Mapping Prehistoric Statue Roads on Easter Island

By Lipo, Carl P.; Hunt, Terry L. | Antiquity, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Mapping Prehistoric Statue Roads on Easter Island


Lipo, Carl P., Hunt, Terry L., Antiquity


Introduction

Scholars have long debated on how the colossal statues (moai) on Easter Island were transported to every corner of the island. The ancient people of Easter Island carved and moved hundreds of multi-ton statues up to 18km over rugged terrain. While early researchers tracked the course of a few ancient roads leading from the main statue quarry at Rano Raraku, new high-resolution satellite imagery reveals the remains of an extensive pattern of prehistoric roads. Here we report analyses of satellite images and the results of ground-based field surveys that show something of the newly discovered ancient network and its varied components. The distribution and structure of the roads also provide new evidence for evaluating models for how the statues were moved. The pattern of the roads suggests a hypothesis for statue movement by independent groups from across the island, rather than labour controlled by a central chiefdom. Our survey also shows that historic and modern activities have destroyed roads and where protection is urgently needed.

Since the first encounter by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, the giant stone statues (moai) of Easter Island (Rapa Nui, Chile) have engendered speculation and debate. With sizes ranging from about 2 to 10m in height, the distribution of the completed statues meant carving and hauling an estimated 14 000 tons of stone over distances of up to 18km. Despite many experiments and much debate, just how the massive statues were moved remains a mystery, particularly given the lack of historic or ethnographic evidence. Wild claims of transport by volcanic activity (Wolff 1948) and even extra-terrestrials have been proposed (Von Daniken 1974), and Roggeveen felt that the statues were formed in situ by moulding clay or pliable earth (Sharp 1970). However, most archaeologists now agree that the stone statues were moved by some kind of rolling activity (Van Tilburg 1994), by rocking the figures in an upright fashion (Pavel 1990, 1995; Love 1990) or by levering (Lee 1998, 1999, 2000). Additionally, experimental studies have shown that a relatively small number of individuals could move the statues, rather than the large groups of organised labour once considered necessary (see Lee 1998, 1999, 2000; Love 1990, 2000; Van Tilburg 1996).

Despite the long interest and lively debate on how the statues could have been moved, most scholars have paid only passing attention to the presence of extensive road features stretching from the statue quarry at Rano Raraku in multiple directions across the island. In 1919, Routledge (1919: 194) noted that 'the level rays of the sinking sun showed up inequalities of the ground, and, looking towards the sea, along the level plain of the south coast, the old track was clearly seen; it was slightly raised over lower ground and depressed somewhat through higher, and along it every few hundred yards lay a statue'. Routledge (1919) outlined the arrangement of roads over the island and sketched a map for segments of a few of them, and while often acknowledged by others, little else was known or made of their significance. In recent years, Love (2000) has undertaken intensive research on the roads and their composite features, including some excavations in the island's southern sector.

Yet despite this recent attention, the roads of Easter Island have never been systematically documented for the island as a whole. Here, we present an extensive analysis of the island's roads as a complement to the intensive studies undertaken recently by Love. Our data have implications for evaluating models for how the statues were moved, and in particular for understanding the scale of labour organisation and investment in monumental statuary and architecture on the island. As we have outlined elsewhere, such investment in monumentality may have played a significant role in the evolution of Easter Island culture (Hunt & Lipo 2001). …

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