Rethinking Rapa Nui
Story by Samson Reiny
photo courtesy: Pacific Collection, Hamilton Library, Univ. of Hawaii-Manoa
photo courtesy: Pacific Collection, Hamilton Library, Univ. of Hawaii-Manoa
Once ashore Cook and his men surveyed the land’s resources and concluded that their venture was a bust. Cook lamented that “nature has been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot,” remarking that the land was barren and that both fresh water and wood seemed almost nonexistent. Given these circumstances, the crew reasoned, it was no wonder the native population stood at a scant 700: A place as uninhabitable as this could not have supported a larger community. And even these people, according to Cook, appeared “small, lean, timid, and miserable.”
Yet the scarcity and hardship on the island presented a glaring paradox in the form of several hundred imperious stone statues standing at attention along the shoreline. Some of the statues were more than forty feet tall and weighed tens of tons. How, the explorers wondered, could such a stunted population have gathered the energy and resources to erect these monoliths? A German-born naturalist on the ship, Johann Reinhold Forster, reasoned that these statues, or moai, represented a more auspicious era, when the inhabitants were more numerous and their society more vibrant. Then, he concluded, something tragic must have happened.
He left it at that. “It is not in our power,” the naturalist wrote, “to determine by what various accidents a nation so flourishing could be reduced and degraded to its present indigence.”
One early morning in the summer of 2000, University of Hawai‘i anthropologist Terry Hunt caught his own first glance of Rapa Nui from the seat of a Boeing 767. Even from several thousand feet up, the moai were prominent members of the landscape. Once he was on the ground, Hunt saw a large quarry etched in the shoulder of a cinder cone near the airport. It shimmered with the detritus of obsidian, a glassy rock that long ago the native people, the Rapanui, sharpened into cutting tools. “That hillside of artifacts sparkled like gold,” he recalls. “It was really something unbelievable.”
Hunt has salt-and-pepper hair and speaks in a calm baritone voice. An expert in the prehistory of the Pacific, he has conducted fieldwork from New Guinea to New Zealand, Samoa to Fiji. And he has long been fascinated by societies that embarked on massive projects in unstable areas—for example the Egyptians, who built the great pyramids even as they depended on the erratic flooding of the Nile to provide water for farming. A Pacific island, an extravagant enterprise: Rapa Nui was an obvious fit for Hunt.
He was not alone in his curiosity. Disregarding Forster’s judgment, a long line of explorers and academics had sought to find out just what had happened on Rapa Nui. They’d analyzed the topography, scrutinized the moai and gathered oral traditions from the present-day Rapanui to explain the island’s many mysteries, including the one that puzzled Forster in 1774: the cause of the native people’s near extinction. After two hundred years of debate, an intriguing theory had gained traction. The hypothesis? The Rapanui committed ecocide. As author Jared Diamond put it in his bestselling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Rapanui offered “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”
In setting the scene for this catastrophe, scholars portray a centralized and hierarchical chiefdom whose leaders, for political and religious reasons, grew increasingly obsessed with erecting statues. Wielding basalt hand axes, workers carved into the soft volcanic rock on the slopes of Rano Raraku crater and sculpted massive chunks of earth into humanoid forms. Once a moai was finished, workers used the trunks of once-ubiquitous palm trees as rollers and hauled the monoliths to platforms miles away near the shore. The eventual statue-building frenzy, so the hypothesis goes, compelled the people to slash the palms at an astonishing rate, with the cleared lands reapportioned for agriculture. The resulting increase in food fueled a population explosion. Eventually, rampant deforestation eroded the soil, which meant diminishing yields of yams, taro, banana and other crops. Devoid of any wood to create canoes, the Rapanui lost their ability to fish in the richer deep ocean. A great famine ensued, which sparked a civil war around AD 1680. Desperate for nourishment, the people turned to violence and even cannibalism. The inhabitants Cook encountered in 1774, the theory concluded, were the feeble survivors of that calamity.
One of the iconic vignettes outsiders have attributed to Rapa Nui history is the dramatic felling of the last tree. As the story goes, the person who cut it down must have known it was the last—but cut it down anyway. That act has come to symbolize the epitome of irresponsibility and has been held up as proof of how human selfishness can override sense and destroy an entire ecosystem.
But for Hunt a story is sometimes just that: a story. “I wanted a simple look at the evidence,” the professor recalls. “What would we find if we hadn’t read what everybody else had written?”
Hunt began fieldwork in the summer of 2001 and returned every year during that decade for one- to three-month excursions. In 2003 California state archaeologist Carl Lipo joined and began collaborating on the fieldwork and research. And what the pair found flipped the entire accepted narrative on its head.
According to the conventional story, the Rapanui first landed their canoes on the sandy northeastern shore of Anakena beach around AD 700 to 800; archaeological evidence suggests that deforestation ramped up around AD 1280. Many theories attempt to explain the 500-year delay between arrival and clear-cutting. One scientist theorizes that the settlers occupied the island only intermittently until AD 1200; another argues the society somehow switched gears—from low-impact to frenzied—at around that point in time. But the evidence below the surface of Anakena told a different story.
As they excavated the historic beach, Hunt and Lipo slowly uncovered telltale signs of human habitation: fish and rat bones, charcoal bits, obsidian flakes. The deeper the team tunneled down into the sand dunes, the older the debris became. At ten feet below the surface, nothing remained but the root molds of palm trees that had once blanketed the island.
Hunt sent the oldest human material found to the lab for radiocarbon dating. When he received the results, he thought they were crazy: The oldest material dated back to only AD 1200—which would mean that the Rapanui hadn’t even arrived on the island until at least four hundred years later than previous estimates. “I literally ignored those results for a few weeks,” Hunt says. “It didn’t make sense.” But he eventually discussed the results with a colleague who had worked on excavations in Tahiti and the nearby Austral Islands, and he backed up Hunt’s findings: Polynesian arrival dates everywhere, the colleague said, were being pushed up hundreds of years as new evidence emerged.
The revised chronology, which placed settlement at roughly the same time as deforestation, also jibed with new research out of Hawai‘i. Recent excavations on O‘ahu’s ‘Ewa Plain showed that rats, which arrived with the Polynesian settlers, moved onto the dry plain in force, easily gnawing through palm seeds and shrubs and devouring the eggs of the native birds. Their rapacity combined with their phenomenal reproductive rates (a single mating pair can spawn millions of rats in a few years) is believed to have led to drastic deforestation in less than a century.
This was, as Hunt likes to call it, his eureka moment. After corroborating all of the evidence, he reached a startling conclusion: A rat infestation, not the Rapanui, had caused the vast majority of deforestation on the island. “From that point on,” he says, “nearly every other upheld story about the island’s history would turn out to be false. They were like dominos falling one after another.”
The Statues That Walked is the endpoint of that early morning flight in the summer of 2000, and Hunt and Lipo’s answer to the question of what happened on Rapa Nui. And the narrative couldn’t be more different from the conventional one.
Having sailed east some 2,500 miles from their home in the Society archipelago, the people who would become known as the Rapanui disembarked from their double-hulled canoes on an islet comparable in size to Ni‘ihau. They found, to their disappointment, that the land held poor soil and the coastal waters lacked the reef systems necessary for the propagation of fish. But rather than panicking and wreaking havoc on scant natural resources, the Rapanui instead became ingenious environmental stewards. They utilized a method of farming called lithic mulching, in which crushed rocks are placed on agricultural plots to fertilize the soil with minerals while also keeping temperatures cooler and more stable. Rock-walled gardens called manavai were used to protect crops from wind damage and to retain moisture, and tossed food scraps served as compost. The crop yield was enough to support an estimated three thousand healthy individuals.
As opposed to a centralized, top-down society, people lived in clans of extended families scattered throughout the island. Judging by prehistoric skeletal remains that show few signs of death by trauma, as well as a lack of weapons and defensive fortifications, the Rapanui were a peaceful people. They did compete, however, by showing off their statue building and transporting skills. The moai—the stone equivalent of the wooden tiki statues prevalent on more heavily forested Pacific islands—communicated vitality and intelligence and also helped to forge alliances among clans. And rather than drag the moai across the landscape on log rollers, which would have required the strength of dozens of people and wasted precious wood, the ingenious Rapanui devised a more efficient system. They carved a moai with its center of gravity located toward the front of its body, so that when they tipped the statue back, it would spring forward with maximum momentum. Once that inverse pendulum was set in motion, only fifteen to twenty workers were needed to pivot the effigy left and right on its straight-edged sides (its “legs”), enabling the moai to, as Rapanui oral tradition asserts, “walk” to its destination.
A series of calamities did strike the Rapanui, first in the form of rampant disease. The “small, lean, timid, and miserable” people described by Cook had been ravaged first by disease brought by a Dutch fleet in 1722 and then a Spanish warship in 1770. They could have suffered from any number of maladies, from smallpox to tuberculosis to various venereal diseases. Cook’s crew might have transmitted other new pathogens. Next came the slave raiders in the nineteenth century who abducted the natives and sold them off to work in Peruvian guano mines. Many who resisted were shot. By 1877 the cumulative impacts of disease and slavery had diminished the population to 110 individuals. But they were resilient, and today the population has rebounded to nearly 4,000 Rapanui— greater than the size, Hunt estimates, of the pre-contact population. “They are the survivors of a near genocide,” he says.
In the short time since the publication of The Statues That Walked, there’s already a noticeable difference in the way the Rapanui view themselves. Native tour guides on the island, for example, have adjusted their presentations to acknowledge the ingenuity and peaceful ways of their ancestors. Hunt is happy not only to see the Rapanui’s story vindicated, but also to hold up prehistoric Rapa Nui society as an example of how a people can live sustainably. “It’s now our turn to learn from them,” he says.
The younger generations realize the significance of his work, too. A Rapanui teenager who lives in Hawai‘i approached Hunt at a recent get-together. “What you guys are saying is so important,” he told the professor. “I want to tell you how important it is that my generation knows that we were not failures.”
“I was choking up,” Hunt says. “I could only say, ‘Thank you.’”