The gigantic, long-faced statues found on Rapanui, or Easter Island, have captured the popular imagination since Europeans first visited the remote Pacific island on Easter Sunday, 1722. Why was such intensive labor invested in carving so many (over 950) huge statues? What purpose did they serve for the Rapanui people? How were they transported such long distances by people who did not have knowledge of the wheel? When European sailors and explorers visited the island, they found a barren island with few resources and only about 3000 relatively impoverished inhabitants. There have been documentary films, fictional movies, and books (including Jared Diamond’s Collapse) which tend to theorize that the people of Rapanui committed a form of ecological suicide.
They believed that the statues pointed to a larger population, and a more sophisticated, hierarchical society with surplus resources and the time to devote to such carving. Beginning with this assumption, they imagined a cruel priestly class forcing people to cut down even the last tree on the island, in order to form pulleys and wooden sleds to drag the statues and erect them on altars. Once the trees were gone, there was less rainfall, degraded soil, mass starvation, and the collapse of a civilization – a cautionary tale for our times.
The authors of this fascinating book take a closer look at the archaeological and geologic record, and challenge the conventional wisdom in very convincing ways. For instance, it is completely plausible that the giant palm forests that certainly covered the island when the Polynesian settlers first arrived were killed off by the rats that accompanied the humans. Rats eat seeds and nuts and multiply very quickly. The slow-growing giant palms took sixty years to reach maturity and produce nuts, thus making it impossible for the forest to recover from a rat infestation.
As another example, Rapanui, like many Pacific islands, was formed by volcanic action. Volcanic soils are usually very rich and productive for agriculture. The soil quality of Rapanui is very poor, especially low in minerals. This may indeed have been effected by deforestation, but new research shows that because the volcanic action was so far in the distant past, the soil was already depleted of minerals when the first humans arrived. Rather than being poor stewards of the land, the Rapanui practiced lithic mulching – breaking rocks to help them release minerals and burying them in the soil. To European eyes, the rocky fields looked unproductive, but these rocks enabled the islanders to grow food and survive in a difficult ecosystem for centuries.
The authors, Hunt and Lipo, have re-examined old data and made new discoveries over many years of research in Polynesia and on Rapanui itself. They explain the “mysteries” of the island in excitingly new and rational ways. One such mystery is how the statues were moved. I won’t tell you here, but the title of this book gives a hint. This fascinating book reminds the reader that the scientific method only works properly if even popular theories are continually challenged and revised.