The July 2012 edition of the National Geographic magazine features a cover story on Easter Island’s statues and how these enormous 33 feet tall and 80 ton statues or moai came to existence. Just how the moai were constructed, transported and erected on Easter Island remains a mystery, one leading to a lot of speculation.
To my count, there have been five or so earlier theories on just how the moai were moved. In 1955, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl lead an experiment on Rapa Nui where he and 180 men tried to erect a 13 foot, 10 ton moai on a tree trunk and drag it. A Rapa Nui onlooker informed him how, “totally wrong,” he was. He published two large volumes of scientific reports titled Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific and later Heyerdahl added a third to the collection, The Art of Easter Island.
William Mulloy, an American anthropologist, theorized in 1970 the erection of the maoi using a desktop model. He thought he could swing the moai forward in steps while hanging the statue by the neck from an inverted wooden V structure. A photo of his model in deployment can be found on the Wikipedia page outlining his time on Rapa Nui. Sixteen years later, in 1986, Czech engineer Pavel Pavel along with Heyerdahl and 17 assistants walked on of the real 13 foot, 9 ton moai by using a twisting motion, and not a rocking motion. In doing so, they damaged the base, but the Wikipedia page on his efforts indicate success.
Within a year of Pavel’s trials, archaeologist Charles Love showed much more success. He and a team of 25 people stood up a replica 13 foot, 9 ton on a wooden sledge and then hauled it on rollers. In two short minutes they moved the replica 148 feet. Another American archaeologist, Jo anne Van Tilburg, gave it a shot in 1998. She and her team of 40 volunteers laid a 13 foot, 10 ton replica also on a wooden sledge. They were able to move the statue 230 feet, using a Polynesian wood ladder.
In the cover story, If They Could Only Talk, archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo bring up a new theory one that is potentially plausible; three small groups of people balanced the statues on its base and transported it by guiding and waddling it along with ropes.
The video below shows just how they do it:
The article also offers up a larger context and reinterpretation of the Easter Islanders, one which describes them as adaptable and sustainable,
“…based on their own archaeological survey of the island, they think its population grew rapidly after settlement to around 3,000 and then remained more or less stable until the arrival of Europeans.
Cleared fields were more valuable to the Rapanui than palm forests were. But they were wind-lashed, infertile fields watered by erratic rains. Easter Island was a tough place to make a living. It required heroic efforts. In farming, as in moai moving, the islanders shifted monumental amounts of rock—but into their fields, not out. They built thousands of circular stone windbreaks, called manavai, and gardened inside them. They mulched whole fields with broken volcanic rocks to keep the soil moist and fertilized it with nutrients that the volcanoes were no longer spreading.”
Additionally, Hunt & Lipo describe how the Rapanui people were the victims of genocide, decimated by disease introduced by Western explorers and 19th century slave trading, an idea that resonates with many other indigenous populations. Both ideas are at odds with the prevalent idea that the Rapa Nui people are one of the prime examples of ecocide, by exploiting their environment to the point of no return, as explained by Hunt himself in 2005 and supplemented by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
These new ideas are thought-provoking and will fuel the discussion for years to come. If you would like to read more, be sure to pick up a copy of the article or check it out online. There is also an iPad app where you can read the paper and interact with multimedia features.