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  • The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island
  • Julie S. Field
The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo. London: Free Press, 2011. ISBN cloth, 978-1-4391-5031-3; eBook, 978-1-4391-5434-2; xii + 244 pages, maps, appendix, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$26.00; eBook, US$12.99.

The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island provides a new set of hypotheses and discussions pertaining to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. Published by the Free Press, the book is intended for a lay audience with limited knowledge of Rapa Nui and Pacific Island prehistory, but it also contains summaries of research and theories that would be of interest to regional historians, archaeologists, and ecologists. The main premise of the book is that many of the "popular" accounts of Rapa Nui—in particular the view that the island hosted a large, stratified population that outstripped the resources of the island, ultimately dooming it to conflict and famine (as suggested in Jared Diamond's 2004 book Collapse)—are misconceptions based on limited data and erroneous reconstructions of the island's ecology, demography, and history of colonization. Authors Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo put forward a series of arguments for a much different vision of Rapa Nui prehistory—one in which the Rapanui people successfully managed the resources of their island and utilized a variety of agricultural and social innovations (including the building and moving of the massive moai [stone statues]) in order to persist as a population. According to Hunt and Lipo, true demographic "collapse" and social disruption only occurred after contact with Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For scholars who are familiar with Pacific Island prehistory, the authors describe the Rapanui as an island population that is culturally East Polynesian and employs cultural traditions and technologies that are closely related to practices found elsewhere in the region. They also make ecological connections to other Pacific Islands that, like Rapa Nui, experienced changes in plants, animals, and local geology as a result of human colonization and the introduction of commensal species. They then examine the prehistory of Rapa Nui through a series of chapters that focus on three main issues: the hypothesized destruction of the island's environment and the resource base for the population; the social context of moai construction and transport; and evolutionary explanations for moai construction by the Rapanui and for the loss of moai following European contact.

Hunt and Lipo summarize their own decade of research on the island, as well as the published works of others, to support each of their claims. To parry Diamond's claims of deforestation as a result of overpopulation and statue construction, Hunt and Lipo put forward evidence of gradual forest decline and the impact of rat predation and human-induced environmental change. In taking on the hypothesis that the loss of the forest produced impoverished and exhausted soil, they describe recent studies of sediment biogeochemistry and rock mulching on Rapa Nui that indicate that the agricultural practices actually [End Page 219] improved the productivity of the island's soils and allowed for more extensive agricultural production across the island.

The authors also address several issues related to moai construction, distribution, and movement and argue that the remains of these features are indicative of a prehistoric social structure that was composed of local communities. Features that may represent pathways or "roads" are described, as are previous experiments that have sought to explain how the moai were transported. Hunt and Lipo describe their own study of moai distribution on the island and the physical qualities of the statues (eg, their height and center of gravity) to suggest that the moai were "walked" in a standing position by small teams of people from the quarry to their ahu (ritual platform) sites. The position of abandoned moai along the pathways is employed as evidence of their having fallen while walking to their destinations.

In the final section of the book, Hunt and Lipo provide models derived from evolutionary theory to argue that the prehistoric Rapanui population benefited from a strategy of peaceful interaction and...


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pp. 219-221
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