The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island Paperback – October 30, 2012
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About the Author
- Publisher : Counterpoint; Reprint edition (October 30, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1619020203
- ISBN-13 : 978-1619020207
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 6.03 x 0.56 x 8.97 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #289,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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However, I am at a loss to explain Chapter 8. It’s like someone else hijacked the book and snuck this chapter in while the authors weren’t looking. The prose is confusing, the ideas from evolutionary archaeology are not explained well (or even entirely accurately), and the argument itself is vague. For example, costly signaling doesn’t require that the signaler be accurate, as long as the message is believed (as anyone who has ever successfully misrepresented their social status—or indeed their physical prowess—knows). Con men do this for a living. A really good bluff can often be as effective as a true representation. Further, it is never stated clearly what this has to do with the statues. Do we know that the larger statues were seen as indicating increased status? Is this something like “I want this guy, he has a really large…statue”? Or is this simply an assumption? If we can’t know the underlying meaning of the statues (and the authors say this repeatedly), then how can we know that the larger ones were more highly valued? Also, it would appear that they are implying that the production of statues took time away from producing more crops. But is this something that can be demonstrated, or is it just assumed? People in many other cultures manage to both produce big things and grow lots of stuff, so why not here? Agriculture is marginal, and there are a lot of big statues, so the two must be linked? This argument needs more data to support it.
That said, this is otherwise a terrific book. The chapter on the impact of Europeans is particularly useful, as it is clear that the story of Easter Island doesn’t end with the construction of the statues. So I highly recommend this book—just skip Chapter 8! You won’t be missing anything and you don’t need it to get a lot out of an otherwise useful book.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
At only 237 pages (including the appendix and index) it is not a long book, but a lot of information is crammed in. Divided into ten chapters, Hunt and Lipo give a wide-ranging evaluation of the development of the island. First, "A Most Mysterious Island" describes the history of the island, from the supposed original settlers and where they came from, right up to the relatively recent European colonial visitations in the last three hundred years. Next, "Millions Of Palms" reveals that in the past the island was rich in flora, fauna and wildlife. However, in "Resilience" the authors describe that the island now has very little vegetation and put forward possible theories as to how this occurred, debating whether it was the islanders fault or simply natural forces.
"The Ancient Paths Of Stone Giants" shows where the stone used in the statues came from and how it was extracted. And, "The Statues That Walked" is the meat of the book, describing the possible processes and techniques that were used to move the gigantic stones across the island to their final resting place on the coast.
"A Peaceable Island" documents how the social structure and inhabitants of the island developed, detailing any conflicts that occurred. "Ahu And Houses" shows the type of accommodation the island people lived in and what their levels of technology were. "The Benefits Of Making Moai" suggests how and why the stones were made, and how the islanders had the time and resources to undertake such an incredible engineering task so long ago.
"The Collapse" describes the end of the flourishing society on the island, and the authors compare their theories with others that have been put forward by others researchers. The "Conclusion" restates the overall theories laid down.
Overall, this is a very impressive book, and anyone who is considering visiting Easter Island, or is simply interested in it's mysterious history should obtain a copy. Also worth reading is Katherine Routledge's intriguing travel memoir of a 1919 boat journey and island exploration - "The Mystery of Easter Island: The Story of an Expedition".
Hunt and Lipo, an archaeologist and anthropologist respectively, challenge this narrative by using archaeological, anthropological, and documentary evidence to interrogate a number of assumptions. They argue instead that 'rather than a case of abject failure, Rapa Nui is an unlikely story of success'. Collapse, they argue, only came after European contact.
The archaeological evidence offered by the authors is compelling and they build a convincing case, although I was more doubtful about some of the arguments taken from sociobiology. As a layperson I found the book clear, readable, and enjoyable. Hunt and Lipo paint a fascinating picture of the island's prehistory, and I also enjoyed their descriptions of archaeological research and reasoning. Throughout the emphasis is on the collaborative nature of their findings and the contributions of past visitors to the island.
The kindle edition of the book contains a few formatting errors and the tables have been slightly mangled in the conversion; it does include the book's photographs and diagrams, although some of these aren't terribly clear.
A wonderful companion to this book is "The Mystery of Easter Island" by Katherine Routledge - which is of its time but a great travelogue and adventure story.