Review: The Statues That Walked

I'm getting ready to leave for Chile at the end of November & one way that I'm preparing, extending and enriching the travel experience, is by reading about the places that I'm going to visit. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipois exactly the sort of history I wanted--clear and comprehensive. The great thing about The Statues that Walked is that it describes the contemporary understanding of Easter Island but also chronicles all the misconceptions that have flourished over the years. So, for example, it starts by describing how very barren the island is. It's small, windy, treeless, with poor soil and irregular--often scanty--rains. The surrounding ocean doesn't have much to offer in the way of seafood, and the nearest inhabited island is over 1,000 miles away.

Once the authors have given the lay of the land, they discuss how various scholars have explained the island's current landscape. For years, the prevailing theory was 'ecocide'--archeological digs show that, long ago, a palm forest grew on Easter Island. The palms disappeared soon after the first human settlers arrived & the initial assumption was that the islanders cut down all the trees in order to make rollers so they could tow their huge, multi-ton statues into place.

In fact, the authors finally reveal, the human settlers weren't at fault. Not directly, anyhow. They'd arrived with rats in their cargo. The rats feasted on the palm nuts. Multiplied, feasted more, until all the palm nuts were gone. The living palms died, none grew to replace them, and soon the island was treeless.

A lot of  early assumptions about Easter Island heaped blame on the islanders, for one thing or another. For ruining the environment, for being too stupid/lazy/backwards to plant crops. Some early travelers tried to 'help' the islanders by giving them livestock or seeds. But Easter Island isn't fertile enough for most crops to grow, or  to support livestock. In fact, the authors point out again and again, the islanders had done the best they could with the resources available.

Meanwhile, the Age of Exploration devastated the island. This part of the story was depressingly familiar. Sailors brought disease. The islanders died, the population crashed. Eventually, the early explorers gave way to whalers and predators. Islanders were kidnapped and forced into slavery, then kidnapped and forced into indenture. Those left on the island were swindled, the stolen land converted into a sheep ranch--by that time, disease and raiding had cut the population of almost 3,000 down to around 100--and the islanders were forced to live inside a high wall while the sheep roamed free.

The ending would be hunky dory, with the islanders staging a revolt, reclaiming their land, appointing a local as governor, obtaining Chilean citizenship, and growing a thriving tourism industry, but, of course, it's not. More tourists visit the island every year than the island can properly support. There isn't enough water, the landfill is bursting at the seams, the planes can't fly in food fast enough.

I haven't mentioned the statues yet, but the authors go into a satisfying amount of detail describing how the Mo'ai were made and transported. Again, they start with all the theories that didn't work: Easter Island didn't have a large enough population, or the necessary natural resources, to allow huge teams of laborers to tow the statues along horizontally, for example. Rather, small teams would have walked them upright using the 'refrigerator method' and a few ropes.

The quarry from which the statues were mined is extant--with half-carved faces emerging from the rock!--and mo'ai that fell during transport reveal how the statues were carved with a high center of mass to make moving them easier, then re-shaped on their platforms for stability.

I just loved The Statues that Walked. I listened to it as an audiobook & the narrator was really great. It's not very long--six hours to listen, which is nothing--measured and thoughtful. This is probably a niche read, but if you're at all curious about Easter Island, I recommend it.