Some of the famous monolithic figures called moai which have come to characterize Easter Island, wear styling cylindrical head pieces. They seem to have been added to certain moai in later generations, nobody really knew what they signify or where they came from.
A pair of British archaeologists — the first to excavate on the island since Katherine Routledge in 1914 — have found some answers about the red hats.
Dr Colin Richards from the University of Manchester and Dr Sue Hamilton from University College London have discovered the existence of a road used to transport the outcrops of volcanic rock leading to a previously unstudied “sacred” quarry where the material was mined. They have also found an axe believed to have been left at the quarry as an offering confirming the site’s quasi-religious meaning to the ancient Polynesians. Dr Hamilton believes the “hats” may have represented a plait or top knot worn by the elite chieftains, who were engaged in a bitter struggle for prestige and power, which was symbolised by the building of ever-taller statues known as moai created in memory of their ancestors.
Out of the 1000 moai on the island, only 70-75 got chapeaus, so possibly they indicate some kind of elite status. The color of the red scoria pumice used to make the hats is also associated with high status, much like the Tyrian purple dye was associated with royalty in the ancient Mediterranean.
It would take a person of high status in the community to organize the work force necessary to quarry the red scoria pumice, transport it and mount it on top of the three-story figures.
Dr. Richards and Dr. Hamilton think the hats first began to appear between 1200 and 1300, which is also right around the time when the moai increase dramatically in size. A burst of chieftain competitiveness, perhaps?