Despite the lack of modern instruments capable of lifting heavy objects, the Rapa Nui people of what we now call Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean somehow managed to move mammoth stone statues weighing about 4.35 tons.
The statues, called moai, are monoliths of humans with an appearance familiar to most people: disproportionately large heads, solemn looking faces and squat bodies seemingly overlooking the island. According to anthropological studies, the moai most likely represented ancestors or former chiefs, with the enlarged heads illustrating the importance placed on the head by the indigenous people.
Of the 887 moai found on the island, they average a height of 13.3 feet, a width of about 5.25 feet across, and can weigh as much as 86 tons. In addition, many unfinished or abandoned moai have been found littering the island as well. The statues were carved out of a quarry formed from an extinct volcano and were subsequently shipped across the island. How the people of the island moved these enormous statues, however, has long been the subject of debate.
According to most hypotheses, the statues were transported by being rolled on logs chopped from the island’s own forest. This idea then led to the concept coined ‘ecocide’, where the prodigious amount of statues required an equally prodigious amount of logs, causing deforestation, resource depletion and even the occasional story of cannibalism as the remaining inhabitants fought to survive on the desolate island. Because of modern industry, writers have even used the fall of the Rapa Nui people as a warning against our current resource consumption; a potential glimpse at our future if we do not curb our use of resources today.
The story of Rapa Nui’s demise has been supported by writers such as Jared Diamond, and dramatized in movies like Kevin Reynolds’ “Rapa Nui” (1994). However, a new theory proposed by archaeologist Carl Lipo in the Journal of Archeological Science offers a different mechanism of transporting the moai. “We constructed a precise three-dimensional 4.35 metric ton replica of an actual statue and demonstrated how positioning the center of mass allowed it to fall forward and rock from side to side causing it to ‘walk,’” Lipo and his team of U.S. and local researchers wrote in the paper.
The mechanism, displayed in a YouTube video titled “Easter Island moai ‘walked,’” offers a novel explanation for the baffling mystery.
In the video demonstration, only 18 people were required to get the replica moai “walking” as they heaved on three separate ropes tied to the top of the head. Although getting the statue to start rocking back and forth took effort, once the team had their statue moving it was a simple matter of timing in order to keep the moai moving forward in a slow, but steady manner.
Lipo used the nature of the abandoned moai he found throughout the island as evidence to support his hypothesis. He noted that on downhill sections of the island, most of the statues are face down, and vice versa, suggesting the enormous weight of the moai made it too difficult to continue moving one that had fallen over.
Lipo’s hypothesis not only offers another explanation for maoi transportation, but also debunks the belief that the indigenous people killed themselves off by deforesting their own island for the sake of their statues.
Instead, more a recent hypothesis suggests that the arrival of human immigrants led to the island’s depletion of natural resources. Rats quickly took over the island, eating the nuts and seeds of plants, and preventing fertilization.
Furthermore, the island’s conversion into a sheep ranch in 1868 by French mariner Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier would have completed the ecological ruin of Easter Island as the sheep destroyed any remaining shrubbery, causing massive soil erosion.
While the proposal of “walking statues” may seem like a trivial scientific pursuit, its ability to offer clarification on the history of the island illustrates the importance of even the smallest anthropological and archeological searches to better understand early human societies.