Riddle of the Stones ; Easter Island's Ancient Statues Could This Week Be Named among the Wonders of the World - but Did They Lead to the Destruction of an Entire Ecosystem? by Steve Connor

By Connor, Steve | The Independent (London, England), July 4, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Riddle of the Stones ; Easter Island's Ancient Statues Could This Week Be Named among the Wonders of the World - but Did They Lead to the Destruction of an Entire Ecosystem? by Steve Connor


Connor, Steve, The Independent (London, England)


The giant stone statues of Easter Island have perplexed generations of archaeologists, engineers and scholars. Ever since European explorers first set eyes on them three centuries ago these carvings have presented a problem. How could the island's primitive inhabitants have erected such massive edifices - each weighing many tons - without the help of wheels, cranes, machines, metal tools or draft animals? The very existence of these giant heads on a barren outcrop of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean seemed to defy reason, if not the laws of physics.

The author Erich von Dniken suggested that the statues were the work of extraterrestrial beings who, after being stranded on Easter Island, decided to do a little stonework before eventually being rescued. It was hard to believe that the stones were the work of humans, especially ones who had to survive in the treeless landscape of Easter Island, which lies more than 2,000 miles from the nearest mainland.

Jacob Roggeveen, the Dutch seaman who gave the island its name when he spotted it on Easter Day in 1722, was amazed by the statues. "The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment, because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images, which were fully 30ft high and thick in proportion," Roggeveen wrote in his journal.

He was equally amazed as to how the Easter islanders could have come to colonise such a remote place in the middle of a vast ocean. Their canoes were leaky and frail, made of small planks and light inner timbers stitched together by fine, twisted threads. They were not the sort of heavy ocean-going craft that could survive a three- week journey over open sea. Much bigger timbers bound with heavy ropes were needed for that.

Yet there were no trees, no timber and no ropes to be seen. Easter Island seemed to be a place of "singular poverty and barrenness", Roggeveen wrote.

However, we now know that Easter Island was once a lush, sub- tropical paradise covered in thick forest filled with a rich assortment of wildlife. But the trees and forest animals were long gone by the time Roggeveen had arrived. The question is why?

This Saturday the giant statues, or "moai", could be voted one of the new seven wonders of the world in a global competition. At least 50 million people have taken part in the attempt to comprise a 21st- century list of man-made heritage sites. The seven winners from the 20 entries will be announced in Lisbon at the end of the week.

The moai stones lie at the heart of the many mysteries of Easter Island. But trying to explain the puzzle has caused a deep fissure within academia. Some archaeologists see Easter Island as an example of what can happen when the lust for material splendour - ever bigger stone carvings in this case - is satisfied at the expense of the environment.

Others, meanwhile, take a different view. They see Easter Island as another victim of European colonialism that killed off an ancient culture. The island, these scholars argue, suffered at the hands of introduced diseases, notably smallpox, and a slave trade that stole a huge proportion of its indigenous population.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of the island's deforestation. There is no dispute that the island was once covered in huge palm trees. There is also no dispute that something happened that caused the island to become completely denuded over a short period of time.

But was it the islanders who triggered this environmental degradation, or some other event beyond their control such as climate change or the introduction of rats?

In his 2005 book Collapse, author Jared Diamond explains why it was the islanders' fault. Diamond says they started to build bigger and bigger ceremonial statues in an atmosphere of competitive rivalry between the island's many different clans.

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Riddle of the Stones ; Easter Island's Ancient Statues Could This Week Be Named among the Wonders of the World - but Did They Lead to the Destruction of an Entire Ecosystem? by Steve Connor
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