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The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island Hardcover – June 21, 2011
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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"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."
The authors present a believable case to counter what has become the accepted narrative about Easter Island. The book is engaging even as it rescues Rapanui culture from being reduced to a cautionary environmental tale.
Archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in "The Statues That Walked," a fascinating entry in the pop-science genre of Everything You Know Is Wrong.
-- The Wall Street Journal, Charles, C. Mann
Shattering the conventional wisdom, Hunt and Lipo's ironclad case for a radically different understanding of the story of this most mysterious place is scientific discovery at its very best.
-- The Guardian
Recent discoveries suggest that the inhabitants of Easter Island were actually devoted stewards of their island's natural resources. Archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo describe how they solved the mystery of the society's collapse.
-- Scientific American
From the Author
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I imagine that almost everyone who chooses to read this book will have previously read Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'. As you read chapter after chapter it becomes clear that Diamond was very, very wrong. But this is a 'one sitting' kind of book. I sat down yesterday afternoon to start reading it. I stopped because I figured it was four o'clock. Wrong it was eight. I made dinner and picked it up again. It's that kind of book.
This book restored my faith in anthropology. Too many anthropologist or related disciplines seem to use science as just a cover to exploit their knowledge of obscure peoples for arguments to advance their political agenda. Diamond is probably the best known of these. Just about everything Diamond believes and preaches to his millions of readers is herein demolished.
Diamond's 'Collapse' tells several long anecdotes about peoples whose way of life died out because they abused their environment. By far the most compelling story of all, is the one about Easter Island or Rapa Nui. Plenty of civilizations have collapsed and many of them because of an environmental shift but the Rapa Nui story as he imagined it, was the most dramatic.
Hollywood made a movie based on this theory of 'ecocide' in 1994. It starred Esai Morales - who is I believe Mexican - and Jason Scott Lee - who is as least partly Chinese. They are good movie players and not too improbable as Polynesians. The movie's drama is about the constant warfare between the 'Long Ears' and the 'Short Ears'. The two major tribes on the island. The climax of the movie comes when one of them consciously cuts down the very last tree on the island. The import of this is that trees are were used by natives for rollers to transport the Giant Head Statues (Moais). The central dictatorship on the island had set up a cult of carving and moving these statues. The need for rollers to move the statues results in the people gradually cutting down every single tree on the once heavily wooded island.
Diamond recounts much the same story. He casts the cutting down of the last tree as an warning. The people - Diamond likes birds, he's much less fond of people - stupidly commit cultural and ecological suicide when they felled that last tree so as to continue their silly statue moving.
Diamond wrote 'Collapse' as a cautionary tale. He meant to show that if we in the West didn't mend our ways we too would collapse. Most of his stories were not very effective at carrying that message. For example, he writes about Scandinavians in Greenland. As is well known there were settlements in Greenland with farms and western European style villages when the world was warmer. Then the climate turned cold, and they either left or died out.
Most of us would say - 'Bad luck' and forget about it. The same would be our reaction to droughts that drove various Amerindians from their settlements. Diamond tries to make the European's fate Greenland an example of hubris. He writes that if the Scandinavians had just been flexible enough to seek advice from Inuit they might have been able to 'winter over'. They could have - he says - abandoned their European structures and lived the way the natives lived. The Inuit in Greenland did not go away and did not die out.
But the Swedes and Norwegians who retreated back to Europe are today driving Volvos and warming themselves in their ski lodge saunas while the Inuit remain freezing in direst poverty. Diamond's ecological point is blunted by the facts. If the climate turns sour you will have to move. That's damn inconvenient of course, but there's no moral lesson involved.
So the only one of the examples of human induced collapse in Diamond's book that is in any way plausible, is his story of Easter Island. As he tells it, humans destroyed the island and their way of life through self aware folly. Unlike the case in Greenland where the Europeans did not bring about the cooling, he claims the Polynesians brought about their own destruction. It is the only story in his book that effectively makes this case. In all the other collapses, something happens to the people, on Easter Island the people themselves bring about ecological ruin.
The Easter Island story as Diamond relates it is part of a larger ecological fear. Civilization began in the Fertile Crescent which is no longer all that fertile. All that is left of Ur and Nineveh are dusty mounds in a barren desert. Diamond and an others like him see this as evidence the presence of people alone 'wears out' the land. It is not just that the ancient areas of the first civilizations are now deserts, he thinks they are deserts because they were civilizations. He presents Easter Island as an example of this phenomenon. Mankind, he thinks, kills the planet.
But all that is wrong. None of the popular moral lessons about Easter Island - either in the Hollywood movie or in Diamond's book - are true. In fact most of them are exactly 180 degrees off the mark. The true story of Easter Island isn't pretty and Western Civilization doesn't come off as very admirable but it does have the virtue of being plausible and very likely true.
I won't recount the arguments or the evidence here. I don't want to spoil your pleasure. Read the book yourself. It has the ring of truth and is crushing toward Diamond's ecological fairy tale.
That's what this book is about. It turns out that the people of the island were neither magicians nor fools; they were simply people trying -- with remarkable success given the obstacles -- to move their tropical civilization to a subtropical climate. Their actions are consistent with known archeology and sociology. The story does also involve both ingenuity and ecology, though, and the truth is no less interesting than the fantasies.
I read the Kindle version on a iPad; as usual, the maps and drawings are indistinct and are difficult to match with the text. But this book for the most part does not depend on them so that's really not a significant problem here.
What's even more interesting is that while the title indicates that you are going to learn about the statues, there is a lot more in the book (see above). In fact, the treatment of the authors is a sequential discussion of the above topics and the discussion about the moai does not take up the majority of the book. Despite this, you won't feel slighted or miss anything, since the material about the other topics is as fascinating as that on the statues.
An important caveat here is that this book upends all that was known about Rapa Nui. As I read it, I watched the National Geographic documentary from 2012, in which the authors were involved, and it was a very nice companion. However, there are other, earlier documentaries on Easter Island (available on Amazon PRIME), which portray a different story. Specifically, these documentaries say that the natives were cannibals, and they chopped down all of their trees. These documentaries also say that the natives moved the statues horizontally, when in fact they didn't. The point of all of this is that you need to read this book if you really want to know what happened on Rapa Nui, and if you want to watch a documentary as well, be careful about which one you choose and be clear on when that documentary was filmed. You deserve to get the most accurate information about this fascinating place.
Overall, while a rather technical and scientific book, this is a page turner which you will be talking about for years to come. A really great read!!