Massive Easter Island Statues Were Walked Into Place Not Rolled
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
For centuries, magnificent stone structures, known as Moai, have stood at attention, seemingly guarding one of the world´s most remote islands–Polynesia´s Easter Island–from the unknown. But why these statues are here has not been as much of an enigma, as to how they got here. That conundrum, which has been steeped in mystery, may have finally been answered, thanks to the efforts of a team of US anthropologists and archaeologists.
The research team suggest these statues could have been “walked” to their destinations. Using a nearly life-size replica of the statues of Easter Island, the team used ropes to heave and ho the replica down a path, moving the massive stone bust in a way similar to how one might move a large cabinet or refrigerator.
Describing how this “walking” could work in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the team claim these 4+ ton behemoths can easily be moved into place utilizing a small number of people, tugging on ropes, back and forth, walking the statue down a path.
The team demonstrated the maneuver at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii, and Nature magazine was on hand to capture the feat on video. Their work demonstrates an alternative to the traditionally held belief that the more than 880 statues, each weighing upwards of 80 tons, scattered across the island were rolled across the island on wooden logs.
“It´s a great story but the archaeological evidence doesn´t really support [rolling them],” said Carl Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach.
To prove their theory, a team of 18 people attached three ropes to the replica´s head, with two groups pulling forward on either side and a third group at the rear, steadying the statue and keeping it from falling forward. Chanting “heave-ho” throughout the maneuver, the team were able to shuffle the statue roughly 400 feet in under an hour.
The experiment followed the publication of Lipo´s book, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. A US television program later asked Lipo and his colleague and book coauthor Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, to put their theory to the test.
Tilburg, who previously conducted experiments showing how the Moai can be moved horizontally on logs, told Nature that the model statue used in the Hawaii experiment was not an accurate depiction of statues found on Easter Island, therefore their findings were irrelevant.
“What this work has done is disengaged the statues from the archaeological context, and I think any time you do that, you enter, however gingerly, into fantasy and speculation on a level that isn´t scientific,” Van Tilburg told Nature.
A previous experiment by another team in 1986 was halted after large chips of stone chipped off the bases of the statues while being walked. At that time, researchers ruled out walking as a likely method of transport due to the stresses placed on the stone.
British researchers have also touched on the issue. However, the results were much different. In that study, Dr. Colin Richards, of University College London, said: “The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved.”
Lipo said some statues are found on stone pedestals; others are in incomplete forms along roads or in a quarry. He said these incomplete statues, which would have been modified once they reached their pedestals, leaned noticeably forward, in a posture that doesn´t lend itself to horizontal transport.
He said broken Moai along roads, appearing as if they were abandoned, also show signs of vertical transport. On roads that slope upwards away from the quarry, the statues lie on their backs, whereas downwards-sloping roads tend to be littered with face-planted Moai, Lipo noted.
Lipo said when asked to prove the theory, he realized he hadn´t given that any thought, and had no clue how to make it happen.
“An aeronautical engineer can explain why a plane flies, but you don´t want one flying a plane,” said Lipo. “Here we have this giant 5-ton thing, now figure out how it actually moves. It was quite frustrating.”
But once he and Hunt figured out how to make it happen, the rest was a breeze. “It really hauls,” said Lipo.
The statues of Easter Island are believed to have been carved and placed sometime soon after the island was settled by Polynesians around 800 years ago. Some experts believe the settlers of the island, known as Rapa Nui, became so obsessed with statue-building that they deforested the island to make room for their precious megaliths. They then used these felled trees to build devices to transport the immense stone structures. With the loss of the trees, civil war broke out and, reportedly, cannibalism became common.
By the time the island was rediscovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday in 1722, it was entirely treeless and the population had fallen to less than 2,000, down from a peak of 15,000 a few centuries earlier. This ties into the story of the island being an example of an ecosystem transformed into an ecological disaster zone by human over-exploitation.
In the end, Lipo maintains that vertical transport was still the most likely scenario for these megaliths. He noted that rope would have been readily abundant during the time, as the material for ropes would have been made from woody shrub. Under this scenario “statue making and transport cannot be linked to deforestation.”
“Multiple lines of evidence, including the ingenious engineering to ‘walk’ statues, point to Easter Island as a remarkable history of success in a most unlikely place,” the team concluded.