From the Archives: Easter Island: Not So Mysterious After All

One of the other places I hang out on the internet is Shelf Awareness for Readers–a very cool review publication that reaches the e-inboxes of avid readers twice a week.* I review new history books, with an occasional excursion into cookbooks or misc. reference works. Some of those reviews find their way here. Some of those books spark blog posts that are only vaguely related to the review. It’s been four years and almost 100 reviews–time flies when you’re reading.

In celebration, here’s the post that came out of my first Shelf Awareness review:


Once upon a time, like many nerdy little girls, I wanted to be an archeologist. Today I get my hands grubby with old books and the occasional leaking ink pen instead of the sands of time, but my copy of C. W. Ceram’s classic Gods, Graves and Scholars remains a prized possession and I still enjoy a good archeological read.

I was delighted to have the chance to read and review The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.

Anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo turn the accepted wisdom about the ancient culture of Easter Island on its head in this well-written story of scientific discovery.

From the time the first Europeans arrived on Easter Island in the eighteenth century, Westerners have been fascinated by the island’s monumental stone sculptures and baffled by how an impoverished prehistoric culture could have built them. The standard explanation was that the island had once been as fertile as other inhabited islands in the Pacific. Over time, its population committed ecological suicide, cutting down thousands of giant palm trees to support the statue cult.

When Hunt and Lipo arrived on Easter Island in 2001, they expected to simply add a few details to the already well-developed account of its early history. In their fourth year of fieldwork, they found evidence of the giant palms that scholars believed covered the islands when Polynesian settlers first arrived. It was a major discovery. There was only one problem: the oldest layers were several hundred years later than the latest accepted date for colonization. If the island was deforested over decades instead of centuries, then everything archaeologists thought they knew about the early culture of Easter Island was in question.

Hunt and Lipo re-examined, and re-built, archaeology’s fundamental assumptions about Easter Island, using discoveries from other Pacific island cultures, local oral traditions, previously discounted field research, satellite images from Google Earth, studies by evolutionary biologists, game theory, and accounts by early European observers. They make a compelling case against the traditional version of Easter Island’s prehistory. Instead of “ecocide”, they describe a culture of careful environmental stewardship. And along the way, they prove how a small number of men can make a giant monolith “walk”.

*I read Shelf Awareness as well as review for it. My fellow reviewers are the source for many, many books on my own to-be-read list.

AhuTongariki” by Ian Sewell – Photo gallery from Easter Island. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Davide on July 1, 2015 at 11:10 am

    “They make a compelling case against the traditional version of Easter Island’s prehistory. Instead of “ecocide”, they describe a culture of careful environmental stewardship.”

    Well, this seems in contraddiction to how the locals were living when discovered by europeans… If I remember correctly, there wasn’t a lot of trees and the society seemed on the verge of collapse.
    Jared Diamond dedicates a chapter to Eastern Island in his “Collapse” and seemed quite sure.

    • pamela on July 2, 2015 at 10:50 am

      Davide: I think what makes this book so fascinating is that they turn what we think we know on its head. They use quite a bit of information that wasn’t available with Diamond wrote his book. Give it a look and let me know what you think.

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