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Mysteries of Rapa Nui

The remote rocky outpost in the Pacific Ocean known as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is the source of several mysteries that puzzle people to this day. One is how what began as a lush place with dense tropical forests became almost completely denuded of all its trees, transforming it into a dusty wasteland that is now home to about 5,000 residents.

Easter island statuesThe second is the question of the nearly 900 huge statues that dot the 63 square miles of the island. What do they represent? And how were such massive objects (of heights as much as 33 feet and weighing 82 tons) transported from the quarry where they were carved and mounted on stone platforms that were themselves gigantic (up to 500 feet in length, 10 feet high, and weighing 10 tons), where they were arrayed like sentinels? In addition there were nearly 700 statues that seemed to have fallen along the journey and been abandoned, and these were even larger, as much as 65 feet tall and weighing up to 270 tons.

A recent re-broadcast of a National Geographic program discusses these issues but focuses on one idea for the transport of the statues, that they were ‘walked’ there using ropes. The scientists try to recreate the method.

It is an interesting program but while watching it I was struck by what a massive undertaking these statues were that must have consumed so much time and energy and resources of so many people. If all that effort had been used in the service of actually improving their lives and their island, they surely would have been much better off.

But while it is tempting for us to wonder how the islanders could have been so stupid, it is sobering to realize how we too spend so much time and energy and resources on wasteful and pointless endeavors like religion and war when we could use them to better the lives of everyone and to save our own environment.

Future generations may well marvel at our own stupidity and shortsightedness.

Comments

  1. rq says

    I’ll have to find the program elsewhere, I can’t view it through that link in my country. :( But I love this kind of retro-technological investigation, some theories are hilarious and some always seem plausible, and it’s really neat how they find (or dismiss) evidence for a particular theory or method.
    I read about the Rapa Nui statues some years ago, I believe it was a Thor Heyerdahl book (but the one about statues, not the one about the raft). It was interesting, but I’m pretty sure ideas have progressed since then.

  2. says

    But while it is tempting for us to wonder how the islanders could have been so stupid, it is sobering to realize how we too spend so much time and energy and resources on wasteful and pointless endeavors like religion and war when we could use them to better the lives of everyone and to save out own environment.

    And money. Money is our giant statues. We are destroying our planet because there is profit to be made.

  3. Numenaster says

    Jared Diamond in “Collapse!” explored this at some length. The working theory for “Why these statues?” was ancestor worship taken to a deliberately ostentatious degree for social status. Rapa Nui was a clan-based society, and the clans with the most moai on display had serious bragging rights.

    The working theory for “How did they move them?” was log rollers, which was still possible back when there were still a fair number of trees. I have seen footage of an attempt to recreate this process, and it seemed to work fairly well. Took a whole bunch of people to haul, but hey, bragging rights!

  4. psweet says

    Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo argued in “The Statues That Walked” that the argument that Diamond presented has failed to stand up to recent archaeological work. For one thing, radiocarbon dating suggests that the forest disappeared considerably faster than the log-rolling idea would have required. Second, there’s little if any evidence for the earlier large populations that the traditional ideas expected. Some of their points about traditional agricultural methods on the island are pretty intriguing.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Future generations may well marvel at our own stupidity and shortsightedness.

    They’ll marvel at our particular stupidities, while indulging their own. I obviously have more faith in humanity than you, Mano :)

  6. ChasCPeterson says

    we too spend so much time and energy and resources on wasteful and pointless endeavors like religion and war

    video games
    reality TV
    NASCAR

  7. corwyn says

    I wonder if future generations will wonder why we were so stupid to waste billions on finding the Higgs Boson and other such pointless endeavours

    Doubtful. But they might wonder why we wasted billions *per day* polluting our own atmosphere.

  8. says

    If all that effort had been used in the service of actually improving their lives and their island, they surely would have been much better off.

    Compared to the amount of time and effort lavished on something like Notre Dame de Paris, it’s pretty minor, though I suppose proportionally they were all pretty big time-wasters.

    I’m happy to see that kind of stuff being built – it’s better than castles and centrifuge cascades.

  9. nobonobo says

    I wonder if future generations will wonder why we were so stupid to waste billions on finding the Higgs Boson and other such pointless endeavours

    It was so much cheaper, in the day, to find such pointless posited particles as electrons…such a waste!

  10. says

    It doesn’t matter whether it was rats eating tree seeds or deforestation by humans. The point is, the people destroyed their ecosystem by their own actions, they laid waste to their world and drove their civilization into self-destruction. It wasn’t a result of nature which was doing just fine on the island before people arrived.

    Rapa Nui is a microcosm for the entire Earth, for human actions and their effects. We’re doing the same things to the planet that the Polynesians did to one island, and nobody is learning from that lesson.

  11. Ick of the East says

    Has there been any effort at replanting forests? Even if it isn’t the original tree species?
    Surely that would help the quality of life of the remaining people.

  12. patterson says

    Future generations may well marvel at our own stupidity and shortsightedness.

    Present generations already are.

  13. Trebuchet says

    @1, rq: The Heyerdahl book in question was Aku-Aku. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aku-Aku I had it as a kid and found it fascinating. Modern-day anthropologists and archaeologists mostly just find it wrong. Heyerdahl hypothesized that Easter Island was a clash of two cultures, the “long ears” who came from South America, and “short ears” who were Polynesian. The long-ears were the ruling class who had the statues built and were eventually wiped out when the short ears revolted.

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