Easter Island is famous for its 887 giant statues, also called mo‘ai. But how did ancient people move these multi-ton sculptures from where they were built to their present locations? Well, according to legend, they didn’t do anything. Instead, the statues “walked.”
Background on Easter Island’s Moai
The heaviest statue on Easter Island weighs 86 tons. It was carved from compressed volcanic ash (called tuff) sometime between 1250 and 1500. It can be found at Ahu Tongariki, a stone platform on the island’s southern coast. It’s located about a kilometer from the stone quarry at Rano Raraku. So, this begs the question. How did ancient people move 86 tons of tuff from the quarry to the platform without modern equipment?
Many modern researchers believe moving the statues required deforestation. In other words, chieftains forced the islanders to cut down palm trees to serve as sleds, rollers, and/or levers. This deforestation supposedly destabilized Easter Island’s ecosystem. The result was diminished resources, famine, war, and ultimately, depopulation.
Did Easter Island Moai “Walk”?
The question of why civilizations collapse is a fascinating topic. And Easter Island, from a certain point of view, appears to provide an explanation…resource exploitation. Thus, environment-based researchers like Jared Diamond like to compare the Easter Island situation to the present world, suggesting the need for government-led climate intervention. Incidentally, we tend to have a very different theory about why civilizations collapse…excessive centralization.
Unfortunately, this determination to tie Easter Island’s history to our own future may have kept researchers from exploring other scenarios. Thus, a new theory on the statues has caused massive waves among academics. Archaeologist Carl Lipo and anthropologist Terry Hunt believe the statues moved via a very different mechanism…they “walked.”
In other words, the statues were lifted into a vertical position (or perhaps carved in that manner) and then rocked down roads using ropes. As you can see in this film, only eighteen people and three ropes were needed to maneuver a 10-foot tall, 5-ton replica of an Easter Island statue down a road.
Of course, this is just 5 tons. But Lipo and Hunt believe it’s scalable
“With the physics of the taller statue, you have greater leverage. It almost gets to the point where you would have to do it that way.” ~ Carl Lipo, Archaeologist
Dozens of fallen statues lie near the roads leading out of the main quarry. It’s possible they fell due to broken ropes or human error. They couldn’t be lifted again so they were abandoned.This theory threatens to overturn decades of research. Ancient Easter Islanders have long been viewed in somewhat derogatory fashion. Supposedly, they destroyed an island paradise because they couldn’t stop themselves from building and carrying their statues across the island.But this new theory would’ve required far less manpower and resources. In fact, it might’ve been seen as somewhat of a sport.
“You’re actually putting a lot of your effort into the process of moving a statue rather than fighting. Moving the moai was a little bit like playing a football game.” ~ Terry Hunt, Anthropologist
Why did Easter Island Collapse?
Also, Lipo and Hunt believe Easter Island was never a paradise. Instead, they think it was a rather difficult place to live. And indeed, archaeological evidence increasingly shows that the natives were “resourceful engineers” who learned to work with Easter Island’s limited resources. For example, they pulverized rock and used it as mulch to help grow crops in demineralized soil.
There is more at stake here than just how the statues were moved. Jared Diamond and others have attempted to use Easter Island in order to support their theories of ecocide. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Diamond took exception to Lipo’s and Hunt’s work.
“The islanders did inadvertently destroy the environmental underpinnings of their society. They did so, not because they were especially evil or deprived of foresight, but because they were ordinary people, living in a fragile environment, and subject to the usual human problems of clashes between group interests, clashes between individual and group interests, selfishness, and limited ability to predict the future. Does that remind you of any problems that we ourselves face today? That’s why we find Easter’s story so gripping, and why it may offer us lessons.” ~ Jared Diamond, ‘The Myths of Easter Island’ – Jared Diamond responds
Lipo and Hunt retorted by pointing out the many gaps in the current theories surrounding Easter Island.
“An important role of scholarship is to examine long-held myths and see if they hold up under modern scientific tests. The original Easter Island thesis, in any of its iterations, including Diamond’s, does not. Let us point out that we didn’t go to Easter Island to tear down Diamond’s thesis. We went there to support it by filling in the missing archeological data. It was only when we convinced ourselves that any iteration of that original story, including Diamond’s, had no archeological evidence to support it and much to contract it that we began to see where the research was leading us.” ~ Carl Lipo & Terry Hunt, ‘The Easter Island Ecocide Never Happened’ – response to Jared Diamond
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The debate over Easter Island is far from over. In fact, it’s just heating up. In many ways, it reminds me of the hotly-contested debate over what killed the dinosaurs (a debate that continues even today). But this, in our opinion, is a good thing. Comfortable theories and assumptions need to be shaken up from time to time.Lipo and Hunt’s statue-walking exhibition doesn’t really prove anything. But it shows that “walking” via ropes and manpower was a possible method of transportation. Interestingly enough, it also fits with oral legends saying the statues “walked” down the roads to their present positions.If correct, what does this say about the ecocide theory? Well, not much in our opinion. The truth is, we’ve never bought into Diamond’s attempts to tie the past to the future. What happened on Easter Island hundreds of years ago has very little relevance to the present. In other words, we think “history has absolutely no predictive power.”
“The notion of a law of historical change is self-contradictory. History is a sequence of phenomena that are characterized by their singularity. Those features which an event has in common with other events are not historical.” ~ Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History