In the most isolated place on Earth a tiny society built world-class monuments. Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is 1,000 miles from the nearest Pacific island, 3,000 miles from the nearest continent. It is just six by ten miles in size, with no running streams, terrible soil, occasional droughts, and a relatively barren ocean. Yet there are 900 of the famous statues (moai), weighing up to 75 tons and 40 feet high. Four hundred of them were moved many miles from where they were quarried to massive platforms along the shores.
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo began their archeological work on Easter Island in 2001 expecting to do no more than add details to the standard morality tale of the collapse of the island’s ecology and society---Polynesians discovered Rapa Nui around 400-800AD and soon overpopulated the place (30,000 people on an island the size of San Francisco); competing elites cut down the last trees to move hundreds of enormous statues; after excesses of “moai madness” the elites descend into warfare and cannibalism, and the ecology collapses; Europeans show up in 1722. The obvious lesson is that Easter Island, “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself“ (Jared Diamond), is a warning of what could happen to Earth unless we learn to live with limits.
A completely different story emerged from Hunt and Lipo’s archaeology. 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.)
What was up with the statues? How were they moved? Did they have a role in the sustainable balance the islanders achieved? Hunt and Lipo closely studied the statues found along the moai roads from the quarry. They had D-shaped beveled bottoms (unlike the flat bottoms of the platform statues) angled 14 ° forward. The ones on down slopes had fallen on their face; on up slopes they were on their back. The archeologists concluded they must have been moved upright---”walked,” just as Rapa Nuians long had said. No tree logs were required. Standard Polynesian skill with ropes would suffice.
“Nova” and National Geographic insisted on a demonstration, so a 5-ton, 10-foot-high “starter moai” replica was made and shipped to Hawaii. After some fumbling around, 18 unskilled people secured three ropes around the top of the statue---one to each side for rocking the statue, one in the rear to keep it leaning forward without falling. “Heave! Ho! Heave! Ho!” they cry in the video, the statue rocks, dancing lightly forward, and the audience at Cowell Theater erupts with applause. Progress was fast, even hard to stop---100 yards in 40 minutes. A family could move one.
Stone statues to ancestors are common throughout Polynesia, but the enormous, numerous moai of Easter Island are unique in the world. Were they part of the peaceful population control and conservative agriculture regime that helped the society “optimize long-term stability over immediate returns” in a nearly impossible place to live?
During the Q & A, Hunt and Lipo were asked how their new theory of Easter Island history was playing on the island itself. Shame at being the self-destructive dopes of history has been replaced by pride, they said. Moai races are being planned. Polynesians were the space explorers of the Pacific. They completed discovering every island in the huge ocean by the end of the 13th century, colonized the ones they could, and then stopped.
Easter Island is not Earth. It is Mars.
BA, University of Hawai'i (1976); MA University of Auckland (First Class Honors, 1980); Ph.D., University of Washington (1989).
I have conducted archaeological field work and related
research in Hawai'i, Samoa, Fiji, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), New Zealand,
and Papua New Guinea.
I joined the faculty at University of Hawai'i in 1988. I have
current affiliations with Bishop Museum, Center for Pacific Islands
Studies, and the Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation Biology Program at
University of Hawai'i.
My research is focused on the archaeological history of the
Pacific Islands. I have framed questions concerning the origins of
social and cultural diversity and the role history - constructed through
archaeology - would necessarily play in disentangling the processes
involved. This research demands multiple lines of complementary data in
such domains as human biology, linguistics, material culture, ethnology,
and archaeology. Explaining human diversification requires that we
understand aspects of emerging social complexity, subsistence, relative
investments in cultural elaboration, and other dynamic trajectories.
Indeed, the focus must be on ecological and evolutionary dimensions of
human history. Addressing such questions requires a theoretical
framework, models to construct our expectations and hypotheses, as well
as a lot of hard work to acquire the necessary data.
I have devoted some of my interests to developing
methodological and theoretical aspects of the discipline as they
articulate with empirical sufficiency, as outlined in our book Posing
Questions for a Scientific Archaeology. While mindful of the deductive
role of theory, I believe that our ability to explain the processes of
history and cultural change must rest on a solid substantive foundation.
Thus, I see our primary goal as building accurate, reliable, and valid
case histories (e.g., islands) where particular research problems are
best addressed. Such a goal has led me to rather diverse research
throughout the Pacific.
I have directed archaeological field schools in Fiji
(1999-2003) and on Rapa Nui (2001-present). In Fiji we have addressed
multiple dimensions of population history, social interaction, and
evolutionary divergence. On Rapa Nui we are critically examining many
aspects of prehistory, but especially questions concerning the evolution
of cultural elaboration.
I am conducting archaeological research and direct an annual archaeological field school on Rapa Nui (Easter Island).
Our field work is designed to investigate multiple aspects of this
small and remote island's prehistory. This work involves several
graduate students, and we envision many additional research
opportunities. We will continue to offer an archaeological field school
in collaboration with the P. Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum on
Rapa Nui. We are also working to train Native Rapanui high school
students in archaeological field methods.
currently serve as a Professor of Anthropology at California State
University, Long Beach (CSULB). I am part of the faculty of that forms
the basis of a (virtual) Program in Archaeology and a founding member of
a multi-disciplinary institute for the study of materials, environments
and society.Â At CSULB, I teach classes in Introductory Archaeology,
World Prehistory, Eastern North American Prehistory, Artifact Analysis,
GIS, Statistics, Method and Theory, Foundations of Anthropology Field
Research Design, Geophysical Techniques, and the Scientific Study of
research focuses on the use of evolutionary theory to generate
scientific explanations about human cultural change in the
archaeological record.Â I see this focus as a critical challenge for the
social sciences and that our ability to be able to due this task vital
to our future.Â My perspective is fairly idiosyncratic to my background
but lodged in the philosophy of science and evolutionary biology.
recent studies include the development of theoretical models and the
construction of methods for studying patterns of change caused by
cultural transmission and the process of natural selection in cultural
addition, I have interests in remote sensing to efficiently and
non-destructively study the record.Â This work includes the use of
magnetometry, resistivity, conductivity, thermal imagery and ground
penetrating radar.Â My field research has taken me from the Mississippi
river valley to Easter Island to California and coastal Guatemala.
work at CSULB, a state school located in the ethereal world of southern
California. We offer BA andÂ MA degrees in AnthropologyÂ though Iâ€™ve
been working on creating some more focused and useful degrees.Â The
archaeology program at CSULB consists of a focused group of courses that
train students within anthropology. We have a dynamite group of MA
students doing work on a huge variety of topics -- most of which end up
as posters at the SAA meetings and/or publications.