Ewa Resident’s Research Leads To New Theories On Rapa Nui

Ewa Beach resident Terry L. Hunt, Ph.D. has been helping research and define the early and developing history of Pacific Island regions for decades. In recent years, Hunt has trained and taught students about the techniques of anthropology and archaeology through on-location field work programs in Fiji and Rapa Nui.

Hunt graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UHHilo before heading to New Zealand for his graduate studies in archaeology and anthropology. After earning his Ph.D. from University of Washington in Seattle, he took a position at UHManoa’s anthropology department.

“I’ve worked all those years here in Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea doing broad synthetic work on the Pacific comparative analysis,” said Hunt. “For the last 12 years I have been researching on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, where we run our field school for UH students.”

Through his research, Hunt, along with Dr. Carl Lipo, concluded primary theories about the civilizational devastation on Easter Island that significantly opposes previously favored accounts.

Previous theories have suggested that the Rapanui (Easter Island civilization) had subjected themselves to environmental ecocide, ravaging their own resources by cutting down trees in order to use them as carriers for their monumental moai (statue) placement throughout the island.

In Hunt and Lipo’s book, The Statues That Walked, published in 2011, the scientists posit that these previous conventional theories are certainly debatable and detail their own ideas about the moai transportation mechanisms used by the Rapanui, as well as their ideas regarding the civilization’s rapid decrease in population.

To Hunt and Lipo, the palm trees, which in previous theories were thought to have been used to roll the moai to their placement on the island, were too soft to support the massive stone statues. And, it also seems that cannibalism didn’t cause the rapid population decrease of the civilization, but in fact it may have been the result of an influx in Polynesian rats, which initially made their way to the island as stowaways with the original Polynesian voyagers. Hunt and Lipo assert that the overabundance of rats, whose main food supply was the palm tree seeds and sprouts, may have left the island’s forest with an inability to reproduce and recycle new trees. There may have been some deforestation done by the Rapanui themselves, but nothing to the extent that would have had catastrophic environmental effects.

Since the palm trees weren’t used to transport the moai, Hunt and Lipo’s research shows that Rapanui used a mechanism of rocking the statues back and forth with ropes or harnesses connected to either side, moving them slowly but steadily into their final places of rest.

For Hunt, there is still years of research ahead, but these current findings are remarkable on an anthropological scale and show that knowledge about how civilizations have come to be is an ongoing process.