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Prof Co-Authors Controversial Book on Easter Island Discoveries

Published: June 30, 2011

A newly released book by CSULB anthropology Professor Carl Lipo and co-author Terry Hunt from the University of Hawaii at Manoa presents revisionist theories about Easter Island that are already generating controversy.

Professor Co-Authors Controversial Book on Easter Island Discoveries

Titled The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, the book is described as a story of scientific discovery and sleuthing, and is the basis for the forthcoming NOVA/National Geographic television special.

Its publisher also believes the book will shatter the conventional wisdom. In an article published April 24, weeks ahead of the book’s release, The Independent in London wrote:

“A scientific battle over the fate of Easter Island’s natives is ready to erupt this summer with the publication of a book challenging the notion that their Neolithic society committed ecological suicide.

“The debate has a modern political dimension. At stake is the central example, cited by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, of the dire consequences that threaten if humans don’t take care of the planet. . . . Defenders of the old theory are not taking this lying down.”

Why did the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Rapanui, build hundreds of eerie monumental stone sculptures, called moai, and what caused the dramatic collapse of their society? The prevailing theory—endorsed by Diamond and others—describes Easter Island as the worst-case scenario of “ecocide,” with a culture so obsessed with its statue-making and so ruthless in decimating the island’s environment that it caused its own dramatic demise.

When Lipo and Hunt began carrying out archaeological studies on the island in 2001, they fully expected to find evidence supporting these accounts. But making one stunning discovery after another—which they describe in a lively and fascinating narrative of the way the mystery unfolded—Hunt and Lipo uncovered a very different story.

Their first major discovery—that the island was settled much later than previously thought—made major news when it was announced in 2006, from the New York Times to Fox News to USA Today. Since then the authors have made a series of striking discoveries, now revealed in The Statues That Walked, including:

–The lush forest that once covered the island was not destroyed by the human inhabitants, but by an exploding population of rats (brought to the island either as stowaways or as a source of food).

–Far from ravaging their island’s resources, the Rapanui were in fact remarkably careful stewards of their environment.

–The popular portrayal of an island dominated by a strong central ruling authority, or torn apart by warring tribes, is wrong.

–Building and placing the moai was not a burden on the culture, but instead a vital part of enabling the culture to thrive against all odds.

–The massive stone statues were surprisingly easy to move over great distances, due to an ingenious design that enabled a handful of men to “walk” them for many miles.

So what caused the collapse?

Lipo and Hunt make an iron-clad case for a radically different answer: the decline of Easter Island began with the first extended contact between the Rapanui and Europeans, starting in the 18th century.

Lipo has been a faculty member at the university since 2002. In 2010, he was awarded the campus’ Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Creative Achievement Award. To learn more about Lipo, visit his website. For more information on the book, visit the website at

–Larry Hughes