The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island

By Kirch, Patrick V. | Archaeology in Oceania, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island


Kirch, Patrick V., Archaeology in Oceania


The Statues that walked: Unraveling the mystery of Easter Island By Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo Free Press, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-5031-3. Pp. 237. US $26.00 (hb)

Without doubt, no single island among the many thousands that dot the vast Pacific has engendered more controversy and debate than remote Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. In part this has been driven by the supposed "mystery" of the megalithic moai or statues, but other aspects of the island's culture and history--especially the dynamic relationship between the island's Polynesian population and its windswept, largely treeless island environment--have also attracted scholarly attention. Many Rapa Nui experts have argued that Polynesian land use practices led to the island's deforestation and, prior to European contact, ecological devastation, population collapse, social conflict, and war. This model was explicitly proposed by John Henley and Paul Balm in Easter Island, Earth Island (1992), whose title encapsulates their view that Rapa Nui offers a parable for the Earth today. The "ecocide" scenario was widely popularized in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), in which Jared Diamond argues that Easter Island provides "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources" (p. 118).

In The Statues That Walked, a book intended for a broad lay audience, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo challenge the model of pre-European ecocide on Rapa Nui. They aim to turn the received model on its head, presenting a vision of pre-European Rapa Nui as a marvel of human adaptability in which the island's population "crafted a life of ... delicate ecological balance" (p. 175) until this utopia was shattered by the arrival of Europeans bringing disease, slavery, and death. According to Hunt and Lipo, Rapa Nui's history is one of "near genocide, not self-inflicted 'ecocide'" (p. 168).

Hunt and Lipo do not dispute the palynological evidence for wholesale removal of the island's natural Jubaea palm dominated forests, but argue that the proximal cause of deforestation was predation on palm seeds and seedlings by the human-introduced Pacific rat (Rattus exulans). While the effect of rats on seedling recruitment and forest regeneration was doubtless significant, Hunt and Lipo gloss over the evidence for charcoal influxes into the lake sediment cores, and of burned palm boles in paleosols. Thus, they leave the reader dangling regarding "the relative impacts of rats, fires, and the felling of trees by the colonizers on Rapa Nui's deforestation" (p. 31).

In chapter 3 ("Resilience") the authors offer new evidence that the Rapa Nui were clever innovators who adapted their horticultural practices to the island's poor soils. Drawing largely on the work of Joan Wozniak and Chris Stevenson, Hunt and Lipo describe the practices of lithic mulching and use of walled gardens (manawai). This part of the Rapa Nui story was not fully appreciated by Diamond; the demonstrated effectiveness of Rapa Nui in converting much of their landscape into "an engineered series of massive fields fertilized by broken volcanic rocks" (p. 53) evokes quite a different picture from that of thoughtless slash-and-bum cultivators cutting down the last palm tree.

Chapters 4 and 5 take up the theme of the "mystery" of how the moai statues were transported to dispersed ahu sites around the island. Hunt and Lipo begin with the ancient roads, known since the time of Katherine Routledge (1914-15), but mapped recently using satellite imagery. Drawing on the ideas of Charles Love, the authors argue that the moai were not dragged or rolled on palm logs, but "walked" upright along the roadways, guided by teams rocking the statues back and forth with rope stays. The argument is compelling, and indeed has been demonstrated experi-mentally to be feasible.

Throughout the book, Hunt and Lipo insist that the pre-contact Rapa Nui population never exceeded about 3,000 people (e. …

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