The Moai of Easter Island–Mute Monuments of a Bygone Era

640px-Moai_Rano_rarakuFew structures capture the imagination the same way as the moai of Easter Island. The structures average about 13 feet tall and weigh in at about 13.8 tons, although the largest could be far more massive. Planted on stone platforms, they have watched over the remote flyspeck of land dubbed Easter Island (known to inhabitants as Rapa Nui, “The Navel of the World”) for hundreds of years. The prevailing thought is that they were carved in the likeness of powerful  chiefs and respected ancestors. They bore witness to the collapse of a once thriving culture, and inspired awe in subsequent explorers, who wondered how people with Stone Age technology managed to carve, transport, and erect such massive structures.

Naturally, some assumed that it was impossible, and guessed that aliens did the deed. However, no serious scholars give any weight to that notion. What has emerged in recent years are two contradictory views of the moai and their construction: either the moai‘s construction was responsible for the ecological devastation that swept across the island, or they bore mute witness while more complex causes resulted in the island’s destruction.

 

Moai and the collapse of Easter Island

"Hodges easter-island" by William Hodges - National Maritime Museum, London - reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg

“Hodges easter-island” by William Hodges – National Maritime Museum, London – reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg

The standard view of Easter Island is that it is a classic story of a civilization that overstretched its natural resources. The resulting collapse was almost wholly self inflicted, and resulted from almost criminal mismanagement of the local ecology. This hypothesis was put forward in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse (which is a very eye opening read by the way.)

This viewpoint hinges on the idea that the construction of the moai was directly responsible for the destruction that would follow. The conventional timeline of settlement of Easter Island has colonists arriving in 800AD. As the population grew, they began to exploit the native resources, particularly the Easter Island Palm, a slow growing variety of palm tree native to the island. While the island appeared to be a garden of Eden, it hid a secret. The soil was actually very poor, relying on wind blown volcanic ash and bird droppings to maintain its fertility. This thin soil was held in place by the trees.

Soon, however, the locals began to exploit birds for food, taking away their valuable contribution to the island’s fertility. In addition, they began increasingly to use the trees in the construction of massive statues, cutting them down to build sleds to drag the massive structures to their final homes, often on the other side of the island from where they were  carved. What followed was a building frenzy, with chiefs trying to one up each other in terms of the size and quality of their statues. Eventually, this frenzy stripped the island of all its trees, which led to soil erosion and agricultural failures. Society collapsed, leading to civil war and, some say, cannibalism. When Europeans arrived in the 1720s, they discovered a civilization that had somewhat stabilized, but was still very near the brink. European diseases and the slave trade shrunk the population further, until at one point only 118 natives lived on the island.

In this view, the island stands as a warning to the world at large. Isolated, with limited resources and no help coming from outside, Easter Island is a microcosm of our Earth, and a frightening warning of what could happen to the whole world if our civilization does not change its habits.

 

A new story emerges

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island? "Pacific rat" by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA - Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_rat.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pacific_rat.jpg

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island?
“Pacific rat” by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA – Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_rat.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pacific_rat.jpg

Easter Island natives don’t necessarily buy into the notion put forth by Diamond. Certainly they agree that the island suffered a massive collapse–nobody is disputing that. They disagree with the means that were used to move the moai. Islanders have always adamantly held that the island’s most famous features walked to their current locations. Two archeologists–Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach–tested that viewpoint by devising a system that used only ropes to “walk” a model statue. With some modifications, they discovered a system that worked, and would allow a team of only 18 men to move an average sized statue. The method involves basically rocking the statue back and forth, walking it across the island as a person might walk a heavy peace of furniture they can’t lift themselves. No elaborate sleds or deforestation required.

If this method is how the moai were moved, and it seems plausible, given the folklore surrounding the statues, it would fundamentally change how the story of the island’s collapse played out. Lipo and Hunt paint a rosier picture of the islanders, pointing to them as conservation minded farmers whose collapse came not out of a building frenzy, but at the paws and teeth of an animal they introduced as a foodstuff–the Polynesian Rat. The rats would have decimated the local bird populations, not to mention that they feasted on palm nuts, ensuring that the slow growing palms could not replace themselves and dooming the island in the process.

The pair also argue that the island was settled far later than was originally believed. Evidence suggests the first colonists arrived in 1200AD, too late, they argue, to destroy the island ecology all on their own. They point to the Rapanui’s stone gardens as evidence of their ingenuity and sustainable farming methods (to be fair, Diamond did the same in his book.) These stone gardens would protect crops from wind erosion, and volcanic rock mulch served to fertilize land and protect seeds.

This argument doesn’t contend that a collapse didn’t happen; it simply says that the collapse wasn’t the direct result of the Rapanui’s actions. Rather, it was mostly predicated by an invasive specie.

While this view is gaining ground, many are cautious in following these assertions. Probably the truth lays somewhere between the two theories, allowing for both invasive species and the actions of the humans who brought them. Easter Island plays her secrets close to the chest, and the island will continue to mystify for centuries to come.

 

Sources:

Bloch, Hannah. “If They Could Only Talk.” NationalGeographic.com. July 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/easter-island/bloch-text?source=news_easter_island_story

 

Lovgren, Stefan. “Easter Island Settled Later, Depleted Quicker Than Thought?” NationalGeographic.com. March 9, 2006. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/03/0309_060309_easter.html

 

National Geographic Staff. “Easter Island Mystery Solved? New Theory Says Giant Statues Rocked.” NationalGeographic.com. June 22, 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120622-easter-island-statues-moved-hunt-lipo-science-rocked/