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Moai of Easter Island

Moai facing inland at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
(Rivi/Wikipedia Commons)

When the famous British explorer Captain James Cook arrived on Easter Island in 1774, he described a group of malnourished natives eking out their existence on a barren Pacific island in the shadows of enormous volcanic-rock statues. The solemn faces of the moai that dotted the landscape seemed to be the work of a large, highly organized society that had suddenly fallen apart. Archaeologists Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University, Long Beach, offer a different perspective in their book The Statues That Walked (Free Press, $26.00). They cast the people of Easter Island, the Rapanui, as clever engineers and environmental stewards whose population never exceeded a few thousand.

Much of the debate over what caused the collapse of Rapanui society has turned on the amount of labor and resources devoted to constructing and transporting the moai—some weigh as much as 14 tons. Previous researchers believed that this engineering feat would have required large amounts of palm timber. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond stated that the Rapanui cut down the island's palm forests to construct the colossal statues. This environmental devastation was believed to be the cause of a civil war around 1680 that led to starvation, and, finally, cannibalism. Alternatively, Hunt and Lipo cite evidence that the statues were engineered so they could be tilted and twisted "refrigerator style" and could be moved 600 feet a day by just 16 men with ropes. They also believe that hardship on Easter Island was caused by epidemics of disease transmitted by the first encounter with European sailors in 1722.

The authors present a believable case to counter what has become the accepted narrative about Easter Island. Now and again, they step away from the research to take long looks at the island's forlorn beauty, allowing the reader to stand beside them. The book is engaging even as it rescues Rapanui culture from being reduced to a cautionary environmental tale.