Easter Island’s Prized Moai Statue Sparks International Debate


The people of Rapa Nui, better known around the world as Easter Island, take great pride in the Moai, the statues that their ancestors sculpted. Given as a gift to Queen Victoria, she didn’t have much use for it, and decided to put it in the British Museum in London. Ever since the people of Rapa Nui were made aware that museums were giving ancient artifacts back to their countries of origin, they were determined to bring Hoa Hakananai’a back home. As far as they are concerned, the statue was stolen. But have they reclaimed what they believe is rightfully theirs?

Where Does This Statue Belong?

The Maoi statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are some of the most mysterious sculptures ever to be discovered. The British Museum’s Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most iconic Maoi statues in the world.

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With so much rich history surrounding this structure, it has sparked one of the most contentious international debates in recent memory. With so many questions surrounding these mysterious heads, one of the biggest questions is this: who do they belong to?

One Of 900

Meaning “lost or stolen friend,” the Hoa Hakananai’a is a seven-foot colossus that was carved by the people of Easter Island between 1100 and 1600 AD. It is one of 900 statues known as the Moai, which translates into “ancestors.” This should suggest their level of significance.

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To the people of this enchanted part of the world, the Moai are more than just statues. Moreover, this Easter Island “ancestor” is considered to be very special by the place that hosts it, the British Museum…

The Very Best?

There is no doubt that Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most sought-after ancient artifacts in the entire British Museum. When tourists flock to this fantastic historical institution, the Moai sculpture is usually one of the first things on their go-to list.

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In the past, the statue has been described as something of a masterpiece. Moreover, according to Alfred Metraux, it is “without a doubt, the finest example of Easter Island sculpture.” This might have something to do with how unique it is…

Unique Statue

Many of the other Moai statues that still dwell on Easter Island were originally made out of volcanic ash that was compressed and formed into blocks. However, the Hoa Hakananai’a is unique in that it was made from basalt instead.

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In fact, there are only 14 recorded Moai statues to have been built out of the material. Despite this incredible statistic, this is not the only reason that the Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most unique statues in Easter Island’s history…

Worshipped By The Birdman Cult

Another striking detail that makes the Hoa Hakananai’a so important is the carvings on its back. With calligraphy associated with the Makemake, otherwise known as the “bird man,” this would mean that this Moai statue was worshipped by a cult.

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The Tangata Manu were the winners of a competition, where competitors would swim to the island of Motu Nui, collect the new season’s first sooty tern egg and swim back to Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island…

The Mystery Of Easter Island

There is no denying that the Moai of Easter Island are some of the most mysterious sculptures to have ever been made. Researchers and historians have worked tirelessly to decipher the meaning of these incredible statues.

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Over time though, it has become clear that the dwellers of this island made them in honor of their ancestors. The British Museum is home to one of them. But how did it get there in the first place?

Taken 150 Years Ago

This long-winded chapter in Hoa Hakananai’a’s story can be traced all the way back to 1868. A man by the name of Richard Powell, who was the captain of the HMS Topaze, ventured to Easter Island from Santiago, Chile, after hearing about this mysterious part of the world.

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As the story goes, Powell and his crew discovered the Moai statue and, without permission, took it for themselves. After returning safely back to the UK, they did something incredible with the statue…

A Gift To Queen Victoria

Traveling to as far as South America and returning home safe and in one piece was an incredible feat back in the 1800s. But to return home with a rare ancient artifact simply couldn’t go unnoticed.

As a result of their journey, Richard Powell and his crew alerted the authorities about their discovery and decided to present Hoa Hakananai’a to Queen Victoria. However, the Queen found a better use for it and decided to pass it on…

Given To The British Museum

The destination that Queen Victoria passed the Moai statue onto was, of course, the British Museum. Originally, the museum decided to exhibit the 4.2 metric ton statue outside its front entrance. However, when World War II began, the statue was brought inside.

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After being stationed in the Department of Ethnography for many years, the staff decided to relocate the statue back to the main site at the turn of the Millenium. Despite this, there is one more burning question surrounding the statue…

Was It Stolen?

The fact that Hoa Hakananai’a literally translates into “lost/stolen friend” is nothing short of ironic. We say this because as far as the people of Easter Island are concerned, the iconic statue is, in fact, stolen. This has been one of the huge discussions in the archeological world.

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Was it actually stolen? Or did the British simply take the statue without realizing that they needed to ask permission? Whatever the answer might be, this Moai isn’t the only ancient artifact believed to have been stolen…

Many Controversial Cases

Hoa Hakananai’a isn’t the only ancient artifact that the British Museum has been accused of stealing from its original environment. Many countries that artifacts have been taken from have demanded their speedy return. These include the Elgin Marbles, which are believed to have been taken from the temple of the Parthenon.

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The Benin Bronzes from Nigeria are another fine example. Some countries are even proactively trying to return artifacts back to the original lands that they were taken from…

The French Connection

One fine, recent example of a country that is determined to return the ancient pieces of art that they took from other parts of the world is France. President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that he was planning on issuing the return of no less than 26 objects that had been on display in Paris’s Quai Branly Museum since the end of 19th century.

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His groundbreaking announcement has made societies around the world take notice about potentially stolen artifacts, including the people of Easter Island…

Rising Tensions

The first signs that the people of Easter Island wanted Hoa Hakananai’a back came at the end of the summer in 2018. The island’s mayor, Pedro Edmunds, kickstarted the process when he wrote to the British Museum. He requested for the safe return of Hoa Hakananai’a, as well as a smaller Moai by the name of Hava.

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And while the museum didn’t fully comply with the original request, the people of Easter Island have since stepped up their advances more aggressively…

Let’s Take It Back

After Pedro Edmunds’ written requests failed to affect any concrete change, a delegation from Easter Island decided to take a more hands-on approach, traveling to the United Kingdom to initiate aggressive negotiations with the British Museum.

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The goal of the journey was to return home with at least one, maybe both, of the statues that Edmunds had specified in his letter. But tensions were put to one side when the delegation was finally reunited with the Moai statue…

Family Reunion

For a brief period of time, the delegation had the opportunity to spend some time with Hoa Hakananai’a. Many of these people had never got the chance to see the iconic statue. However, the goal of the visit wasn’t simply to reunite with a long lost “ancestor.”

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The delegation went with the intention of bringing it home. One of the representatives who traveled to the UK was governor Tarita Alarcon Rapu, who truly took it to the museum…

Emotional Plea

The delegation in question ended up having a meeting with the British Museum. It seems that the negative outcome forced Alcarcon Rapu to make an emotional announcement at a press conference. With tears streaming down her eyes, Rapu expressed both her frustration about the entire issue and hope that some sort of agreement would be made soon between both parties.

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However, it is what she said in her statement that hit home just how important Hoa Hakananai’a is to her people…

You Have Our Soul

According to Rapu, the people of Easter Island and Moai are connected in a deeply spiritual way. “We all came here, but we are just the body — England people have our soul,” Rapu said.

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“And it is the right time to maybe send us back (the statue) for a while, so our sons can see it as I can see it. You have kept him for 150 years, just give us some months, and we can have it (on Easter Island).”

Swap Deal?

One idea that the delegation proposed was to initiate a swap deal for the Hoa Hakananai’a. In return, the British Museum would receive a Moai that was built by a contemporary sculptor by the name of Bene Tuki.

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The delegation’s logic is as follows: despite the replica not being an ancient artifact, it would still be culturally significant as it was still sculpted on Easter Island by a local. In light of the recent developments, one important figure is particularly optimistic…

The Future Is Bright

One person who was a part of the delegation in the recent meeting with the British Museum was Chile’s heritage minister Felipe Ward. As far as he’s concerned, there is plenty of reason to feel optimistic about Hoa Hakananai’a’s future.

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He described the meeting as “a glimmer of hope because they are willing to discuss it.” Moreover, Ward claimed to be “absolutely sure” that the delegation gave the British Museum a clear idea of how important the statue is to the people of Easter Island.

It Belongs On Easter Island?

Felipe Ward also wasn’t shy about his stance on where the Moai statue should be. He believes that Hoa Hakananai’a, which he described as “more than just a stone,” should dwell in the place that it was built. “The best place for this Moai is where it was created,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “Rapa Nui is an open air museum so the conditions for protecting it are perfect.”

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However, the British Museum has their own thoughts on the matter…

Proud Hosts

Unlike the delegation, the British Museum gave a much more passive response. Despite being open-minded about loaning out its contents, the museum was quick to defend its position as the current host of the statue.

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“We believe that there is great value in presenting objects from across the world, alongside the stories of other cultures at the British Museum,” a spokesperson said. “Hoa Hakananai’a is free to view and is among the most popular and most photographed exhibits with our 6 million visitors each year.”

Loaning Out The Statue?

One idea that the British Museum proposed to the delegation was to loan out the statue for a temporary period of time – a deal that could eventually become permanent.

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While their stance on the matter remains unclear, the museum has expressed gratitude for having learned more about Hoa Hakananai’a’s connection to the people of Easter Island. “It was very helpful to gain a better understanding of Hoa Hakananaia’a’s significance for the people of Rapa Nui,” a spokesperson said.

Building Bridges

It appears that both parties are open to establishing a healthier dialogue so that a mutual settlement can be reached in the near future. Felipe Ward confirmed this in an interview. “This is the first of many conversations we will have,” he said.

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“We’re looking forward to the next conversation, and probably the second one will be in Rapa Nui.” The British Museum also shared the same sentiment, saying, “We discussed meeting again on Rapa Nui in the coming months.”