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The Mystery of Easter Island

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Mystery of Easter Island Cover Art

Mystery of Easter Island Cover Art

NOVA/National Geographic and Shop PBS

Mystery of Easter Island. 2012. Produced by Maria Awes and Andy Awes, directed by Andy Awes. Narrated by Lance Lewman. Released in DVD and Blu Ray Formats. Runtime: 54 minutes. Features experimental research of archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, with appearances by former Rapa Nui governor and archaeologist Sergio Rapu Haoa, sculptor Umi Kai, archaeologist Patrick Kirch, industrial designer Max Beach, engineer James Diedesch, palynologist John Flenley, and biologist William Pitt.

Easter Island's Mystery

The statues of Easter Island called moai number approximately 1,000, and they consist of the heads and torsos of large human-like bodies, carved by the inhabitants of this tiny South Pacific Island between about 1000 and 1680 AD. The moai were carved out of soft volcanic bedrock, moved across up to 20 miles of graded terrain and placed on rock platforms called ahu. Weighing as much as 86 tons, the moai's secret is not how they were carved--stone tools and partially carved moai give us plenty of information about that; nor is it about where the source material for the stone was--two quarries are known and have been extensively investigated on the island. The secret is how, after they were carved, these enormous megalithic monuments were moved across the island to be erected in a wide variety of locations.

Over the past hundred years or so, several scholars have come up with different possible ways to move moai--the most successful was arguably that of Joanne van Tilburgh, who in the 1990s built large-scale canoe sleds and successfully dragged experimental moai across wooden rails. But the Rapa Nui islanders themselves have always insisted that, according to their local legends, the moai walked across the island to their places on the platforms. In this new NOVA/National Geographic video called The Mystery of Easter Island, long-time Easter Island researchers Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo attempt to move the moai in an upright position: to make the moai walk.

Statues and "Ecocide"

Rapa Nui's statues are not unique in Polynesian cultures, in fact there are moai statues of wood and stone all over the South Pacific. But Rapa Nui has the most, with nearly 1,000 statues. Archaeological evidence has shown that within about 700 years after initial colonization in 700 AD, Easter Island's culture began to collapse from a prosperous agricultural society into chaos, and that process began before the European sailors arrived in the early 18th century. Early scholars blamed excessive statue building for the disaster, arguing that the key to the failure was the removal of the native palm tree forest, taken down, so the early theories went, in order to build the statues. And there is no doubt even today, that removing the original forest contributed to the downfall of the society.

But, if the original legends are correct that the statues were moved across land in an upright position, without the assistance of logs, statue building had nothing to do with the removal of palm trees. Scholars such as Patrick V. Kirch have used ecological studies of similar islands such as Mangareva to try to figure out the puzzle of the disaster that befell the island. The most balanced view is that the island was deforested by three forces: agricultural slash and burning to build gardens; decimation of the sea bird population, which through guano fertilized the palm trees; and an exploding rat population, focused on palm nut exploitation.

So This is How You Move a Moai

Moving a Moai

Researchers Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo prepare to demonstrate how an Easter Island moai might have been moved (crane not required).

Ben Krueger/National Geographic Television

Basing their research on past scholarship, including that of Sergio Rapu Haoa, Joanne Van Tilburgh and Katherine Routledge, Hunt and Lipo build their moai replica not on the finished moai as they stand on the platforms, but on the "road moai", moai that fell while in transport. They noticed that road moai have D-shaped bases, a lower center of gravity (rather like a bowling pin) and V-shaped notches where the eyes would be. Rather than considering these the marks of failed versions of moai, Hunt and Lipo argue that these are moai engineered to move, that they were first carved to be moved over land; and then after they arrived at their platforms, the moai were recarved for proper placement.

It's an intriguing idea explored in this video: and in an astonishing sequence, the experimental moai indeed does eventually walk across the landscape. You'll just have to see it.

Bottom Line

Let's be blunt: the "Mystery of Easter Island" is not the greatest title in the world. There have been so many different Easter Island videos and books now that keeping them separate on the basis of their titles will be difficult for shoppers. But The Mystery of Easter Island is the best one I've seen. It provides a balanced viewpoint concerning the various disasters that befell the Rapa Nui people, and it provides a fully realized description of the trial and error efforts of experimental archaeology.

And heck, I'm convinced: the moai really might have walked.

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