Thursday January 17, 02013 at the Cowell Theater, San Francisco
Archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo study cultural evolution and diversity. Their research tries to answer questions about how small communities develop into complex societies, and how cultures change and spread over time. They’ve focused much of their work on the Southern Pacific, a big stretch of ocean, dotted by tiny islands, that poses somewhat of a conundrum to archaeologists and anthropologists: how did human populations ever manage to spread out across these isolated locales?
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a particularly intriguing case. More than 2,000 miles removed from its nearest (inhabited) neighbor, the island is small and relatively poor in natural resources. Nevertheless, Rapa Nui was home – for a while at least – to an industrious society most known for its construction of nearly 900 giant statues, or moai. Scholars and researchers have pored over the mystery of how a small community was able to build such impressive statues, and why the population ultimately perished in the 18th century.
According to conventional theories, the answers to those questions serve as a warning to our modern global population. Many scholars believe that the population depleted what little natural resources their island had in order to satisfy an ever-growing obsession with their society’s statue-building cult, thereby causing their own “ecocide.” In order to move these massive stone figures, people felled the palm trees that were once abundant on the island and turned them into logs. But with the disappearance of these trees, other species quickly went extinct as well. No longer able to sustain itself, Rapa Nui society collapsed into chaos and ultimately perished.
“It seemed obvious to researchers that Rapa Nui was a clear case of human recklessness, over-population, over-exploitation, and cultural collapse. Given contemporary concerns about our own environmental future, Rapa Nui offered the quintessential case of “ecocide,” as Jared Diamond (2005) dubbed it. The case for “ecocide” seemed consistent with some accounts from early European visitors, some of the oral traditions, Heyerdahl’s views of pervasive warfare and cultural replacement, and the emerging palaeo-ecological evidence. Rapa Nui provided a compelling story and environmental message that held relevance in today’s urgent global crisis (e.g. Kirch 1997, 2004).” (Hunt & Lipo 2007:85)
Nevertheless, Lipo and Hunt found reason in the archaeological record to question that theory. They traveled to Easter Island, where they ran a creative, hands-on experiment that put one simple assumption to the test: did the islanders really use logs to move their statues?
“When people are asked, how did your ancestors move the statues, the answer was always, ‘they walked’. … For the Rapa Nui, that was the answer, and … the foreigners asking the question, they thought, ‘oh, well that’s silly, you know, how crazy.’”
Hunt and Lipo built a precise, 15-ton replica of a moai from concrete, and asked a small group of people to see if they could make it “walk”: to move it forward in an upright position, using only ropes. A PBS feature documents their process of trial and error – and eventual success.
By confirming this simple hypothesis – that the Rapa Nui did not need logs to move their moai – Hunt and Lipo are able to offer a new theory about how the islanders interacted with their environment, and what caused their eventual decline. In their book, The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, they take their insight as the basis for a new view of cultural evolution in the Southeastern Pacific: rather than a symbol of reckless environmental destruction, the Easter Island statues are a testament to human innovation and creative use of the environment. Hunt and Lipo argue that the islanders were actually inventive ‘users’ of their island’s resources, and adept at maximizing its agricultural capacities. Rather than a dangerous, self-destructive obsession, the statues were in fact instrumental to a culture of sustainability. The eventual demise of the Easter Island population was caused by a confluence of complicated factors, with an important role played by European conquerors and the foreign pests and diseases they brought with them. Easter Island still serves as an object lesson – but now of the complex and globally interwoven dynamics of cultural and ecological change.
Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo discuss their findings and the lessons we might learn from the fate of Rapa Nui on January 17th at the Cowell Theatre. You can reserve tickets, get directions, and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page.