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Twilight at Easter


No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as did Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved. To begin with, the island is the world’s most remote habitable scrap of land, lying far out in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, 2,300 miles west of the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles east of Pitcairn Island. Rano Raraku itself is a volcanic crater six hundred yards in diameter, which I entered by a trail rising steeply up to the crater rim from the plain outside, and then dropping steeply down again toward the marshy lake on the crater floor. No one lives in the vicinity today.

Scattered over the crater’s walls are 397 stone statues, each representing in a stylized way a long-eared legless human male torso, most of them 15 to 20 feet tall, the largest of them 70 feet tall (taller than the average modern five-story building), and weighing from 10 to 270 tons. The remains of a transport road can be discerned passing out of the crater through a notch cut into a low point in its rim, from which three more roads radiate north, south, and west for up to nine miles toward Easter’s coasts.

Scattered along the roads are ninety-seven more statues, as if abandoned in transport from the quarry. Along the coast are 113 stone platforms that formerly supported or were associated with 393 more statues, all of which (until the recent re-erection of a few) were no longer standing but had been thrown down, many of them toppled and deliberately broken at the neck. Yet Easter Island’s Polynesian population had possessed no cranes, wheels, machines, metal tools, draft animals, or means other than human muscle power to move the statues.

Statues remaining at the quarry are in all stages of completion. Some are still attached to the bedrock out of which they were carved, roughed out but with details of the ears or hands missing. Others are finished, detached, and lying on the crater slopes below, and still others had been erected in the crater. Littering the ground everywhere at the quarry are the stone picks, drills, and hammers with which the statues were being carved. The scene gave me the sense of a factory all of whose workers had suddenly quit for mysterious reasons, thrown down their tools, and stomped out, leaving each statue in whatever stage it happened to be at the moment. Who carved the statues, how did the carvers move such huge stone masses, and why did they eventually throw them all down?

Easter’s mysteries were already apparent to its European discoverer, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who spotted the island on Easter Day (April 5, 1722), hence the name that he bestowed and that has stuck. Like all subsequent visitors, Roggeveen was puzzled, not understanding how the islanders had transported and erected their statues. No matter what had been their exact method, they would have needed heavy timber and strong ropes made from big trees, as Roggeveen realized. Yet the Easter Island that he viewed was a wasteland with not a single tree or bush over ten feet tall. What had happened to all the trees that must have stood there?

All those mysteries have spawned volumes of speculation for almost three centuries. Many Europeans were incredulous that Polynesians, “mere savages,” could have constructed the statues or the beautiful stone platforms. The Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki expedition and his other raft voyages aimed to prove the feasibility of transoceanic connections between Egypt’s pyramids, the giant stone architecture of South America’s Inca Empire, and Easter Island’s statues. Going further, the Swiss writer Erich von Däniken claimed that the statues were the work of intelligent extraterrestrials who had ultramodern tools, became stranded on Easter, and were finally rescued. But the explanation that has now emerged attributes statue carving to the picks and other tools littering Rano Raraku rather than to hypothetical space implements, and to Easter’s known Polynesian inhabitants rather than to Incas, Egyptians, or Martians. This story is as romantic and exciting as were postulated visits by Kon-Tiki rafts or extraterrestrials—and much more relevant to events now going on in the modern world.

Easter’s history has recently been recounted in two excellent but very different books, both by the authors of the two previous standard books about the island. The geographer and botanist John Flenley, who uncovered the evidence for Easter Island’s vanished forest and extinct giant palm trees, has collaborated with the well-known archaeologist Paul Bahn to bring the Easter Island story up to date with the discoveries of the last decade. They thereby offer us clear summaries of Easter’s settlement and subsequent history, its statues, the frightening collapse of its society, and its broader significance in our world beset with similar environmental problems.

The archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the leading authority on the statues themselves, has used her understanding of Easter Island history and statues in her biography of the remarkable self-trained archaeologist and ethnographer Katherine Routledge, who spent seventeen months on the island in 1914–1915, and whose unpublished handwritten field notes Van Tilburg deciphered. The information in those notes is of lasting value, because Routledge was an excellent interviewer, and some of her older informants had participated in the island’s last traditional ceremonies (the so-called Orongo birdman rites). Those informants told Routledge masses of information about traditional Easter Island society that would otherwise be lost to us.

Van Tilburg has really given us three books in one: a history of a unique society, a Gothic novel, and a powerfully moving biography. The variously furious, passive-aggressive, inept, and effective relations of Routledge and her husband with each other, with other expedition members, with islanders, and with the island priestess Angata, who gained spiritual power over Routledge—all that makes a fascinating story. Routledge wrote of herself in 1891, “It was my misfortune to be born a woman with the feelings of a man.” Her tragic biography traces how a rich heiress with a family history of mental illness mastered her inner problems sufficiently to become one of the earliest women graduates of Oxford University, then to make her own way through a man’s world, and to contribute to our understanding of Easter Island, only to succumb at last to paranoia and to die in the mental asylum to which her husband and brother finally committed her.*


From Flenley and Bahn’s and from Van Tilburg’s accounts, it becomes clear how both Heyerdahl and von Däniken brushed aside overwhelming evidence that the Easter Islanders were indeed typical Polynesians, speaking a Polynesian language and making stone tools in the usual Polynesian styles. Around AD 900 they colonized Easter Island from Polynesian islands to the west and built up a population that peaked at around 15,000 people. At the time of the European arrival they were subsisting mainly as farmers, growing yams, taro, bananas, sugar cane, and sweet potatoes, as well as raising chickens, their sole domestic animal. While Easter Island was divided into about eleven territories, each belonging to one clan under its own chief and competing with other clans, the island was also loosely integrated religiously, economically, and politically under the leadership of one paramount chief. On other Polynesian islands, competition between chiefs for prestige could take the form of inter-island efforts such as trading and raiding, but Easter’s extreme isolation from other islands precluded that possibility. Instead, the excellent quality of Rano Raraku volcanic stone for carving eventually resulted in chiefs competing by erecting statues representing their high-ranking ancestors on rectangular stone platforms (termed ahu).

Each of the island’s eleven territories contained between one and five large ahu up to 13 feet high, many extended by lateral wings to a width of up to 500 feet. Today the ahu are a dingy dark gray, but originally they must have been a colorful white, yellow, and red: the facing slabs were encrusted with white coral, the stone of a freshly cut statue was yellow, and the statue’s crown and a horizontal band of stone coursing on the front wall of some ahu were red.

The ahu-building period seems to have begun around AD 1000 or 1100, within a few centuries of the island’s settlement. An increase in statue size with time suggests competition between rival chiefs commissioning statues to outdo each other. (In case that strikes you as weird, try imagining what a dispassionate observer would say about the increasingly lavish cars, mansions, and jewelry by which modern American “chiefs” compete.) The strong possibility of such competition also seems evident from an apparently late feature called a pukao: a cylinder of red volcanic stone, weighing up to twelve tons, mounted as a separate piece to rest on top of a statue’s flat head, and possibly representing a chief’s headdress or hat of red feathers. (See photograph on the cover.) All pukao are from a single quarry, Puna Pao, where (just as with the statues themselves in Rano Raraku quarry) I saw unfinished pukao, plus finished ones awaiting transport. We know of only about sixty pukao, reserved for statues on the biggest and richest ahu. I cannot resist the thought that they were produced as a show of one-upmanship. They seem to proclaim: “All right, so you can erect a statue 32 feet high, but look at me: I can lift this 12-ton pukao on top of my statue; you try to top that, you wimp!”

How did the islanders succeed in erecting and transporting those statues? Of course we don’t know for sure, because no European ever saw it being done to write about it. But we can make informed guesses from the oral traditions of the islanders themselves, and from recent experimental tests of different transport methods described by Flenley and Bahn, and carried out and described by Van Tilburg.

The still-visible transport roads on which statues were moved from Rano Raraku quarry follow contour lines to avoid the extra work of carrying statues up and down hills, and are up to nine miles long for the ahu furthest from the quarry. While the task may strike us as daunting, we know that many other prehistoric peoples transported very heavy stones at Stonehenge, Egypt’s pyramids, and Inca and Olmec centers, and something can be deduced of the methods in each case. The method most convincing to me is Van Tilburg’s suggestion that Easter Islanders modified the so-called canoe ladders widespread on Pacific islands for transporting heavy wooden logs, which had to be cut in the forest, shaped into canoes, and then transported to the coast.

The “ladders,” which I have seen on islands near New Guinea, consist of a pair of parallel wooden rails joined by fixed wooden crosspieces over which the log is dragged. We know that some of the biggest canoes that the Hawaiians moved over such horizontal ladders weighed more than an average-sized Easter Island statue, so the pro- posed method is plausible. Van Tilburg persuaded modern Easter Islanders to put her theory to a test by building such a canoe ladder, mounting a statue prone on a wooden sled, attaching ropes to the sled, and hauling it over the ladder. She found that between fifty and seventy people, working five hours per day and dragging the sled five yards at each pull, could transport an average-sized twelve-ton statue nine miles in a week. By extrapolation, transport of even the biggest statues could have been accomplished by a team of five hundred adults, which would have been just within the manpower capacities of an Easter Island clan.

  1. *

    Another recent book—Easter Island: Scientific Exploration into the World’s Environmental Problems in Microcosm, edited by John Loret and John T. Tancredi (Kluwer Academic/ Plenum, 2003)—consists of thirteen chapters by different contributors describing results of three recent expeditions to the island. For instance, Chapter 6 offers a solution to the long-standing problem of how to date the statues and platforms, given that stone itself cannot be used for radiocarbon dating. Instead, that chapter’s authors radiocarbon-dated the coral used for the statues’ eyes and the white algae used to decorate the plazas, thereby obtaining dates of AD 1100–1600, which support previous less-direct dating methods.

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