1000 moai across their land? Well, since 1982 a group of researchers working for the Easter Island Statue Project has been attempting to better understand the lives of the Rapa Nui. And in 2010 they embarked on a project that would ultimately yield a startling result: they found something rather surprising beneath the ancient heads.
Located more than 2,000 miles away from mainland Chile, Easter Island is home to one of the most secluded communities on Earth. According to legend, it was first reached by a small band of colonists who were escaping a local chief. However, most historians tend to agree that the island was colonized at some point in the 12th century. It was probably Polynesians, moreover, who relocated to Easter Island via boats.
Wherever the first Easter Islanders came from, however, they made a seemingly odd choice of settlement. At just over 63 square miles, the island lacks fresh water in the form of long-lasting rivers or streams. In fact, when the settlers first arrived, three lakes provided the only source of hydration for both people and crops.
Yet despite this hostile environment, many still chose to make their home on Easter Island. But today, little in the way of records remain, so we only have a limited understanding of the Rapa Nui people. It’s believed, however, that they may have constructed the moai to honor their relatives as well as community leaders.
And according to a popular theory put forward by geographer Jared Diamond, it was tragically the islanders’ own actions that likely led to the island’s rapid demise. You see, the Rapa Nui cut down many of the trees that carpeted Easter Island – in part to provide space for the maoi. But without sufficient supplies of wood to fashion shelters and boats from, conditions there became difficult. This deforestation apparently also opened the land up to erosion, making it harder for the settlers to grow food.
But there were other factors that made survival on Easter Island a difficult prospect, too. Polynesian rats introduced by the settlers also wrought havoc across the landscape, sending the ecosystem into further disarray. Some researchers have even gone so far as to claim that the Rapa Nui resorted to cannibalism to sustain themselves as their home collapsed around them.
And over the course of several centuries, Easter Island gradually became less and less habitable. Then tensions between rival tribes escalated even further, as the native flora and fauna increasingly succumbed to extinction. So, by the time that the first Europeans reached the outcrop’s shores in 1722, the population had dropped from around 15,000 to between 2,000 to 3,000 in the space of 100 years.
Sadly, the arrival of explorers from the east did little to improve conditions on Easter Island. And in the 1860s the community was decimated by a succession of disasters. The locals were first besieged by Peruvian slave traders in 1862 who carried off around 50 percent of the population. Then, over the following decades, diseases – including smallpox and tuberculosis – picked off those who remained.
So, following these hardships, in 1877 there were a little over 100 Rapa Nui left on Easter Island. And although the population has recovered since then, much of the native history and culture of the island has been forgotten. The remote outcrop now belongs to Insular Chile, and around 7,750 people currently call this far-flung territory home.
Yet for many visitors, by far the most intriguing feature of Easter Island are the mysterious moai that are scattered across the landscape. These statues – thought to be over 900 in number – are not only aesthetically impressive, but many of them are also relatively ancient. The oldest of the moai, for instance, date back to around 1250. However, historians believe that they were still being constructed at the beginning of the 16th century.
Today, the moai can be found at a number of different sites across Easter Island. Nearly 50 percent of them are located in a quarry known as Rano Raraku, and many others are raised on platforms around the perimeter of the island. Amazingly, the tallest of the statues is over 30 feet high, while the heaviest tips the scales at 86 tons.
The moai were initially constructed facing inland, where they could watch over the tribal lands. Yet although they still stood when the Europeans arrived, by the second part of the 19th century the statues had all toppled over. But as the years have passed, there have been multiple attempts to restore them to their former glory. And as experts have studied the ancient stones, they have been able to start piecing together their fascinating story.
Today, archaeologists believe that the moai were carved to represent important figures in the Rapa Nui community – in particular, their relatives. Feuds to build the grandest statue became fierce, too, as members from different clans vied to construct the most impressive memorial. And this, some experts believe, is why the moai vary so much in size.
But the question of how the Rapa Nui construct such vast statues and transport them to platforms across the island has been hotly contested. Over the years, in fact, many theories have been put forward to explain this impressive feat. Some have posited that the moai were rolled along logs to their final destinations. Conversely, others have put forward an intricate system involving ropes and sleds.
In the mid-1980s a number of different researchers experimented with recreating these different techniques. Many now believe that the statues may have been transported upright and rocked from side to side via ropes to mimic the motion of walking. But to this day, nothing has been conclusively proved.
In fact, the otherworldly appearance of the statues has inspired a number of bizarre theories over the years. To some, the moai are all that remains of a forgotten continent that vanished beneath the waves. And to others, they are evidence that aliens from another planet once visited Earth.
But while conspiracy theorists have been spinning bizarre explanations, researchers at the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) have been hard at work studying the moai. Founded by the US archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg in 1982, the organization was set up to enable scientific study of the statues. And over the years, it has borne witness to some remarkable discoveries.
For instance, in 2000 Tilburg – who had just become co-director of EISP – worked with her fellow co-director, a Rapa Nui called Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, to launch an ambitious research project. Today, it remains the longest-running international effort in the history of the island. For two decades, their team have been hard at work trying to understand the secrets of the moai.
To date, Tilburg and Pakarati have overseen the study of almost 900 different statues – although experts believe that there could be more on the island to one day examine. Through both field and museum studies, EISP has built up a clearer picture of how the Rapa Nui lived. And their work has also crucially helped them to understand how ancient culture and symbolism have shaped the landscape of Easter Island.
Interestingly, the EISP is not the only organization that has been conducting research on the island. In 2018, after all, the University of Queensland’s Dale F. Simpson Jr. worked with Tilburg and published a study in The Journal of Pacific Archaeology. And what they found appears to cast doubt on the theory that the Rapa Nui was a disconnected community of warring tribes.
In order to learn more about the Rapa Nui culture, then, Simpson and his team studied a selection of the stone tools that were apparently used to carve the famous statues. Because there were three different quarries containing basalt on the island, they reasoned that a community at war would have sourced their resources from different locations. Yet after studying 21 different artifacts, they realized that this was not the case.
Instead, the researchers learned that the majority of the tools that they tested came from one location. Simpson explained in a 2018 press release, “The majority of the toki [stone axes] came from one quarry complex. Once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it.” And this suggests that the Rapa Nui collaborated on a far greater basis than was previously believed – implying that the image of them as a people completely divided by war didn’t quite match reality.
“For everyone to be using one type of stone, I believe they had to collaborate,” Simpson continued. “That’s why they were so successful – they were working together.” But while some believe that the tools are evidence of a degree of social harmony between clans, others have cast doubt on this assumption.
For instance, when Tilburg – who had herself contributed to the study – was invited to comment on the findings, she had her own thoughts on the matter. Yes, the researcher spoke to Live Science in 2018, saying, “It may also have been coersive in some way. Human behavior is complex.” Might the Rapa Nui have fought for tools between clans, then, rather than collaborated? Well, while this remains to be seen, evidence is mounting that human greed was not solely responsible for Easter Island’s collapse.
For the moment, at least, the jury is still out as to what brought about the demise of the Rapa Nui’s civilization. But that doesn’t mean that the island isn’t still producing a host of other surprises. For instance, archaeologists from EISP who had first started excavating two maoi in 2010 stumbled across a very strange sight indeed.
You see, the team began digging up two of the island’s famous statues that year, and beneath them, they discovered something that baffled observers around the world. As it turns out, the moai are not just heads: they are complete statues with upper bodies, too. And bizarrely, these unseen torsos and waists actually stretch for several feet under the ground.
According to experts, the changing landscape of Easter Island has forged an illusion over the years. As the earth has eroded and shifted through the centuries, a number of the moai statues have become partially buried under soil deposits – leaving only their giant heads visible above the ground.
In May 2012 an email began circulating that featured images of the EISP’s project. And soon, the organization was swamped by people demanding to know the truth: a surge in visits to their website even caused it to crash. Were the striking images a hoax, or did the famous Easter Island heads really have hidden bodies as well?
According to Tilburg, though, there has never been any great mystery surrounding the torsos under the heads. In fact, experts have known about them since at least 1914 – when the first excavations began. And decades later in the 1950s researchers snapped photographs of the full-bodied statues after conducting another dig. So, why exactly were so many people shocked to discover the truth?
Well, Tilburg herself may have the answer. “The reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano. And these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues,” the scientist told Live Science in 2012. “This suggested to people who had not seen photos of [other unearthed statues on the island] that they are heads only.”
However, there is another factor that has contributed to the popular image of the Easter Island moai: many Polynesian religions believe that the head is sacred. And in the art of the Rapa Nui, this importance is often highlighted by portraying that part of the body as particularly oversized.
With the Easter Island moai, the heads typically make up around three-eighths of the entire statue. And over the years, this may have helped contribute to the belief that the figures do not have bodies beneath. But it is not just human observers who have overlooked the torsos buried under the ground: mother nature herself has seemingly also been fooled.
Experts have discovered a number of statues that were buried underground, meaning the intricate patterns that are carved onto their surfaces were preserved by the earth. And these unspoiled moai have been an unparalleled resource for researchers who yearned to interpret these ancient symbols. Known as petroglyphs, these markings could potentially help researchers to unravel even more of the mysteries surrounding the Rapa Nui.
Carved into the backs of the moai’s bodies, the designs are typically crescent-like in shape. And according to the team from the EISP, these motifs could represent canoes – the vessels that Polynesians may have used to colonize the island. Moreover, it’s believed that each motif could denote the specific family that carved the statue.
Clearly, the construction of the moai statues was integral to the framework of Rapa Nui society. And, perhaps, vital clues to how the civilization rose and ultimately fell could also be found locked within the carved stones. Currently, work on Easter Island is continuing – but worryingly, the hunt for the truth could be turning into a race against time.
In 2019 CBS News released an episode of 60 Minutes dedicated to the Easter Island moai. And in the feature, they highlighted how centuries of exposure to the elements is putting the statues at risk. The monuments were apparently constructed from porous stones, you see, which makes them particularly susceptible to erosion.
Today, steps are being taken to preserve the moai, including keeping both visitors and locals at a distance. But there are some who believe that this is a high price to pay. Pakarati – EISP’s co-director – told 60 minutes, “People of my generation, right, we could go there and touch the statues, and be part of the statues and hug the statues. How can I explain to my son today that [he] cannot do that?”
Yet despite Pakarati’s reservations, he remains committed to the future of the moia. The researcher also believes that he knows how to save them. He explained, “The only way to keep them alive is to keep the art of making and moving statues. Because these will disappear one day. If the art of making them is still alive, we will never lose the statues.”
However, Easter Island is far from the world’s only mysterious locale. High in Peru’s Andes Mountains, fog shrouds the temples and palaces of an ancient city. Steeped in myth and enigma, the citadel of Machu Picchu was once the pride of the Inca civilization. And for many years, researchers have pondered over the outpost’s inaccessible location and why it was built exactly where it stands. Now, though, one man has made a discovery that explains one of the most enduring mysteries about the iconic site.
Set at almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu remained hidden for centuries before being rediscovered by the Western world. And even though it’s now a major tourist attraction, there is much about the grand city that we still don’t understand. All the while, though, experts have been attempting to unearth Machu Picchu’s secrets – and they’ve had some very surprising results.
One such specialist is geologist Rualdo Menegat, who has been studying Machu Picchu for years in a bid to unravel the mystery of its construction. At times, then, he conducted field work at dizzyingly high altitudes, taking measurements from the ancient city itself. On other occasions, however, he pored over data in a laboratory thousands of miles away from the Andean peaks.
Finally, in September 2019, Menegat was ready to reveal the fruits of his labor to his peers. So, at an annual gathering of geologists, he outlined his theories about how Machu Picchu had been built – and why. And now these remarkable findings are inspiring others to look at the Inca Empire in a whole new light.
The story of the Incas began back in the 12th century at a small hamlet nestled in the Andes Mountains. There, a tribe of farmers lived and worked in the region known as Cusco, which lies roughly 11,000 feet above sea level. And, ultimately, these agriculturalists would band together to create their own city-state.
Then, in 1438, the leader known as Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui came to power. And under his direction, the Kingdom of Cusco began a ruthless expansion into the surrounding area. Historians believe, in fact, that in just a few generations the Incan Empire grew to incorporate much of what is now South America.
At its peak, the Inca civilization spanned 2,500 miles across vast swathes of Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Chile. And while Cusco remained the empire’s most important city, other grand settlements began springing up across the region. Then, in around 1450 or so, work began on another outpost that was located around 50 miles northwest of the Incas’ capital.
According to archaeologists, this new city, dubbed Machu Picchu, was conceived as a compound for Pachacutec and his inner circle. And the estate not only featured a lavish palace complete with its own toilet facilities and garden, but it was also equipped with multiple temples and other structures. In fact, approximately 750 people are thought to have lived in the city at its peak.
After Pachacutec died, his son Túpac took over, and Machu Picchu continued to thrive and grow. Change was coming, though, and the glory days of this city in the mountains were not to last. In 1526, you see, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men arrived on the fringes of the Inca Empire.
Spurred on by dreams of great riches, the conquistadors pushed deeper and deeper into the empire with each passing year. In the meantime, the Incas themselves descended into civil war. And with its people weakened by turmoil and European diseases, this mighty civilization ultimately fell, with cities such as Machu Picchu left abandoned as a consequence.
Then, for almost 400 years, Machu Picchu remained half-forgotten in the mountains – its existence known only to a handful of local tribes. In 1911, however, the American adventurer Hiram Bingham arrived in the region now known as Peru. Apparently, he was originally searching for Vilcabamba – a fabled lost city that is believed to be the last refuge of the Incas.
While Bingham was in Peru, moreover, a local man guided him to the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu – which the American initially believed to be the mysterious Vilcabamba. And even though this wasn’t quite the case, Machu Picchu was nevertheless launched to international fame. From that moment on, tourists eager to see the relics of a lost civilization began to trickle in.
Today, Machu Picchu is considered Peru’s top tourist destination, attracting almost 1.5 million visitors a year. And although some of these sightseers make the lengthy hike in from Cusco, many arrive via rail at the city’s purpose-built station. There is also talk of constructing an airport at the site – a plan that would change the face of the ruins for good.
But while the future of Machu Picchu looks uncertain, there are many who are still attempting to unravel its past. And despite the estate’s popularity with tourists, the Inca mountain city has done an impressive job at keeping its secrets over the years – with the construction of the remote citadel perhaps being one of the most enduring mysteries.
Today, it’s believed that the Incas used a dry-stone technique to build the city’s remarkable stone walls. Essentially, this means that the rocks were cut and fitted together without utilizing mortar. But how did these ancient people carry out such a detailed and challenging feat? And why did they choose to do it in such an isolated spot?
Well, Menegat – a researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – sought to answer those questions. He noted, too, that the Incas appeared to have made a habit of constructing their cities in isolated and inaccessible locations. And as a geologist, he believed that the reason for this choice may lie somewhere below the ground.
“It seemed to me that no civilization could be established in the Andes without knowing the rocks and mountains of the region,” Menegat explained to Newsweek in September 2019. “It could not be built on a whim. It is part of a practice of building settlements in high rocky places. But what guides this practice? What knowledge of the rocks and mountains did builders need to know to succeed in building cities under these conditions?”
According to Menegat, this area had also not been explored by any previous research, leading him to set out to conduct his own study of the geology surrounding Machu Picchu. Using a combination of satellite photos and measurements taken at the site, he began to map the tectonic faults that crisscross the region.
Long before the Incas and Machu Picchu emerged, though, the Andes Mountains had been created by a great geological upheaval. Millions of years ago, the two sections of Earth’s crust known as the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate collided. And as the Nazca Plate was pushed beneath the South American Plate, a high ridge of rock formed.
In an attempt to understand the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu, then, Menegat conducted four separate field trips to the region. When he wasn’t up in the mountains, meanwhile, he pored over data in his university laboratory. And along with satellite imagery, Menegat used previous geological studies of the area to inform his research.
What’s more, Menegat was impressively thorough with his work. “At each stage of the research, I presented the results to Peruvian researchers from various fields of knowledge – geology, archeology, anthropology, architecture, urbanism, landscape ecology, and epistemology – and regions of Peru, so as to assure me of the correctness of data… I also evaluate the scope and importance of my findings for Andean culture researchers,” he explained to Newsweek.
Eventually, though, Menegat’s research led him to a singular startling conclusion. It seemed that Machu Picchu had been constructed in a spot that most modern builders would steadfastly avoid: right on top of a series of tectonic faults. In fact, an entire network of cracks in the Earth’s crust seemingly ran beneath the city.
And according to Menegat, these faults vary in size. Indeed, while some of these breaks are little more than fissures, others stretch considerable distances beneath the mountains, with one particularly impressive example clocking in at more than 100 miles in length. A number of the faults also travel from northwest to southeast, while others run from northeast to southwest.
In fact, there’s so much geological activity here that five separate faults converge beneath Machu Picchu – creating an ominous X to mark the spot. And Menegat believes that this is unlikely to be a coincidence. Instead, he has argued that the tumultuous terrain is integral to the structure of the city itself.
While studying Machu Picchu, you see, Menegat observed that all of its main structures were built in alignment with the faults beneath the city. “The layout clearly reflects the fracture matrix underlying the site,” he explained in a press release from the Geological Society of America. And, shockingly, the mountain stronghold of the Incas is not the only settlement to have been built in such a manner.
Yes, Menegat discovered that a number of additional Inca cities also appear to be aligned along geological features. The ruins of Ollantaytambo – which lie less than 20 miles from Machu Picchu – are also believed to be located at the intersection of several tectonic faults. And 50 miles to the east at Pisac, a similar underlying structure can be found.
Menegat even claims that the Inca capital of Cusco was once constructed in alignment with the geological faults beneath the city. But why would these ancient people have chosen to build their settlements in such a way? Could it be the result of an age-old superstition, or perhaps even a choice with ritualistic connotations?
Well, Menegat believes that Inca culture actually had nothing to do with it. On September 23, 2019, the researcher presented his findings at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Phoenix, Arizona. And during his talk, the researcher put forward a novel explanation: the Incas actually used the faults to lighten the physical load of building cities.
Yes, according to Menegat, the Incas specifically sought out areas of geological turmoil as locations for their cities. Since the stoneworkers who built the famously perfect walls were experts at their craft, the specialist claims, they knew that the fractured rocks found above tectonic faults would provide the perfect building material.
“Where faults intersect, the rocks are even more fractured,” Menegat told Newsweek. “Therefore, they are places that have more loose blocks on the surface, and [these are] also places where [the rocks] can be easily removed to build terraces and buildings.” That wasn’t the only advantage to constructing cities on these sites, however.
Menegat has gone on to explain that the fractured rock was also naturally set into geometric shapes such as hexagons and triangles – meaning the materials should have slotted together more smoothly. And if the pieces of stone were not the correct shape, then their fragile nature would have made it easier to cut them down.
“The intense fracturing there predisposed the rocks to breaking along these same planes of weakness, which greatly reduced the energy needed to carve them,” Menegat explained in the press release. In fact, in the geologist’s opinion, the construction of Machu Picchu would have been “impossible” without these conditions.
However, Machu Picchu’s position on top of several tectonic faults didn’t just make the workload easier. According to Menegat, this specific geology also funnelled melted ice and precipitation towards the city, which in turn provided a ready source of clean water to the community in spite of the inaccessible mountain location.
“The Andean world is inhospitable,” Menegat told Newsweek. “Here, human life is possible only in a few places where water drips through fractures. The Incas knew to follow this criterion, which allowed them to establish networks of settlements in this kind of oasis of habitability provided by the faults and fractures.”
Owing to the water that came from the mountains, then, the Incas didn’t need to build in the low valleys – thus reducing the risk of danger from rock fall and flooding. And these unlikely but surprisingly sustainable cities were so successful that in total they were able to support a population of some ten million people.
But Menegat believes that the fractured rock beneath Machu Picchu had yet another purpose. While heavy rain was sometimes a problem even this high up in the Andes, the geology of the region could have provided natural drainage and so helped to protect the site from flooding. In fact, this feature may well have prevented the city from falling further into ruin after it was abandoned.
“About two-thirds of the effort to build the sanctuary involved constructing subsurface drainage,” Menegat explained in the press release. “The pre-existing fractures aided this process and help account for its remarkable preservation. Machu Picchu clearly shows us that the Inca civilization was an empire of fractured rocks.”
Fascinatingly, Menegat also revealed that the Incas had their own way of describing the tectonic activity on which their cities were built. “There is a Quechua word for large fractures,” he told Newsweek. “As the great Peruvian writer José Maria Arguedas said, the Incas called the fractures that crossed the mountains ‘quijlo.’ Geologists call them faults.”
But does this mean that the people who built Machu Picchu had an incredibly advanced comprehension of geology for the time? Well, while they may not have known the cause of tectonic faults, Menegat believes that they could definitely spot them. “The Incas knew how to recognize intensely fractured zones and knew that they extended over long stretches,” he continued.
Amazingly, then, the Incas’ knowledge of faults therefore enabled them to build structures that were to last for more than 550 years. But just as researchers such as Menegat are beginning to understand the secrets of Machu Picchu, the ruins are more at risk than ever. If plans to construct an airport just a few miles away are carried out, you see, the hub would bring dangerous numbers of visitors to the already crowded site. And although archaeologists are petitioning against the development, the future of the ancient city continues to hang in the balance – for now.