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The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the…

The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island

by Terry Hunt

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Using recent archeological and anthropological research, this provides an alternative to the usual tale of eco-suicide (as described in Diamond's "Collapse"). Fascinating description of the history and people of the island. ( )
  bke | Mar 30, 2014 |
I really enjoyed this book, it was interesting and informative. I have always been fascinated with Easter Island and its famous statues and now I know much more about them. The book draws on past research but brings that research up to date. I found the book well written and the material presented in a logical order. The book uses images such as photographs, maps and charts to illustrate the data but I would have liked to have seen more images. Overall the book is a fun read that told me the history of that amazing island and its incredible people. ( )
  Chris177 | Feb 23, 2014 |
I cannot speak for anyone who does not have an acquaintance with the previous studies that have taken place. I don’t know how this book would feel to someone who did not have at least a passing understanding of, at the very least, some of Thor Heyerdahl’s work.

However, for me this was a fascinating next chapter in trying to understand just what happened on this small little island in the middle of the ocean.

The authors started their research with the idea that the studies wouldn’t add much more to what is already known – that things had been studied to death and that there was little chance of upsetting the currently conceived notions about Easter Island. But by looking a little deeper, by not necessarily accepting what had gone before, by opening up to other disciplines to bring new understanding, those notions fell by the wayside, and a new understanding of the original Easter Island inhabitants comes to light. A much fairer picture. A picture that is much more believable when we stop and think that they were human beings just like us.

As I say, if this is your first introduction to Easter Island, I can’t say you will find this entire book as fascinating as I did. But I also believe it is as good a place to start as any to begin the voyage of discovery. ( )
  figre | Aug 19, 2012 |
I really enjoyed this scientific unravelling of the mysteries of Rapa Nui. Although truth doesn't prove to be stranger than fiction in this case, it's a lot more compelling. The authors propose far more plausible, if mundane, explanations for the well-known conundrum that is the island: rat infestations, disease epidemics spread by European contact, cultural traditions that gave way to a European barter economy, and a number of faulty assumptions made by the earliest discoverers. For instance, Rapa Nui most likely never had any good timber trees to begin with.

Two chapters where the authors strayed outside their expertise were particularly weak: one that attempted to explain game theory in order to show why the islanders managed to resist killing each other for so long, and one that muddled clumsily through an explanation of how diverting resources from food production to "bet-hedging" strategies like building statues can make evolutionary sense. This may be true, but the explanation wasn't convincing.

Indeed, the best parts of the book start from solid evidence and make the smallest possible leaps of faith, and use the simplest interpretation. Lithic mulches were a great discovery. Why so many statues? The authors don't know, and don't even guess. Excellent. ( )
  stevage | Dec 28, 2011 |
Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a remote island in the eastern Pacific, scattered with the remains of huge monolithic statues; with a native population whose collective memory of their pre-historic culture has been virtually eliminated by the ravages of their contact with “civilization” over the last 200 years or so, it presents a mystery that many modern researchers have tried to solve. Why did they construct so many of the giant statues ? How did the inhabitants survive for hundreds of years in such a marginal ecological environment – the island has irregular rainfall, no sources of running water, and its volcanic soils are leached of important minerals, and consequently unproductive for many crops that are staple on other Polynesian islands ? Is there in fact a connection between the expenditure of the limited natural resources of the island on building the statues, the current exhausted state of the island’s ecosystem, and the virtual collapse of the native population (down to 110 individuals in 1877) in historic times ?

It is this last hypothesis which has been most explicitly espoused by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book “Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed”. Diamond describes how the reckless use of resources in the quarrying, transportation and erection of the giant statues first denuded the island of its trees, and led to the consequent erosion and mineral impoverishment of its soils; then how rivalry between different clans for the few remaining resources led to intercommunal violence, and the breakdown and final collapse of island society.

The research carried out personally by the present authors leads them to a completely different narrative. Yes, the arrival of the Polynesian colonists in about 1200 AD led to the destruction of the native palm forests. But this was not because they cut the trees down for fuel, or to create sleds to transport the statues and ramps to erect them; it was the Polynesian rats that accompanied the colonists on their canoes – who met no local predators, and whose population grew exponentially - that did the damage. Reflected in the book’s title, the authors convincingly demonstrate how megalithic statues weighing many tons could be “walked” along specially prepared pathways without recourse to wooden sleds.

The assumption, that the state of the island’s pristine volcanic soils prior to colonization would have made them suitable for producing the usual Polynesian crops, is shown to be mistaken; the volcanic activity that created Rapa Nui was so far in the past, that the island’s soils had already been leached of minerals hundreds of thousands of years before any humans arrived on its shores. Although the disappearance of the palm forests did lead to a further deterioration in the soil, the natives were able to deal with that, as they had developed techniques of cultivation for getting the best out of this impoverished environment. All the evidence suggests that a stable population of about 4000 individuals was able to subsist on the island for about 500 years.

It was the arrival and contact with Europeans in the 18th century that led directly to the collapse of island society. Although largely undocumented, because of the sporadic nature of these arrivals, the usual ship born cargo of European diseases – smallpox, syphilis, plague, and other infections to which Europeans had over the centuries developed natural resistance – undoubtedly literally decimated the island’s population. The effect of the first and brief contacts by European explorers with other island and New World populations has been well documented; it is estimated, for example, that the first contacts with North American natives resulted in the loss of up to 90% of that population even before the first permanent colony was set up on the eastern seaboard. In the case of Rapa Nui, the unintentional ravages of European diseases were further compounded by the virtual enslavement of this captive population on their own island by rapacious individuals and companies who indentured them into working on the gigantic sheep farm that the island became for about 80 years. It was only in the 1950’s, when the Chilean government got rid of these exploiters, that the population had some relief and began to rebound numerically.

The authors’ narrative of what happened is very clearly and convincingly presented. What is less successful is their analysis of why – why did the islanders spent so much time and effort in the construction of the gigantic statues. In general terms it is obvious that the statues played some role in Polynesian religion, probably related to ancestor worship; there is evidence of similar types of statuary – though neither so prolific nor so gigantic – on other islands. But the specific explanations they offer lack credibility. The authors have borrowed some textbook explanations from the field of evolutionary psychology, which they slot in here in an attempt to provide their answer to the mystery.

Building the statues was a form of “costly signaling”; like the peacock’s tail, conspicuous consumption of resources communicates “ better not mess with us, because we mean business; we’ll do whatever it takes”. According to the authors, this was a strategy used by the Rapanuans to avoid conflict between different groups – families, clans – on the island. Again, they convincingly demonstrate the “what” – that there is no evidence, either in weaponry or in skeletal remains – of large scale intercommunal violence; but their “why” leaves much to be desired.

An additional explanation offered is that “cultural elaboration” – which in this case means building bigger and bigger statues – diverts resources that might otherwise be used in having a greater number of offspring, during periods when the island’s marginal and unreliable agriculture might not be able to support a growing population. Although they dutifully explain that individuals do not have to have a deliberate awareness of these strategies for them to have these effects, this explanation also lacks credibility. My understanding of the so-called “bet-hedging” reproductive strategy is that it applies to individuals, not to groups, and that it is essentially a biological response to variations in resources that increases the overall fitness of the individual. Arguing that it can also be a cultural response, which increases the fitness of a group, seems somewhat problematic.

Despite these drawbacks, the book is very worthwhile. Unlike Jared Diamond’s a priori thesis, the authors’ is based on very thorough empirical research. It certainly unravels at least part of the story of Easter Island even if it does not solve the whole mystery; but, absent the discovery of some Polynesian Rosetta Stone, that may remain a mystery for some time. ( )
  maimonedes | Nov 29, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Terry Huntprimary authorall editionscalculated
Barrett, JoeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Professor Robert C. Dunnell (December 4, 1942-December 13, 2010), mentor and friend, whose contributions to archaeology and to our thinking made this book possible.
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Mention Easter Island to just about anyone and "mystery" immediately comes to mind.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The monumental statues of Easter Island, gazing out in their imposing rows over the island's barren landscape, have been a great mystery ever since the island was first discovered by Europeans. How could the ancient people who inhabited this tiny speck of land, the most remote in the vast expanse of the Pacific, have built such monumental works, and moved them from the quarry where they were carved to the coast? And if the island once boasted a culture sophisticated enough to have produced such marvelous edifices, what happened to that culture? The prevailing accounts of the island's history tell a story of self-inflicted devastation: a glaring case of eco-suicide. But when Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo began carrying out archaeological studies on the island in 2001, they uncovered a very different truth: they show that the Easter Islanders were remarkably inventive environmental stewards, rich with lessons for confronting the daunting environmental challenges of our own time.--From publisher description.… (more)

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