Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign, Easter Island

Ahu Tongariki, the largest collection of standing moai on Easter Island.

Ever since Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen landed at a small island in the South Pacific on Easter Sunday 1722 and encountered a landscape filled with giant stone statues, the world has wondered about Easter Island: Where did the statues come from? How and why were they made? And, most puzzling, how were these behemoths—some weighing as much as 75 tons—moved.

In 2004, I flew to Easter Island and spent ten days there with University of Hawaii Professor Terry Hunt and his archaeology students, who were digging at Anakena Beach—site of the first Polynesian settlement on the island. Since then and as a result of his findings, Hunt has taken academic dynamite to the old myths and blown them apart.

The original theories went like this: The first settlement was in 700 AD, after which the population mushroomed to 10,000 or more, and the islanders destroyed their environment, cutting down all the trees to roll the massive statues—called moai—into place. Famine, warfare and even cannibalism followed. It was a classic example of wasted resources leading to societal collapse, one that the world should take note of.

According to Hunt’s research, that’s all wrong.

Carbon dating of bones and other items from his dig now puts the first settlement closer to 1200 AD, and new evidence shows the population reached a maximum of 3,000, which was all the 64-square-mile island could handle because its ecosystem was depleted even before the first settlers arrived.

So did the islanders—now known as Rapanui—cut down their trees? The island was originally covered with thick forests of Jubea palm trees, and the Rapanui did cut down some of them to build shelter, says Hunt, but not to move moai. The real culprits were Polynesian rats that had arrived with the settlers, possibly as stowaways on the canoes. They multiplied rapidly, and their favorite food? The seeds of the Jubea palms. Without seeds, no new trees could grow.

Also, says Hunt, there is no evidence of warfare: no remains of fortress-like buildings or weapons of war. And all anecdotal evidence points to a peaceful people who understood that in order to co-exist in an inhospitable environment—with no lakes or streams, poor soil conditions and inconsistent rainfall—they would have to get along or perish.

Next time: the moai—why they were carved. And did they, as the local folklore says, really walk from the quarry to their current locations?

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Categories: culture, Easter Island, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Sunsets, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 47 Comments

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47 thoughts on “Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign, Easter Island

  1. I would love to go there. Easier said than done!, but it’s on my list to be ticked off one day.

    • It seems like the end of the world (in fact, the Rapanui consider it the “navel” of the world) because it’s 1,200 miles from anything. How the Polynesian navigators found it is simply amazing. You can fly there from Santiago, Chile, or coming the other way from Hawaii to Tahiti to Easter Island. I do hope you get to go b/c it’s a very special place.

  2. What a great way to see Easter Island – surely one of the most foreign of cultures :)

    • Other than the moon, this was the most foreign place I could think of (and I don’t have any decent photos of my trip to the moon :) ). It’s like Tahiti in a way, but yet a place all its own. And to see it as an embedded journalist—priceless!

  3. Hard to imagine so much damage but such little creatures

    • I know what you mean. The settlers ate the rats, but they couldn’t eat them fast enough to save the tree seeds. Interesting how everybody until now has been blaming the people, but when rats get together and gang up—watch out :)

  4. Thanks for that Jennifer. I have read Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’, in which Easter Island is featured as one of the societies that made itself collapse by using up all the resources, so I think the newer research that you mentioned is very interesting. I’m very much looking forward to your next installment about why the statues were carved. Well done.

    • You’re welcome, Georgia, and thank you. It’s fascinating, isn’t it. Hunt’s research has been a spanner in the works for Diamond’s assumptions, and it’s a little embarrassing for National Geographic, where Diamond is one of their resident experts. You might enjoy a National Geographic article about the moai in their July ’12 issue (they interviewed Hunt), and also Hunt has a new book called “The Statues That Walked,” which is totally fascinating. Also, there’s going to be a National Geographic special on tv that includes Hunt’s daring “statue walking” experiment, in December, I think, unless they change it.

  5. This is fascinating, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing Hunt’s research! Looking forward to reading more.

    • I’m delighted you’re so interested, Amy. I feel so privileged to have been with him on that dig and really get to know the island and its people and their “real” history. Much more to come :)

  6. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the subject and also for the beautiful pictures… It seems like it is a magical place, ;-)

    • You’re so welcome, and, yes, it is a magical place. It’s a giant open-air museum. No walls or fences around any of the statues (at least when I was there). I remember walking on a narrow path that ran along the island’s northwest coast. I was totally alone, and it was almost like being on another planet. The only sounds were the ever-present wind rushing past my ears and an occasional cry of a hawk. I can’t describe how peaceful, yet alive and otherworldly it seemed.

  7. they are so beautiful :)

  8. I read about Hunt’s walking experiments done at Kualoa Ranch via The Bishop Museum. I’m very excited to learn more. In my imagination, I’ve always thought of them as an early warning tsunami device. It will be nice to find out what current scientific paradigms say.

    • Lara, if you get a chance you should read his book, The Statues that Walked. I’ll definitely post more about the subject as it is quite exciting—a total revising of the Easter Island explanations. Some are heavily invested in the old assumptions and so refuse to accept Hunt’s scientific proof, even if it is staring them in the face.

      • Very excited about his work. I know of how difficult it can be to persuade some academics whose reputations depend on an alternate paradigm.

    • Oh, so true, Lara. Reputations are definitely in flux here, and the pushback has been pretty fierce. Nobody, especially in academia, wants to admit they were wrong.

  9. Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing!

  10. Beautiful photos and story. Sounds like the rapanui lived a real life version of Willard. Amazing to see history change in front of our eyes. It cracks me up how we perceive ancient cultures as barbaric and primitive, when we are the only ones who are on the verge of destroying our aina.

  11. Thank you, Kozo. I wondered if anyone would think of Willard :)
    It seems that scientists are always revising history. Remember when the earth was flat? When scientific methods improve, results can be re-evaluated. And you’re so right—ancient doesn’t mean barbaric. It’s an easy, toss-off explanation for near extinction, but often wrong. The Rapanui managed to sustain themselves comfortably by actually improving soil conditions on the island. I guess when you have little, you make the best use of it; when you have a lot, you waste it. How sad. The human race has only one aina—our planet.

  12. great post…i recently read about the ‘walking statues’ – fascinating stuff

    • Thank you, Jo. Perhaps you read about the ‘walking statues’ in National Geographic’s July ’12 issue? I’m anxiously looking forward to the tv special in December. Seeing is believing. Until now, no one has actually moved those statues effectively, with all the evidence coming together. Fascinating, indeed!

      • Actually Jennifer I read about it on facebook. I am a fan of Anne Rice’s page on there and she regularly has such snippets to share…but maybe she linked to National Geographic. I love how the heads are no becoming complete statues as they uncover them slowly. What a wonder it all is.

    • I will definitely check out Anne Rice’s page. It sounds interesting. And now that they are digging around the heads on the outer slopes of Rano Raraku (the moai quarry), it would look completely different from my photos here of the man walking along the moai trail, and Hunt talking to his students. Most of the other moai around the island are full body (the large grouping at Tongariki, for example, and the lineup at Anakena Beach), so it’s not surprising that the ones at the quarry are also full body—just covered with dirt over hundreds of years. And the covering probably kept them in good condition. Easter Island is indeed a wonder in so many ways. I would love to go back again.

    • It’s remote, but not impossible to get to. Just remember LAN Chile airlines. I’m crossing my fingers for you :)

    • Me, too. We should get busy :)

    • OMG! NaNoWriMo! Don’t you have to write a whole book in a month? I know people actually do it, but it would probably give me a nervous breakdown. I’m a slowpoke. It’s taken me years, on and off, to write my one novel (a mystery set in Hawaii), and right now, I’m lacking the time to even finish editing it b/c my photography half has been keeping me busy. But I admire anyone who does. When you’re done, why don’t you write up a book-jacket-length synopsis as a post.

      • 50,000 words in 30 days is the target. I am hoping it will cure me of editing as I go. That always ends up stalling the process for me. I posted a couple of posts yesterday and today on what I am doing, what the book is about, and through November I will do more. Tomorrow I am going to put up some of chapter 1 from The Book. You should pop over and help to keep me on track. I am asking everyone to keep prodding me by asking where I am with it and so on. I NEED the motivation to finish it and am hoping this will help. :)

    • After checking out your story, I can tell it’s a good one. Consider me one of your prodders. And good luck. You seem to be well on your way. :)

      • p.s. I checked out Anne Rice’s page and found the Easter Island status. She got it from Lipo and Hunt’s research paper. I hadn’t seen the video of them “walking” the moai, so that was a treat. Thanks for directing me there.

  13. Jennifer, I confess these standing stone men have always captivated me; and to see your photograph of them, lined up with the horses in the foreground: it is magical to me. Thank you. A really beautiful post.

    • Totally delighted you enjoyed it, kate (as I always enjoy your articles), and that you’ve been captivated by the moai. When I wrote the first article for the University of Hawaii’s magazine, Malamalama, they used only a few photos and I had so many more, so I’ll share them here. It really is a magical place, and those horses roam all over the island, unfettered by fences or brands, but everyone knows who each horse belongs to. All this enthusiasm has made me eager to do a second post on Easter Island.

  14. great shots…at a great destination!!!im jealous!!! ;) hope i can manage to travel there some day…

    • I hope you can, too. It’s a photographer’s, archaeologist’s, historian’s, etc. paradise. And when you know the story behind the myths….even more fascinating. I was there in July, but want to go in January, when they have their big festival.

  15. This week at the Bishop. Traditions of the Pacific. Thursday night. Statues That Walked. http://www.bishopmuseum.org/TOTP/

    • Terry and I have talked extensively about his work, but I still would have loved to go and hear his presentation. I really appreciate you giving me a heads up, and so sorry I had to miss it. Fingers crossed that he does it again at some time in the future.

      • He was wonderful. And it was different information from the PBS/National Geographic show. I was glad to have seen both. I hope he gets to continue on in his researches on Island.

    • I hope so, too, Lara. His research on Easter Island is the best ever.

  16. Solid, interesting post! So uh . . . how DID they move the statues?

    PS, I love the theme you use.

    • Thanks, Jefferson. I’m going to do a post on how they moved the statues, but here’s a hint: Folklore says the statues “walked” to their destinations. And, yes, in fact, they did. More about that coming up.
      Sorry to be so late answering. For some odd reason, your comment ended up in Spam, but I just rescued it :)

  17. what beautiful photos, you were so lucky to go there and work there. Not many people will be able to visit such a remote place. Easter Island has always been such a mysterious place

    • That visit is still at the top of my “best trips ever” and “thrills of a lifetime” lists. I doubt I would have ever gone had it not been for a wonderful editor who assigned me the story. So, lucky? Definitely! I’ve heard recently that a lot more tourists are visiting E.I., which is good for business but taxing on the environment, especially their limited water resources. But history has proven that the Rapanui people are used to facing and conquering challenges, so I try not to worry about them.

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