Fact Check

Does Photo Show a Newly Discovered Easter Island Statue?

The mysterious Rapa Nui statues have captured people's imaginations for more than a century.

Published June 16, 2021

Updated June 24, 2021
Image Via Screengrab/Reddit
A photograph that circulated on social media in June 2021 depicted a newly discovered Easter Island maoi statue.

A widely circulated photo posted to social media in mid-June 2021 claimed to depict a newly discovered moai statue on Easter Island. Because a majority of its structure had spent the last several centuries buried beneath the surface, social media users speculated that the carvings featured on its back were “devoid of weathering” seen on other statues.

The photograph was first shared on a Facebook page called Archaeology and art on June 9 and was described as having been discovered that same week.

“The ones not buried have been weathered to the point that none of the detailed carving on the Moai are visible,” read the post.

A look through the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) archives revealed excavation documents with photographs of a statue with the same carvings on its back. However, this statue was first excavated a decade prior to the viral June 2021 social media posts. Alice Holm, EISP project manager, confirmed that the above was taken by Micheline Pelletier from the 2011 excavation season of a statue numbered 156.

"These images get recirculated seasonally! I am checking the archives to figure out where this image was originally published," Holm told Snopes in an email.

As such, we have rated this claim as “Outdated.”

Located off the coast of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in Polynesian, is home to hundreds of large stone statues known as moai. For centuries, moai have been shrouded in mystery as the Western world grappled with trying to understand how these enormous figures were constructed, moved, and what purpose they served.

Since 1954, EISP has been documenting and recording excavations of the Rapa Nui statues, and in March 2012, the group published a report that described the excavation of two target statues in a region known as Rano Raraku quarry. The two statues in question (RR-001-156 and RR-001-157) were first recorded during an expedition to the island in 1914 but had never been formally researched until the excavation began in 2010. According to the organization, the target statues are of “high archaeological value” because of complex petroglyphs along the backside that had been previously partially exposed but never documented. As part of the project, researchers documented the petroglyphs through digital photography, metrics, and scale drawings.

A look at the statue in the now-viral photograph and a second photograph in the report depicting RM-001-156 showed that both statues had the same designs along their backside. Also photographed was a wooden ladder at the bottom right side of the frame and a set of soil stairs in the back right corner. (The findings were also shared in a 2011 report published by EISP that showed a picture of a man and woman wearing the same outfits as the photograph in question.)

A side-by-side comparison of the now-viral photo (right) against a photograph of the statue published in a 2012 report (left). EISP

According to the report, RM-001-156 measured just under 22 feet high yet a little more than 4 feet of its entirety was above the soil, suggesting that soil had accumulated and deposited in the areas surrounding the 500-year-old statue since it was initially built.

“The most interesting features associated with both statues were revealed at and under their bases and in bedrock between the two statues, an area previously unexamined. A large and deep posthole with abrasion marks, along with rope guides, was cut into bedrock. Presumably used to lift statues upright, these features appear to have been used to remove statues prior to those currently excavated,” wrote the researchers.

An illustration shows the petroglyphs in greater detail. EISP


Update [June 24, 2021]: This article was updated to include comments from Alice Holm, EISP project manager.

Madison Dapcevich is a freelance contributor for Snopes.