By Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo
Free Press, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1439150313
Reviewed by Laura Blasingham
Editor’s Note: I’m happy to have a review by one of my library colleagues, Laura Blasingham, who will be contributing reviews over the next year to Connotation Press. One of the perks of our job is the embarrassment of riches (books) fill our work places. It’s led me to read things I never would have sought out and to take chances on a wide variety of genres. I’m a fan of non-fiction books like. The Statues that Walked that present subjects like archaeology and history for the lay reader like me. And no, aliens didn’t place the statues on Easter Island. ~Stephanie Brown
Islands are fascinating. They are separated somehow from the mundane, the commercial, the hurly-burly experience of we who are on the mainland. They seem to hold all longing—a longing to escape to one, a longing to escape from one. And always surrounded by a blue sea.
Mention Easter Island and the fascination spirals up. Or at least it does for me. Large, multi-ton stone statues are what brands Easter Island in the minds of most people. The carvings, called moai, dot the landscape. Those that ring the sea bluffs, their eye sockets once filled with white coral and black obsidian, face inland, watching the interior.
Who created them? How were they placed without benefit of wheel or animal? What is their story?
I found the answers in the fascinating The Statues that Walked: unraveling the mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo. The book reads like a mystery novel with the two intrepid archaeologists as detectives investigating an ancient crime scene. Not only is the subject matter entrancing, but the writing style is as comfortable as having a conversation with a friend over a meal. And forgetting to eat!
Both professors at academic institutions, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo bring scholarly credentials to their work. Since 2001, they have been leading student researchers to the island for archaeological study and analysis. The authors generously mention student finds and discoveries; enthusiasm for their subject comes through every word. The bibliography is impressive with primary source material, articles, and books inviting one to further research.
Pompousness is missing from this book. And that is what is truly surprising. Because the contents of this book is not just a rehashing of commonly held beliefs about the island and its moai inhabitants, but an overturning of current thought. All done with respect, the writing light and fresh, the research presented thoughtfully rather than ponderously, yet…. each word an arrow in the heart of conventional theory.
Conventional wisdom credits Easter Island with warlike inhabitants from Polynesia who began populating the island around 800 AD (some researchers contend earlier). They built a society focused on the carving and placing of the giant moai. Life centered around the maoi with the islanders caring little about the environment around them.
Destroying groves and groves of giant palms, the inhabitants became the classic example of crass consumers bent on self satisfaction at the expense of environmental good. Thus, the island became barren, food scarce, and war common. The civilization killed itself. Collapse by Jared Diamond covers this story of island destruction in detail and is mentioned by Hunt and Lipo as the common theory of the island’s history.
The central villains, the giant moai, have been the subject of different explanations. It seems inconceivable to us, in our pride, that an island people removed from technology could create and move statues weighing tons. A few explain this away by crediting space aliens. While most archaeologists do not support this idea, it demonstrates the puzzlement of it all.
And what do the islanders themselves say about the statues? Oral legend explains that the statues, given life by the holy men, “walked” from the quarry to their new locations. They walked by day and rested at night until they reached their place on the island. Well, of course, that could not have happened! I mean, really, how quaint, and what a story to tell the youngsters along with Cinderella and Jack’s Beanstalk! Or is there truth to this tale?
Hunt and Lipo are careful to point out that originally they had no interest in turning conventional theory on its head. In 2001, when they began fieldwork on Easter Island, their initial efforts were inventorying the statues and other sites of interest. It wasn’t until 2004, when work begun on analyzing the sand contents of Anakena Beach that things changed. The traditional site of the first settlers’ landing, Anakena Beach is where the evidence began creating a different view of the islanders’ relationship to their environment, each other, and the truth in the oral legends of walking statues.
First, let’s take the lack of trees. Now a treeless, barren patch of earth, Easter Island was once covered with giant Jubaea palms. Jubaea palms grow slowly, producing seeds after sixty years. Their lush abundance is evidenced by the amount of pollen found in the depths of volcanic crater lakes.
New discoveries have revealed that the palm groves began a rapid disappearance around 1200 AD. In fact, so complete was the decimation that when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen first discovered Easter Island in 1722, he described the island as having only a few patches here and there of small trees. In 1774, Caption Cook, needing provisions for his men, was so frustrated by the island’s lack of resources, he stayed only a few days before sailing away to more fertile lands.
So what happened to the trees? Were they destroyed by islanders under subjugation of a powerful ruler who decreed the cult of moai worship take precedence over all? Or is there a simpler, more natural explanation? Hunt and Lipo’s research combined with other findings on the island present a dramatic conclusion far removed from islanders destroying the trees for their own selfish purposes. This conclusion is a description of a phenomenon which has occurred in other islands, other lands all over the world. A phenomenon still happening today.
Besides the deforestation, the creation, movement, and placing of the giant statues have puzzled and mystified since they were discovered. Around 950 of these statues exist on the island today. While retaining the same basic shape, they differ from each other in carving details. In fact, carving characteristics seem to be localized by geographic area, similar to dialects in languages. A fascinating insight, as the island is only 64 square miles in shape.
An ancient quarry has been discovered on the island with multiple moai still in the forming stage. Old roads have also been indentified and even mapped tracing the movement of the statues to their places on the island. Fallen statues along these roads attest to the margin of error in transport. Oral legends of walking statues have been documented.
Hunt and Lipo cover the various studies and tests conducted by researchers over the years, synthesizing findings with their own research to form a rational and completely satisfying explanation. No aliens were involved! And yet, in their theory, the statues did indeed walk. They walked to the sea and rested at night. And their journeys still live on in the tales of the islanders.
The Statues That Walked is more than just a study of statues and trees. It is a study of the islanders themselves. For years, they have been characterized as moai-obsessed warriors who destroyed their own civilization with disregard to the environment and each other. But this book challenges that assumption. Not only with the trumping of conventional wisdom by rational analysis of data but by including what is often forgotten in our statue fascination: the islanders subsequent history after European discovery.
This is the most poignant part of the book. It is a sad tale of slavery, disease, and greed stretching to events occurring today with the tourist trade and ranching conducted by neighboring governments. It is a story too often repeated in history.
Easter Island will always be a place of mystery and fascination. Rational explanations, scientific research, archaeological sifting, all serve to provide only more stage props to a mystery play. The Statues That Walked is a fitting companion as we dream of an island filled with wonders not experienced in ordinary life.
Laura Blasingham is a librarian and library manager with the OC Public Libraries system who is an avid reader and fan of travel narratives.