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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New direction for viewing Easter Island, June 18, 2011
This review is from: The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (Hardcover)
The main text is only 180 pages so it's eminently readable without an overbearing commitment of time, and it's directed at an interested lay public rather than strictly academics so anyone can easily follow it without fear of getting bogged down in a lot of jargon and ten thousand references. It does have references, but not too many and they pertain to key issues that allow the interested reader (albeit one with access to a university library for the most part) to follow up on certain topics. I was interested in some of the paleopathology studies that were referenced, so it was useful in that regard.

As they note, they didn't start working on Rapa Nui to decipher much of anything about why the moai were made, how they were moved and erected, or to develop a completely new perspective on the cultural and ecological history of the place; they were conducting a field school and general survey along with some excavations, assuming that they'd be filling in a few details here and there on the prehistory of what is probably one of the most studied specks of land on earth. What seems to have kicked off the more intensive study: determining a much later date for initial occupation (AD 1200 as opposed to the previously accepted dates of AD 400). If the date of initial occupation was so far off the accepted chronology, what else was?

The structure of the book is directed at examining what is really known about various aspects of the island's pre-/history both from early literary accounts and from past archaeological work (both normal dirt archaeology and of the experimental sort) and then adding in results from their own work over the past few years. The part that I think is most valuable is that they actually quote the early explorers and evaluate them seriously in light of the archaeological evidence, especially the revised chronology. This not only puts the archaeological work in context with historical observations, but also suggests why we have viewed Easter Island the way we historically have. Ferinstance, the early chronology suggested people had been around for a good eight centuries before the extensive palm forests had begun to disappear, but their more recent dating work suggested deforestation began shortly after. . . .1200. Thus, with the new later chronology, deforestation seems to have started almost immediately upon arrival rather than after a long, uneventful habitation followed by intense statue-building. The process seems to have taken some time since the first European explorers in 1722 in fact noted that some "tracts of woodland" were still there as well as in 1868 during a British visit. Hence, the trees didn't apparently disappear in an orgy of statue construction but faded away in a more gradual process.

I actually found the early explorers' observations interesting from a, for lack of a better word, psychological perspective. The notion that there was something of a "golden era" of statue construction that resulted in environmental depredations started early with the Cook expedition of 1774 when the naturalist on board noted that the Easter Islanders seem to have degraded from more "happy and opulent times." This is echoed a few years later by a French explorer who noted that the relatively barren nature of the island was due "to the imprudence of their ancestors". So the idea that the Rapanui "did it to themselves" was set early on. Of course, none of them had any direct evidence for such; they were doubtless exhibiting the normal cultural imperialism of the day along with a healthy dose of Romanticism. But once the idea got written down it seems to have become the default explanation for most subsequent work and went largely unquestioned, at least in its basics, for the next 200+ years.

The rest of the book builds an archaeological case for a far different story of a fairly normal process of ecological degradation caused in large part (though not solely) by the introduction of rats to the island and the natives' response to it (Hunt, Lipo and colleagues have published several journal articles on this as well). What they demonstrate is that, far from despoiling a paradise, the Rapanui found an island that was marginal at best in terms of its carrying capacity, both in wild foods and its sufficiency for agriculture, and utilized it as best they could within the inherent (i.e., geological and geographical) and introduced (i.e., rats) limitations they were faced with. In a way, it turns on its head the conventional narrative, and not just from a purely ecological/cultural perspective: the worst depredations visited upon the natives were not caused by the Rapanui themselves -- who did a rather admirable job of looking after themselves on their isolated little island, thankyouverymuch -- but by Europeans who introduced disease, slavery, violence, and economies (e.g., large scale sheep ranching) that devastated the island's ecology and people far more than rats and Rapanui ever dreamed of.

A central part of the book seeks to explain the phenomenon of statue building as part of a larger Polynesian practice, enhanced by the isolated nature of the island and the social structure that it tended to favor. They utilize Darwinian evolution to explain this in terms of signaling theory and bet-hedging. They try to show that moai-building and the rather peaceful characteristics of the population are a natural outgrowth of the island environment and its founding culture. I'm guessing this will get the least attention, but it's probably the most innovative part of the whole book.

Along the way they provide a wealth of information on Rapanui agriculture and stone tool technology, and (to my surprise) have a shot at explaining how they moved the statues in the first place. They don't really come up with their own method, per se, but match an existing hypothesis (one that I'd never heard of, to be honest) with their own analysis of apparent road networks and the placements of statues along them (not to mention testimony from natives themselves as to how it was done) to make what I think is a pretty good case for -- wait for it -- walking statues. I'll leave it at that so some mystery remains to provide impetus to buy it. Suffice to say, the engineer in me liked the elegance and simplicity of their preferred method. `Engineered to move' as they call it.

Now, most are going to view this book as a direct challenge or response to Jared Diamond's "Collapse" which used Easter Island as a centerpiece of mankind's environmental short-sightedness. That's probably not fair, since I doubt Lipo or Hunt had that in mind when they were doing this research, but there it is. It's not just Diamond, of course, but a whole series of authors that have used those early observations as a basis for making hay out of the more recent plight of the Rapanui. I think a lot of people will argue with some of the details of their account, but I suspect it will probably change the conversation quite radically. I also half expect Hunt and Lipo to get slammed by the environmentalists for dispatching one of their sacred cows. But, you know, I was kind of left feeling that the modern criticism of the Rapanui by well-meaning environmentalists isn't maybe just a continuation of the cultural snobbishness that seems to have infected European dealings with the Easter Islanders from the very beginning. It's undoubtedly no longer possible, but after reading this book one is tempted think that if we would just leave them alone for once the Rapanui would go back to making a relatively peaceable and decent, if not easy, living on their "most mysterious island."
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 22, 2011 3:17:09 PM PDT
I liked your review and I plan on buying the book, but why did you deduct a star?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 23, 2011 8:20:12 AM PDT
I thought there were a couple areas that could have used some more discussion. One was the base of the statues and the wear patterns that indicated how they were moved. And the concluding chapter seemed a bit short and perfunctory.

Plus I know both of them so I can't be contributing to their getting all big-headed. =)

Posted on Jul 5, 2011 4:27:38 PM PDT
I cannot recall a review so nuanced and enjoyable -- not even the ones that I've written :-) -- softly wise, and with the inspired sense of humor in the reviewer's answer to the comment prior to this. Thank you very much.
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