"Easter Island is not Earth."
January 28, 2013 12:21 AM   Subscribe

The Statues Walked — What Really Happened on Easter Island

The story of Easter Island, famously told by Jared Diamond as "a society that destroyed itself", is probably all wrong. Stewart Brand summarizes what really happened:
Polynesians first arrived as late as 1200AD. There are no signs of violence---none of the fortifications common on other Pacific islands, no weapons, no traumatized skeletons. The palm trees that originally covered the island succumbed mainly to rats that arrived with the Polynesians and ate all the nuts. The natives burned what remained to enrich the poor soil and then engineered the whole island with small rocks (“lithic mulch”) to grow taro and sweet potatoes.(*) The population stabilized around 4,000 and kept itself in balance with its resources for 500 years until it was totally destroyed in the 18th century by European diseases and enslavement. (It wasn’t Collapse; it was Guns, Germs, and Steel.)
The trees were not cut down to move the statues, the statues were walked upright using simple rope techniques, as demonstrable "100 yards in 40 minutes. A family could move one" - no trees needed. Book review of The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo .

(*) The sweet potato was cultivated in Peru, how did it get to Easter Island? "There's a lot of evidence accumulating over the last 10 years that the Polynesians made landfall in South America" centuries prior to Columbus.
posted by stbalbach (30 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is quite interesting. Having read Diamond’s Collapse I was sure
he had found the answer. If only those statues could speak.
posted by quazichimp at 12:43 AM on January 28, 2013


"Lithic mulch."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:51 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a good piece about this exact thing in Nat Geo last year. I love history, it's full of surprises.
posted by smoke at 1:03 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just finished reading Collapse, so I find this interesting...

It wasn’t Collapse; it was Guns, Germs, and Steel

So, there is no escaping Mr Jared Diamond after all!!!
posted by The Illiterate Pundit at 2:28 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shame at being the self-destructive dopes of history has been replaced by pride, they said.

C'mon now. The people of Easter Island are far more famous for (and likely proud of) those eponymous statues than as "self-destructive dopes" of the latest pulp-non-fiction paperback.

There's a lot of evidence accumulating over the last 10 years that the Polynesians made landfall in South America" centuries prior to Columbus.

No doubt that fishermen have been getting lost at sea as long as people have been building boats, but that's not quite the same thing as exploration.
posted by three blind mice at 2:54 AM on January 28, 2013


This is really cool. It's weirder and more complicated, and therefore more believable as actual history, to Diamond's account. I've just recently finished all three of his books, and love his take on history, ecology, and georgraphy, but I'm certainly not wedded to his views. Kind of sad that he's apparently not being very gracious about this new theory.
posted by cthuljew at 3:03 AM on January 28, 2013


Isn't it more likely that the trees were destroyed by rats AND burning? It's been a while since I read Collapse, but I didn't recall Diamond's thesis to be 'they chopped down all the trees to move the statues, the end.' Could be wrong.
posted by angrycat at 3:49 AM on January 28, 2013


Reading just the first line of this post, I was utterly convinced I'd be clicking through to find some amazing web comic or animation about "the real story of Easter Island."

Reality, while interesting (as this post is), can be such a let down.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:52 AM on January 28, 2013


three blind mice: "There's a lot of evidence accumulating over the last 10 years that the Polynesians made landfall in South America" centuries prior to Columbus.

No doubt that fishermen have been getting lost at sea as long as people have been building boats, but that's not quite the same thing as exploration
"

Between the sweet potato, the linguistics of its terminology in east and west polynesia, chicken genetics, computer simulation of drift voyaging versus intentional voyaging, and some very recent human genetic evidence, it's looking like there's basically no reasonable way we can attribute the sorts of contact we're seeing between S. America and Polynesia to drift voyaging or accident.
posted by barnacles at 4:40 AM on January 28, 2013 [16 favorites]


No doubt that fishermen have been getting lost at sea as long as people have been building boats, but that's not quite the same thing as exploration.

It is broadly acknowledged that the ancestral Polynesians were amongst the greatest sea navigators and explorers known. Referring to Polynesians as "lost fishermen" is roughly equivalent to calling Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, or Ulysses Grant "military hobbyists".
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 4:45 AM on January 28, 2013 [28 favorites]


angrycat: "Isn't it more likely that the trees were destroyed by rats AND burning? It's been a while since I read Collapse, but I didn't recall Diamond's thesis to be 'they chopped down all the trees to move the statues, the end.' Could be wrong."

Pretty much wrong. Diamond's a fun author and his book is a good read, but these days he's not really pushing the bounds of research in Pacific biogeography and prehistory. Hunt's been working on the palm endocarp stuff for what must be almost a decade now (too lazy to check my library, sorry) and his team has shown that between rat breeding rates, palm tree reproduction rates, and the sorts of human population growth that tends to occur on newly colonized islands that even though human use would have made a dent in the tree populatons it wouldn't have had anything on the sort of predation done by rats.

The palms on Easter Island had evolved for so long in an absense of predation that they simply weren't able to cope when the rats got there and found such tasty and easy food. And as has been seen on island after island, when rats pop out four of five litters a year and reach sexual maturity super fast, they just overwhelm the ecosystems that had spent the last odd million years evolving without them. Ferocious little bastards, rats, but you have to kind of admire their tenacity. A bit human-like, really.
posted by barnacles at 4:47 AM on January 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


If only those statues could speak.
Indeed!
posted by rongorongo at 4:58 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]



Pretty much wrong. Diamond's a fun author and his book is a good read, but these days he's not really pushing the bounds of research in Pacific biogeography and prehistory.


He wasn't trying. He didn't devote much space at all to Easter Island in his book. He just used the conventional wisdom about the island as a starting point .

So, okay, the Rapa Nui didn't fuck up. (Except by carrying rats)

We still are fucking up though.
posted by ocschwar at 5:50 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a nice just-so story, but at least it isn't so psychotically neat and tidy as any of Diamond's just-so stories.

Anyone who intelligently refutes Diamond's fantasies is ok with me.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:53 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was hoping this was about how underneath those stone heads is a stone body, ready at a moment's notice to rip itself out of the ground and ATTACK! I got to find that old comic from the early 80s that gave the real truth about Easter Island...
posted by Vindaloo at 6:09 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Referring to Polynesians as "lost fishermen" is roughly equivalent to calling Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, or Ulysses Grant "military hobbyists".

Churchill's one big military op was Gallipoli. "Military Hobbyist" is a *perfect* description for him. It went so well that he resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty and ended up commanding a battalion on the line in WWI, not incompetently, but not with distinction.

Churchill was a very good politician indeed. But as a military man? Not so much. He liked the shiny, which was good for the UK in the sense that they got onto the tank and plane bandwagon early, but bad in the sense that they chased a whole bunch of other, less useful things.
posted by eriko at 6:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was hoping this was about how underneath those stone heads is a stone body

There is. Those are big statues, buried in holes.
posted by thelonius at 6:22 AM on January 28, 2013


Yes, Easter Island is not Earth, but Stuart Brand doesn't really believe in human-caused climate change either. He's exactly the guy to promote a contrarian version of the Easter Island story because it supports his vision of how the future should unfold. I'd much rather hear this argued by archaeologists who know the history of the work on Easter Island.
posted by sneebler at 6:40 AM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


If only those statues could speak.

If only those people could speak. But most of them were killed by disease, then warfare (much internal), then the remaining population was broken up by slavers. It's really hard to retain a cultural history through that kind of decimation. And what history they have is generally dismissed as ignorant mythology.

There's writing, although it seems most likely it comes after European contact. Also a lot of petroglyphs carved everywhere that are presumably pre-contact. But we mostly don't know what they mean.

This new story about what happened in Rapa Nui is interesting. But it shares the same flaw Diamond's story does, which is that somehow you could wrap up the history of an entire people in a few paragraphs, based on the interpretations of a few years' worth of archaeological research. The real world is more complicated.
posted by Nelson at 7:57 AM on January 28, 2013


There is oral history that the statues were walked.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 AM on January 28, 2013


> but Stuart Brand doesn't really believe in human-caused climate change either

I don't know who wrote that part of the wiki entry, but I can hear the grinding of their ax from here. That wiki link does not at all make the case that Brand is a climate change denialist, and if you read the Afterword cited in the link, you can see Brand makes no such argument. He deplores the politicization of climate change science and notes the complexity building climate models, saying,
"...I emphasized the many unknowns in climate dynamics that could trigger “abrupt” climate change—positive feedbacks and tipping points. Let me add further current-unknowns in the climate system that might drive the pace of warming slower or faster than we expect."
So no, Stewart Brand has not suddenly completely reversed his position on anthropogenic global warming. Nor does he "recommend" Paltridge as a "sensible skeptic." He mentions Paltridge all of one time, as someone who influenced Lovelock (from whom the "sensible skeptic" quote actually comes from).


> I'd much rather hear this argued by archaeologists

Perhaps archaeologists like Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, who wrote the book and gave the talk Brand is presenting?
posted by Panjandrum at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


@Alice Russel-Wallace: It is broadly acknowledged that the ancestral Polynesians were amongst the greatest sea navigators and explorers known.

On that topic, I highly recommend Clifford D Conner's book A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks". It has a section on the sophistication of Polynesian navigation, which involved an astonishing body of memorised data based on a moving-reference "sidereal compass", and detailed knowledge of the patterns of refraction and diffraction of ocean swells around islands.
posted by raygirvan at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know who else here has been to Easter Island, but if you ever get the chance, you should go. When you go, you'll realize that the statues are incredible works of art, and each ahu with moai is as complex a monument as Chartres or any other European cathedral of the same era.

The process Hunt and Lipo described is the one the Rapa Nui people have used to re-erect toppled moai before they had help from archaeologists (in the 1950s, for example) and it is the process the Rapa Nui tour guides describe as how the moai were moved once they got to the ahu. I am kind of mystified as to why Hunt and Lipo are so sure there were never any rollers, and on the other hand why van Tilburg and others are so sure that what Hunt and Lipo are discussing is irrelevant, since the moai have to come off the rollers eventually and be maneuvered into place, and we know that the moai that were re-erected in 1955 and shortly thereafter were maneuvered with this very method.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:14 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I don't mean to be all "you have to see them in person" snooty mcsnootypants, but they don't photograph well, any more than a medieval European cathedral does. The combo of the tiny and exquisitely rendered details that, though worn away by hundreds of years, you can still see when you're up close---and the enormous scale, which is just breathtaking---is hard to capture in a 2D medium like photography or film.

My own bias is that the whole "mystery of Easter Island" stuff takes away from the power of this complex cultural achievement.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:20 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pajandrum: I can hear the grinding of their ax from here.

Me too. Sorry, I read an article from Brand (one of my heroes) last year where I thought he was saying that climate change wasn't as big a problem as we thought. I can't find that article, and there are lots of others where he clearly is saying that he thinks CO2 is the biggest problem we face in lots of other places.
posted by sneebler at 10:40 AM on January 28, 2013


Stewart Brand ... Stewart Brand ... who ... oh, I remember now, he's that guy who said we need to embrace nuclear power.
posted by Twang at 1:23 PM on January 28, 2013


Not sure how that's germane, Twang. And as someone has pointed out, Brand is just introducing a piece of work by Lipo and Hunt.
posted by col_pogo at 7:56 PM on January 28, 2013


[Maybe let this thread be about Easter Island, not nuclear power?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:09 PM on January 28, 2013


Anyone else read the Guardian's review of Diamonds "The World before Yesterday"?
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:19 AM on January 29, 2013


That is a pretty terrible review, by someone who obviously and comprehensively missed the entire point of GGS.
posted by moorooka at 11:27 PM on January 29, 2013


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