Blog Post

Curious Facts on Rapa Nui, Chile: From Birdmen to Half-Made Moai

A moai head briefly adorned the plaza in front of the Seagram Building in New York City. 

The eight-foot-tall moai head originally came from the area of Rapa Nui known as Tongariki. In 1960, a major tsunami hit Tongariki, scattering the moai and the blocks that once made up the ahu, or stone platform. The moai was brought to the U.S. in 1967 by WMF’s founder to raise awareness of the importance of Rapa Nui’s heritage. Between 1992 and 1995, years after its return to the island, Ahu Tongariki and its 15 moai were restored by Chile's National Center of Conservation and Restoration with support from the Japanese government. 

Many of the moai were deliberately toppled when a new religious movement took hold. 

Worship of the moai ended with an ecological crisis in the island, a period that saw the rise of the Tangata Manu (or birdman) cult, centered on the ceremonial village of Orongo. Today, Orongo—which has been named to the World Monuments Watch on three separate occasions—receives some of the heaviest tourist traffic of any part of Rapa Nui National Park. In 2011, we supported the creation of the Orongo Visitor Reception Center, and Regional Director Stephanie Ortiz recently met with community members to talk about the area’s endangered petroglyphs on her most recent trip to the island. 

Over 1,000 moai were created on Rapa Nui—and still more were never finished. 

On the outer slopes of the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku, the main quarry for the moai, you can still see many statues in various states of completion. In 2004, we helped craft a site redevelopment and interpretive plan for Rano Raraku, including the creation of trails to allow visitors to view these incredible sculptures safely.  

Rapa Nui’s irreplaceable heritage faces serious threats from climate change and other factors. 

As a coastal site, Rapa Nui—like many seaside heritage places around the world—is acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels and intensifying storms. The park is also threatened by bushfires like the one that broke out in 2022 while our team was visiting—a legacy of bad agricultural practices. Today, we’re partnering with an expert team of consultants from Ámbito Consultores to help the Ma’u Henua Indigenous community develop a risk management plan to steward their ancestral heritage amidst these challenges so that future generations can continue to marvel at this extraordinary site. 

World Monuments Fund’s work at Rapa Nui has been made possible, in part, by support from American Express and The Selz Foundation.