The Times Literary Supplement

October 19, 2011

Fallen Idols: On Easter Island

Tongariki, Easter Island
Tongariki, Easter Island (Roger Atwood)

Centuries of folklore and knowledge were lost, and in its place a melodramatic pseudo-history of man-eaters and self-induced catastrophe arose.

The Times Literary Supplement

October 19, 2011

Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island

237 pp.  Free Press.  £16.07 (US $26)

978 1 4391 5031 3 

By Roger Atwood

The enigma of Easter Island was long supposed to have been solved.   Its Polynesian inhabitants, we were told, felled the island’s trees to clear land for their heedlessly growing population and to build wooden sleds with which to carry their stone statues, the moai, to ceremonial platforms.  Soon there were no trees with which to make canoes to travel back to the islands from whence they came.  Trapped in a prison of their own making, they fell into a cataclysm of dwindling resources, war and cannibalism.  They died by their own wretched excess.  Humans everywhere, take note. 

This narrative was, in retrospect, ripe for the skewering.  The problem was not that it mechanically blamed all the island’s misfortunes on its original inhabitants. As anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo assert in this fascinating book, the “ecocide” story was based on a misreading of historical sources and field archaeological evidence and, more perniciously, early western assumptions about the island that crept into the record and remained unchallenged through decades of scholarship.  They spend a lot of ink trying to debunk Jared Diamond’s 2005 bestseller Collapse and other purveyors of the ecocide theory.  In its place, they offer not only a radically new perspective on the island’s history, but a critical study on how the west interacts with isolated societies and how bias continues to infect our understanding of them.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in its native language, rises from the South Pacific about 2,000 miles west of the Chilean mainland.   To visit, as I did in August, is to feel you’ve arrived on another planet, a place with an overwhelming sense of isolation and strangeness.   Nearly 1,000 moai cover the island, some as tall as a three-storey building and many others left where they fell centuries ago.  The moai do not look out to sea.  Nearly all face into the interior of the island.  When you gaze upon them, you face the cosmos from which Rapa Nui’s seafaring ancestors came, and from where no one else followed until the arrival of Europeans in 1722.

There is little debate now on the origin on the first inhabitants – they’re from Polynesia, probably the Marquesas islands, and not Peru as adventurer Thor Heyerdahl posited.  The date of their arrival is obscure.  Hunt and Lipo, on the basis of their own excavations and carbon-dating, say humans arrived about 1200 AD, at least three centuries later than the date supported by Diamond and most other writers.  Thus the authors start with a more compressed timeline for the island’s pre-European settlement, buttressing their overarching point that western trade and disease arrived earlier and hit much harder than previously understood.        

When they arrived, the voyagers found an island teeming with life.  Today it’s mostly treeless, yet the island was once covered in forests of a now-extinct palm that towered 100 feet and was, while it lived, possibly the tallest palm in the world.   Its disappearance is, in some respects, the unanswered question from which all other questions about Easter Island derive.  Diamond and others propose a straightforward case of over-exploitation.  Island clans strove to outdo each other to build bigger and finer moai, cutting more and more tree trunks to lug the statuesto every corner of the island, until there were no trees left.

Hunt and Lipo attack this scenario. The trees were killed off mostly by rats, they argue, which ate their seeds and shoots faster than they could regenerate.   Humans surely cut down plenty, but fossil palm nuts are invariably punctured by rat teeth and could never germinate.   Diamond also cites the rodent factor.  But Hunt and Lipo bring a wider range of evidence to the table, including studies from Hawaii showing how rats can multiply into the millions in a few years and have profound effects on ecosystems.  

Next they question the moai argument. There is no evidence, they say, that islanders ever transported the statues horizontally and, thus, that they used timber sleds.  The moai, they assert,were moved vertically with ropes and muscle, rocked and pivoted like refrigerators along roads radiating out from the quarry where they were hewn.  Those roads can still be seen today, and all along them are moai that have plainly fallen and broken into two or more pieces on impact.  If they were sliding horizontally, it’s hard to see how this could have happened.  Oral traditions speak of the statues “walking” upright to their ritual sites.

Far from the source of Rapa Nui’s downfall, Hunt and Lipo believe moai construction had the effect of keeping the population down.  Citing studies of other societies in extremely resource-challenged environments, such as the Inuit, they view the making of moai as a classic “bet-hedging” strategy by which people channel the reproductive urge into something else – in this case, statues.  It may not be a conscious decision, they explain, but people in many societies will forego children in favor of engaging in massive, civic projects.  It’s not an easy argument to sustain: they preferred carving to screwing.  The authors maintain the population indeed stood at a manageable 3,000 when the first Europeans arrived, not the 15,000 or more suggested in previous accounts.

Hunt and Lipo see flabby assumptions everywhere in the story of Easter Island.  They challenge the thesis that statue-erecting shows the island had some kind of central authority to organise it all. Variations in moai style from village to village suggest independent traditions, they write, and anyway dispersed and small-scale societies from Stonehenge to Ohio mound-builders have been capable of monumental art.  The whole notion of culture being a product of surplus resources, or that high art can be made only by centralised, “highly evolved” societies is bunk, they assert.  

Next comes the war that supposedly followed the islanders’ depletion of natural resources.  The island shows none of the hilltop fortifications or defensive earthworks seen elsewhere in Polynesia, they note, and the “trench” on the island’s eastern side that tour guides explain was dug by one faction to bury the other alive is a natural formation caused by  the confluence of two lava streams.

Collapse followed the introduction of European disease, they maintain.  Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived on Easter Sunday, 1722, and described well-tended gardens, hundreds of standing statues, and, in his words, “whole tracts of woodland” — remnants of the native forest. He stayed a few hours, just long enough, Hunt and Lipo believe, for his men to introduce venereal diseases to the trusting, curious islanders.  On this point, Hunt and Lipo ironically echo Diamond’s own Guns, Germs, and Steel of 1997, which dramatically showed the power of exotic disease to transform societies.  It’s also the most speculative part of their argument.  As Diamond, Charles Mann and others have shown, we have ample evidence for the implosion of aboriginal populations in the Americas in eyewitnesses accounts of abandoned towns, colonial death records and mass graves.  Hunt and Lipo have none of this, at least not for the 48 years that followed Roggeveen’s visit.  They say the Dutch visit “likely” caused the population to plunge to a few hundred, recovering to 800 or so by the time the next Europeans arrived, a Spanish party in 1770.

The Spaniards stayed six days, long enough to land plenty of microbes. Warmly received, the Spaniards remarked on the island’s liberal sexual mores and how the native men did not object to the women offering them favours. 

The next visitor, Captain Cook, arrived in 1774 and found the place a wreck.  Islanders lived in miserable huts and caves, human bones lying about, “precisely what the aftermath of epidemic and a population crash would look like,” the authors write.  The Europeans knew nothing yet of germ theory and, in any case, never stayed long enough to see its effects.   

More traumas followed.  In one of the best chapters, the authors explain how the arrival of European goods led to the collapse of moai traditions.  Islanders continued to venerate the moai  as late as 1770, yet they were entranced by the jaunty hats, jackets, tools, and weapons brought by the outsiders and brazenly stole them.  With these new symbols of prestige, the old ways lost their value and the neglected moai toppled over – not levelled in the iconoclastic frenzy that previous authors have posited.  At the quarry, I saw hundreds of half-carved moai , abandoned when the cult died.  By 1830, only eight statues stood on their original platforms.  The island became a popular port-of-call for adventurers and whalers from all over Europe and America, attracted by its “sweet potatoes, bananas, idols, brackish water and sex.”  For a time ship captains avoided the island because of its reputation for syphilis, and by 1868 not a single moai stood. Its native worship dead, the island became little more than a brothel.

Curiously, it was not until 1845 that claims of cannibalism appeared, in a French account of a sailor who returned to ship covered in teeth marks and alleging the islanders tried to eat him alive.  It was probably a hoax, say Hunt and Lipo, but “the cannibal label” stuck and was embellished with similarly lurid tales that reinforced colonial stereotypes about the heathen past just as missionaries were settling in to save souls.  

The final, nearly fatal blow arrived in the form of Peruvian slave-raiders in 1862, who rounded up over 1,400 islanders and shipped them to Peru to dig guano.  Many were by then Christian converts, and the forcible “blackbirding,” as the practise was known, drew international condemnation. It came too late.  The few, pustuled islanders who straggled home brought a new wave of smallpox, and by 1877 the population was down to 110.  Centuries of folklore and knowledge were lost, and in its place a melodramatic pseudo-history of maneaters and self-induced catastrophe arose.  

Chile annexed the shattered island in 1888 and turned it over to sheep ranchers, whose livestock extinguished what little was left of the native vegetation.  The majestic native palm, still alive as late as the 1840s, finally disappeared.  Somehow the island’s Polynesian language survived, one of the few living connections with the past.  You hear it today in shops, homes and hip-hop bands, muddled with Spanish but unmistakably alive.  A hundred or so mighty moai  have been re-erected on their platforms. 

Fresh, revisionist, multi-disciplinary – this book is a bracing read. For those who saw Easter Island as a parable of apocalypse, its conclusions will come as something of a letdown. It was not civil war that ended Easter Island’s cultural golden age, but the inadvertent introduction of European germs.  It was not human excess that killed its forests, but escaped rats.  “History is the witness that Rapa Nui suffered near genocide, not self-inflicted ‘ecocide,’” write the authors.  There are plenty of lessons for today’s world in this story, just not the ones we thought.