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Engineers of Easter Island Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and Ted Ralston

[image] A team of laborers lever a nine-ton concrete moai into an upright position atop a replica ahu, or platform, on Easter Island. (Jo Anne Van Tilburg) [LARGER IMAGE]

Since their discovery in 1722, the monumental stone statues on Easter Island, a 64-square-mile volcanic island in the South Pacific, have been among the world's most curious relics of antiquity. Carved from volcanic tuff, the statues, which weigh an average of 14 tons each, were erected some 500 years ago by descendants of Polynesian seafarers who had settled the remote island around the close of the first millennium A.D. Just how these monuments, or moai, were carved, transported, and erected has been the subject of an intense and long-standing scholarly debate.

Long before Western explorers entered the Pacific, Polynesian mariners had developed advanced seafaring technology. Sailing robust and durable vaka, double-hulled canoes 100 feet or more in length, or massive sea-going rafts, they explored and settled every habitable island in the world's largest ocean. After several decades of experiments re-creating vessels and voyaging routes, researchers have demonstrated that Polynesian watercraft could survive for thousands of miles through rough seas because of their solid design, sturdy materials, and careful construction.

We believe that it was this very technology, the building of seagoing craft, that enabled Easter Islanders to erect the monumental sculptures for which they are famed. With the backing of NOVA/WGBH Boston we took to the field in April 1998 to test our theories, which had been evaluated previously only through computer simulations (see "Moving the Moai," January/February 1995). Our experiments will be broadcast as part of NOVA's Secrets of Lost Empires series in February 2000.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg is a research associate at the UCLA Institute of Archaeology, and director of the Easter Island Statue Project. Ted Ralston is an aerospace engineer and specialist in propulsion with the Boeing Company.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America