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Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island

by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

Pub Date: June 21st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5031-3
Publisher: Free Press

Modern research techniques enable debut authors Hunt (Anthropology/Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa) and Lipo (Archaeology/California State Univ., Long Beach) to review the “mysteries” of the Easter Islands and offer some solutions of their own.

Rapa Nui (aka the Easter Islands) have long been thought to illustrate how human environmental overreach led to collapse, as advanced monument builders undermined the ecology, beginning an inevitable slide. The authors make a counter-argument that “the problems were social, not a result of environmental ruin. History is the witness that Rapa Nui suffered near genocide, not self-inflicted ‘ecocide.’ ” They offer an alternative to Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s thesis that human settlers had arrived by 400 CE. Based on “all of the over 120 radiocarbon dates published for Rapa Nui,” Hunt and Lipo confirm that the arrival of human settlers, including monument builders, was later than previously thought, and the deforestation earlier. Modern research has established the likelihood that rats were responsible for the destruction of the native giant palm. The authors also muster the evidence to show, contrary to what Heyerdahl claimed, that “the portrayal of an island dominated by a strong central ruling authority, or torn asunder by warring tribes, is simply wrong.” The island’s population, including statue makers, probably functioned as small, peaceful, cooperative agrarian groups that settled successfully in an environment already denuded of trees. They developed food-production techniques which worked in an environment already denuded of trees. What did the islanders in was the stream of ship-borne Western visitors—and the diseases they brought—that began in the 18th century.

A fascinating new chapter of the unwitting but tragic decimation of the native Rapa Nui populations, brought about unwittingly by cultural contact rather than the decline of their own society.