MidWeek Cover Story

Solving the Mysteries of Easter Island’s Moai

UH anthropologist Terry Hunt helps formulate new theories that upend everything scientists thought they knew about the people, environment and walking statues of Easter Island.

For centuries, questions of what happened to Rapa Nui’s once thriving ancient population, its once-abundant vegetation, and of how the island’s stone giants were transported, have been among the world’s great anthropological/archaeological mysteries. It is a topic some of the biggest names in those fields have explored, resulting in elaborate theories commonly taught.

Now a new theory arises, co-authored by Terry Hunt, Ph.D., professor at UH Manoa’s Department of Anthropology. For more than a decade he’s been working on Rapa Nui with research colleague Carl Lipo, Ph.D., of Cal State-Long Beach. The two have formulated an original concept to explain the evolution of Rapa Nui’s civilization and the disappearance of much of its vegetation. Coupled with another theory – and later with successful experiments thanks to a grant from the National Geographic Society – the academic duo has also shown how the giant statues, or moai (pronounced mo-eye), may have walked, literally step by step, to their guardian placements.

Their work is shattering many long-held beliefs and theories.

“As we spent time working there,” says Hunt, “we found a lot of things that we thought were well established (but) in fact had no real basis in its evidence.” Rapa Nui, or Easter Island (so named because Dutch explorers “discovered” it on Easter Sunday 1722), is a 63-squaremile blip that lies 2,150 miles west of South America and 4,650 miles southeast of Honolulu. A territory of Chile, much of its mystery lies in its isolation. “It is not like our usual views of Pacific islands,” says Hunt. “There is a real history, a real sense of eeriness in its rugged, desolate beauty. It is like some parts of Hawaii where we have grasslands which reach ocean cliffs, like Kohala or parts of Maui.” He refers to early 20th century archaeologist Katherine Routledge when he mentions that you can feel a presence of departed ancestors everywhere.

Terry Hunt Easter Island

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UH anthropologist Terry Hunt

Hunt and Lipo formed an alliance while at University of Washington. The two shared theoretical interest in smaller regions around the globe, places where populations had to survive despite limited resources.

In 2002, as a professor at UH-Manoa, Hunt got his first glimpse of Rapa Nui leading a field-work program for anthropology students. While chatting with Sergio Rapu, a former student, archaeologist and Rapa Nui’s first native governor, Hunt was urged to continue studies of the island’s people, known as Rapanui, and the island’s history.

Fascinated by Rapa Nui and after gaining the cooperation of Lipo, Hunt began research he never imagined would reach the conclusions it eventually did. The research began at Anakena Beach, where Polynesian travelers are said to have originally come ashore.

“We went to Rapa Nui with the idea that the island’s story was pretty well understood,” says Hunt. “We didn’t go there really critical, and now as I look back we were sort of naïve about it because we just thought the traditional stories were right.”

Traditional stories, including those documented by 18th century European explorers such as Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de LaPerouse and Captain James Cook, had a kind of snowball effect. More modern researchers including Henri Alfred Lavachery of Belgium, Thor Heyerdahl of Norway, and Jared Diamond of the United States strengthened the idea that Rapa Nui, a once lavish paradise, collapsed because of deforestation which ruined agriculture, leading to savage civil warfare and even cannibalism.

For Hunt and Lipo, after spending substantial time on the island, those accepted theories of reckless human behavior and ecocide just didn’t add up. Proceeding with the fundamental principles of anthropology, Hunt and Lipo continuously reminded themselves that objective validity from Rapa Nui’s ecological evidence would solidify their own research.

“We wrote a book (The Statues That Walked) and told a really different story,” says Hunt. “It is not an alternative view, like (in) politics. It is wiping the slate clean, looking at the evidence and asking what happened. A really different story presents itself when you take out parts that are unreliable and you are left with the basics.”

So what does their story say?

It starts with biogeographer John Flenley. Through evidence in pollen preserved in lake sediment – the island has three large lakes in volcanic craters – he concluded Rapa Nui once had been covered by an umbrella of lush palm forests. Rapa Nui is extensively barren today, so deforestation clearly did take place. Previous research claimed Rapanui cleared forests for farming, firewood and as a means to roll their moai from volcanic quarries.

Hunt and Lipo do agree there would have been some premeditated clearing, but assert that the introduction of a common vermin of that time had a tragically devastating affect on the island’s flora – Polynesian rats. They were introduced to a landscape with no predators other than humans, and reproduced rampantly, feasting with gluttony on supplies of nuts and seedlings, ultimately hindering the palm trees’ ability to regenerate.

“The rat was probably a passenger on canoes, and there are good arguments that it may have been an intentional passenger or a stowaway,” says Hunt – adding that Polynesian rats were a safe and stable source of protein for Pacific explorers. Anyone who’s ever had a rat infestation in their home will know how devastating they can be to a property. They tear up whatever they come into contact with and leave a trail of destruction and waste material behind them. One can only imagine what their effects would be on an entire island with no natural predators! The pests would take over! Eating them is not really on the agenda for those living in our modern times. Instead, the likes of pest control pensacola are called out to handle the problem once and for all.

Hunt points out that in most Pacific islands’ ecology, vegetation was complex enough that rats couldn’t deforest a dense forest. But on Rapa Nui, palms with edible nuts were the predominant vegetation, and an infestation of rats would be enough to wipe out a large section of forest, as if in slow motion.

“The evidence shows that (deforestation) was a slow process that took four or five centuries,” says Hunt. “Some of these people probably did not even notice the palms were getting thinner. It was a process that could not be predicted because Easter Island is not like the other islands and the impact would be slow.”

Popular theories have suggested deforestation and poor agriculture, eventually culminated in civil unrest and warfare. Hunt and Lipo aren’t jumping to that dramatic conclusion. To them, it scientifically doesn’t add up.

“If people were killing each other, there would be a lot of evidence in skeletal remains. The occurrence of violence is in the range of 1 to 2 percent, not 30 to 40. There are a few cases of violence, but in any society someone is going to beat or kill someone at some point,” says Hunt – who also argues that artifacts that had been defined as weaponry were simple agricultural tools:

“There is a tool on the island called a mata‘a. It is an obsidian blade that has a handle on it. The people who wanted to see violence found all these tools and said they were weapons. Archaeologists found that the kind of damage on the end of the tools comes from cutting and scraping of plant materials. A great number of them are also found in gardening areas, not necessarily in villages.”

Perhaps infatuated by the melodramatic, previous theorists such as Heyerdahl and Diamond noted that the Rapa Nui civilization was in ruins upon European arrival in the early 18th century. Documentation notes that the giant moai were toppled prior to the arrival of European explorers.

“Five minutes on Google would show you that is not the case,” says Hunt. “Europeans drew many different pictures of standing statues.”

What isn’t highlighted by ethnographers of the past is the catastrophic effect disease and slave trade had on the isolated community.

European encounters describe an earthly paradise when the Dutch first arrived in 1722, and were curious why people didn’t grow more. Later, In 1774 -four years after Spanish encounters note a healthy state of the island – Captain Cook describes a land devastated.

“That is when speculation begins as to how this devastated place could make these large statues. They didn’t recognize disease, they started talking about environmental reasons and there is the beginning of the story – they missed the original cause,” says Hunt, who notes fabrications or inaccuracies in the story may have taken place over time due to racial and environmental motives.

Using a realistic point of view and accounting for the circumstances and resources available, Hunt says, “Rapanui had these incredible accomplishments all with very few resources and in total isolation. The problems came with the germs and slave trading. In a sense Easter Island is this incredible tale of success that only failed with the beginnings of globalization.”

Incredible accomplishments indeed. How else could you describe a relatively small island community being able to construct and transport the monumental sculptures?

Moai seemingly serve the same purpose as Hawaiian tiki. They are representations of deified ancestors, and some may sit on platforms or ahu side by side with the purpose of protection. Records show between 800 and 1,000 moai were constructed, some making it unscathed to their desired resting place, while others were not as fortunate. Fragmented moai can be found in the same quarries they were constructed and scattered throughout the island.

With heights between 10 and 33 feet and weighing upwards of 80 tons, how were these beasts of stone moved? Just as there are theories about the Rapanui civilization, researchers have dissected and created ideas pertaining to the moai transit line. Hypotheses were formulated, contraptions were constructed and attempts successful and unsuccessful have been recorded.

Archaeologists such as Heyerdahl, Mulloy and Pavel Pavel designed reasonable interpretations about the transportation. Some have the moai moving upright, others have them laying horizontally. Thoughts of rolling moai are burdened by the fact that the timber from palms would have been entirely too weak to support their massive weights.

As for Hunt and Lipo, they originally wanted nothing to do with the question of how the moai were moved.

“Our concern was that all these ways were feasible and that we would never know the answer. We didn’t want to enter the debate,” says Hunt.

Their rather unintentionally scientific addition began with an observation of moai that didn’t make it to their ahu, those left in pieces on the grasslands of the cool, windswept island.

“We noticed when the statues were going uphill on the road they were often found on their backs, and when they were going downhill they were found on their face,” he adds.

After numerous statistical analyses, it turned out these findings were not random, which certified in Hunt and Lipo’s minds that the moai were definitely transported vertically.

Using photos transformed into 3D images, they were able to pinpoint detailed dimensions about the moai, which had been overlooked in previous analysis.

Their diagrams emphasized that moai, before being placed on ahus, were built on a forward lean of about 8 to 10 degrees. Also, their center of gravity was in their lower half; they are bottom heavy, almost pot-bellied. They were constructed similar to some of those who built them, the moai were designed to walk.

Getting wind of their theories and the book, National Geographic and NOVA Productions wanted Hunt and Lipo to demonstrate their hypothesis. Still hesitant, but with their backs against the wall, Hunt and Lipo were gifted support from National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council and Hotu Iti (Little Iti), a 10-foot, 5-ton, to the millimeter replica of a Rapa Nui moai.

With that push, Hunt and Lipo stumbled upon an anthropological shake up. They determined that with a series of ropes secured tightly around the moai’s head region, three groups – one on either side and one stabilizing the moai from behind – could walk Hotu Iti in a rather comfortable fashion.

“It became really easy actually,” says Hunt. “We had about a 50 yard section and walked it down, turned it around and walked it back. We could rock it and turn it with no movement, only on its base. That told us you could walk the statue up a ramp on a platform and position it for its final reshaping.

“No one had actually focused on how the Rapanui did it. Others focused on ways that it could be done. It is a subtle difference but a really important one.” With time to reflect on their studies, Hunt is now thrilled he went outside conventional thinking. The two put themselves out there, simply aiming for solid truth based on hard evidence.

“Many of our Rapanui friends get tears of joy when they see the statue moving. They felt the time is way overdue for that story to be overturned.”

Hunt and Lipo’s book The Statues That Walked is now available. Check out thestatuesthatwalked.com.

Also click here to see a video of their experiments hosted at Kualoa Ranch. Tune into PBS Nov. 7 for the airing of the documentary.

Disclaimer: Hunt and Lipo’s research on questions surrounding Easter Island’s past is featured in a cover story in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine. Copying, distribution, archiving, sublicensing, sale or resale of photos is prohibited.