Easter Island instantly brings up images of massive statuary and mystery. From childhood (and that will likely continue for some time due to Night at the Museum) the sensationalized accounts of these eerie statues appeal to our sense of wonder. And they should. Still, as Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo demonstrate in their informative book, The Statues That Walked, the island is more than it first might seem. A small, extremely isolated bit of volcanic rock in the south Pacific, Rapa Nui—the native name for Easter Island—has never been a lush paradise. Its volcanic soil long ago depleted, it was only occupied from about 1000 CE, and then only marginally. In fact, were it not for the moai, nobody would probably have paid much attention to it. Even today this remote island draws thousands of visitors, despite its lack of luxury, because of these huge-headed, silent statues. And who but a specialist would read a book about the island if the moai were not featured?
Hunt and Lipo are archaeologists and anthropologists. Their interest is not primarily in mystery, yet after beginning their fieldwork on Rapa Nui, they felt compelled to turn their attention to the huge statues. Their book, in fact, takes its title from the moai, and soon settles in to a discussion of them. They are, not surprisingly, religious symbols. Many people would probably prefer that critically minded scientists leave their favorite mysteries alone. Yet the story of the moai is fascinating, and still unexplained in the larger sense of why people in a subsistence-level situation would expend so much effort on religion. Hunt and Lipo suggest the moai are examples of costly signaling—the evolutionary principle of the peacock’s tail. Even people with barely enough to eat will put enormous effort in demonstrating to their neighbors that they have the favor of the gods.
Other ancient Polynesians also built statues. On Rapa Nui it grew to a kind of religious obsession. Hunt and Lipo propose a perfectly naturalistic way that the massive statues could have been, and probably were, moved across the island. More importantly, they uncover that the inhabitants probably did not indulge in ecocide, cutting down all the trees. There were other culprits involved. After European discovery of the island, it was time and again devastated by disease. Although they don’t come out and say so in the book, European contact probably contributed to the abandonment of the great statues, many of them still in situ at their quarry. The moai likely represent ancient ancestors in a culture where veneration of the same is the basis for a natural religion. I won’t reveal any spoilers here since The Statues That Walked is an important book to read on many levels. And, although it doesn’t make this claim, it shows that religion will likely always be part of history’s great feats of lasting intrigue.