Why Can’t Science Figure Out Easter Island

In October of 2012, researchers came up with the “walking” theory for Easter Island by creating a 5-ton replica of one of the statues and moving it in an upright position. The researchers argue that if the massive stone statues were walked into place, the Islanders didn’t need to cut down the island’s palm trees to make way for them. The findings help to tear down the traditional storyline that a “crazed maniacal group destroyed their environment” to transport the structures.

Of course, not everyone in the field is convinced. Some doubt the large statues could have been walked upright on the island’s rough terrain. At this point, Rapa Nui’s rock statues (or the Stone Heads of Easter Island) remain a mystery, as they have since Europeans first arrived on the island in the 1700s. Though we know the island was filled with a giant palm forest when Polynesians first arrived, the first European explorers found the megaliths on a deforested island with just 3,000 people.

Archeologists have long proposed that a lost civilization chopped down all the trees to make paths to roll the megalithic structures horizontally. That transport method would have required a significant number of people and led to deforestation and environmental ruin.

But the team argues that other archeological evidence in villages suggests the island’s population was never that large to begin with, and the palm trees would be crushed by the rolling statues. Lipo and his team also found that statues on the roads to the platforms all had wider bases than shoulders, suggesting that they could have been rocked forward in an upright position. The team proposes the builders carved the statues’ bases so they would lean forward and flattened the bases to stand the statues upright once they reach the ceremonial platforms.

Lipo and his team walked a replica about 328 feet in 40 minutes. Assuming that the ancient builders were somewhat experienced at this job, Lipo suspects they would have moved the statues about 0.6 miles a day, making the total transport time about two weeks. Furthermore, if this were the case, relatively few people would have been needed to move the statues—eliminating the need for a massive civilization collapse.

Of course, the Polynesian settlers did cause deforestation by slashing-and-burning the forest to make way for sweet potatoes and accidentally bringing rats to the island that fed on palm nuts. But it’s unlikely the palm trees were economically useful to the Islanders anyway, Lipo says, and likely is not the cause of civilization dying out.

It’s an interesting proposal, but archeologists have not bought into it quite yet.

Science Vibe