The new moai was found in the dried-up lake bed around the Rano Raraku volcano — and researchers believe there may be more statues nearby.
Moai statues are among the most famous and iconic sculptures in the world, with hundreds of these stone behemoths adorning the landscape of Rapa Nui, more commonly known as Easter Island. But although the moai are protected as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, a swath of environmental factors threaten to damage them.
Among these environmental threats are coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and fires brought on by human-caused climate change. In fact, in October 2022, a fire burned roughly 250 acres of land across Easter Island and caused significant damage to the moai near the Rano Raraku volcano.
However, researchers investigating the area where the fire occurred recently came upon a remarkable find: a previously undiscovered moai lying on its side in a dried-up volcanic crater lake.
“This moai has great potential for scientific and natural studies, it’s a really unique discovery as it’s the first time that a moai has been discovered inside a laguna in a Rano Raraku crater,” said the Ma’u Henua Indigenous community in a statement.
The team that made the discovery was composed of scientific volunteers from three Chilean universities working to restore marshland on the island. The lake bed where the moai was found has been dry since 2018.
“The interesting thing is that, for at least the last 200 or 300 years, the laguna was three meters deep, meaning no human being could have left the moai there in that time,” Ninoska Avareipua Huki Cuadros, director of the Ma’u Henua Indigenous community, told AFP.
There are more than 1,000 moai on Easter Island, each made from volcanic tuff. These massive stone monoliths are of great import to the Rapa Nui people and stand as a bold representation of their history.
“They were the islanders’ deified ancestors. They’re iconic worldwide, and they really represent the fantastic archaeological heritage of this island,” Dr. Terry Hunt, a professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, told Good Morning America.
Moai statues vary in size, with the tallest on the island standing 33 feet tall. Most weigh around three to five tons, but some are as heavy as 90 tons. This newly-discovered moai, however, is much smaller than others on the island, standing just over five feet tall.
“We think we know all the moai, but then a new one turns up, a new discovery, and in this case, in the lake, at the statue quarry,” Hunt said. “There have been no moai found in the dry bed or in what was previously a lake, so this is a first.”
Hunt also noted that climate-induced changes are providing researchers an “unusual opportunity” to study parts of the island. In fact, current conditions could enable archaeologists to discover even more moai in the dried-up lake bed.
“Under the dry conditions that we have now, we may find more. They’ve been hidden by the tall reeds that grow in the lake bed and prospecting with something that can detect what’s under the ground surface may tell us that there are in fact more moai in the lakebed sediments,” he said. “When there’s one moai in the lake, there’s probably more.”
Salvador Atan Hito, vice president of the Ma’u Henua Indigenous community, added that in addition to looking for more moai, the research team will seek to unearth the tools used by the Rapa Nui people to create the statues.
As of right now, there are “no plans to remove the moai from where it is,” Huki said. “You have to ask the whole Rapa Nui community what they want to do with the Moai, and the oldest people want it to remain there.”
After reading about the unique discovery of this moai statue, learn more about the statues’ history — and what some researchers believe their purpose was. Or, check out these nine ancient mysteries that still baffle scientists to this day.