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The Archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Oxford Handbooks Online


The Archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)  
Terry L. Hunt and Carl Lipo
The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Oceania
Edited by Ethan E. Cochrane and Terry L. Hunt

Print Publication Date: May 2018 Subject: Archaeology, Archaeology of Oceania


Online Publication Date: Dec 2017 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199925070.013.026

Abstract and Keywords

The public and scholarly fascination with Rapa Nui or Easter Island has stimulated
research on this isolated island since the late nineteenth century. In the last twenty years
such research has contributed greatly to knowledge of the archaeological record, as well
as prehistoric agriculture, community structure, settlement patterns, and the carving and
transport of roughly 1,000 anthropomorphic statues or moai. Although the popularized
story of Rapa Nui is one of self-inflicted population devastation through destruction of the
environment—ecocide—this research suggests that decentralized social systems,
including those related to moai carving, and innovative subsistence practices within a
marginal environment contributed to the ultimate survival of the Rapa Nui people.

Keywords: Rapa Nui, Easter Island, moai, marginal landscapes, ecocide

MORE than any Pacific Island, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), has been the subject of
speculation, research, controversy, popular intrigue, and “mystery.” The reasons for this
notoriety are clear. The island is small (171 sq. km), remote, and depauperate in natural
resources. There are no permanent streams and limited terrestrial and marine resources.
The soils are poor in terms of agricultural productivity and the climate subtropical with
seasonally variable rainfall and droughts. Yet, the island boasts some of the most
dramatic examples of prehistoric monuments and statues in the world. Given its size,
remoteness, and resource constraints, visitors from first contact in A.D. 1722 have been
astonished to find only a few thousand people among nearly 1,000 giant statues, known
as moai, with hundreds placed atop massive stone-constructed platforms, or ahu. Such a
rich archaeological record contrasts starkly with the desolate landscape of Rapa Nui.
Thus, little wonder the island has long been viewed as an enduring “mystery” by
researchers, visitors, and a large public audience.

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The Archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Despite this degree of notoriety, the details of the island’s prehistory are only beginning
to emerge. Confusion over the sequence of events, preconceptions based on Eurocentric
assumptions, and the lack of systematic field research have long hindered our ability to
explain why such an island would have such an extraordinary number of statues in such a
precarious and poor environment. This image has led to sustained popular
misconceptions of the island as a scene of South American innovation destroyed by later
Polynesian invaders and, more recently, a massive population that overconsumed natural
resources leading to prehistoric societal collapse, environmental catastrophe, and wars.
Such reasoning has its roots in the assumptions and observations imposed by the earliest
European visitors leading to misconceptions replicated through the twentieth century and
persisting to some extent today. This misfortunate history of Rapa Nui research has long
clouded our ability to make substantive progress in building falsifiable and empirically
grounded accounts for the island’s remarkable past.

Over the last twenty years, however, our understanding of Rapa Nui has grown
(p. 417)

with recent detailed survey and excavation data combined with systematic reevaluations
of previous assumptions. Armed with evidence from the archaeological record, we are
beginning to unravel the many false assumptions that underpin previous accounts and to
establish robust chronologies and models of prehistoric subsistence, settlement patterns,
and technology (Hunt and Lipo 2011a). We are finding that much of prehistoric Rapa Nui
culture, while extraordinary to outside observers, is well suited to the constraints of the
island and enabled people to persist in this remote place.

In this chapter, we provide a summary of current knowledge about the island and its
prehistory. Establishing the environmental and research background of the island, we
describe the most recent evidence that sheds light on colonization history, past
subsistence, community structure, and cultural practices.

Environmental Setting
Rapa Nui is isolated in the remote southeastern Pacific (Figures 19.1 and 19.2). Except
for the small, remote, and relatively impoverished islands of Pitcairn, Ducie, and
Henderson, Rapa Nui’s nearest neighbors are more than 3,000 km away. Specifically, the
Chilean mainland is nearly 4,000 km, Rapa Iti, the nearest island in the Austral Group, is
more than 3,400 km, the Marquesas more than 3,500 km, and the Island of Tahiti more
than 4,200 km distance.

Geology

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island formed by basaltic lava flows from at least ten shield
volcanoes that began to erupt from the seabed about three million years ago (Ciszewski
et al. 2009: 64). Over time, three of the volcanoes breached the surface, forming the

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triangular shaped island we see today. These volcanoes, Poike, Rano Kao, and Terevaka,
have lava flows that occurred between 2,500,000 and 10,000 years ago, with Hiva Hiva
on the west coast the most recent. The Hiva Hiva flows include an extensive network of
caves and lava tubes (Ciszewski et al. 2009: 64–71). These underground caves extend up
to 1,500 m in length and can be tens of meters wide in sections. On the northern end of
the island and with an altitude of 507 m, Terevaka is the largest volcano on the island and
produced most of its landmass. Rano Kao on the southwest corner of the island reaches
just 324 m in elevation, while Poike forms the southeast corner of the island at 370 m
elevation. The volcanic soils of Rapa Nui are described as excessively drained and
weathered, and thus depleted of critical nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus
(Louwagie et al. 2006; Ladefoged et al. 2010). (p. 418)

Click to view larger


Figure 19.1 The islands of the South Pacific.

Click to view larger


Figure 19.2 The island of Rapa Nui and locations
mentioned in the text.

(p. 419) Flora and Fauna

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Even considering the loss of biota since the arrival of humans, Rapa Nui has always had a
limited roster of native plants and animals. This paucity of species strongly reflects the
island’s relatively young geological age, small size, and great isolation. Skottsberg (1956)
wrote concerning the island’s biology that “there is in the Pacific Ocean no island of the
size, geology and altitude of Easter Island with such an extremely poor flora . . . nor is
there an island as isolated as this . . . [T]he conclusion [is] that poverty is a result of
isolation—even if man is responsible for disappearance of part of the flora, [Rapa Nui]
cannot have been rich.” The known flora includes only forty-eight “native” plants, and
fourteen of these, including sweet potato and the other cultigens, were introductions
made by ancient Polynesians. Studies of pollen from lake-floor sediments and
identifications of wood charcoal from ancient cooking ovens suggest many other woody
plants adapted to a mesic environment once covered Rapa Nui (Flenley and King 1984;
Flenley et al. 1991; Orliac 2000). Paleoecological research also indicates that giant
native, likely endemic palms (Paschalococos disperta [Dransfield et al. 1984] probably a
close relative to the endemic Jubaea chilensis on the Chilean mainland), once dominated
the island’s vegetation.

The island had few, if any, indigenous terrestrial vertebrates. Two lizard species may be
native to the island and are likely Polynesian introductions. The only land birds found on
the island today are recent introductions, but archaeological discoveries show that the
island once supported twenty-five species of seabirds and, on present evidence, perhaps
six land bird species (Steadman 2006). Today, more than twenty seabird species are
documented for the island (Flores et al. 2014), with many inhabiting the small offshore
islands. Since the island lacks extensive reefs, marine resources are limited when
compared to other islands of the Pacific. Sea mammals, including seals, and sea turtles
are known from Rapa Nui. Based on archaeological evidence, the only animals introduced
by ancient Polynesians were commensal rats (Rattus exulans) and domestic chickens
(Gallus gallus).

Climate and Water Resources

Unlike the verdant islands typical of Polynesia, Rapa Nui does not enjoy abundant regular
rainfall and a tropical climate. At 27o south, Rapa Nui lies just beyond the tropics,
creating marginal conditions for Polynesian food crops such as coconut and breadfruit,
which would likely not have survived if introduced by Polynesians (Hunt and Lipo 2011a:
Appendix 1). Rainfall (ca. 1,250 mm annually) fluctuates dramatically, with a six-month
dry season from October through March. During dry seasons, evapotranspiration exceeds
precipitation and the island faces desert-like conditions (Hunt and Lipo 2011a: Appendix
1). Rainfall seeps almost immediately into soils and the underlying jointed volcanic
bedrock. Water is available at the surface in three crater lakes (p. 420) and short-lived
ephemeral flows that appear near the coast for a short while after heavy rainfalls
(Herrera and Custodio 2008). While it is often assumed that the lakes served as central
places for water, their locations limit access and their immediate surrounding terrain is

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The Archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

largely unsuitable for habitation. Rano Raraku is more accessible, though remarkably
little domestic architecture is found in the immediate area.

With no permanent streams, agricultural irrigation was not possible as was common on
other Pacific Islands. Based on historic and paleoecological data, droughts were frequent
and sometimes intense (Hunt and Lipo 2011a: Appendix 1; Mann et al. 2008). These
conditions, unlike those found in many tropical Polynesian islands, certainly imposed
constraints for the island and its agricultural productivity.

Archaeological Record

There is little doubt that the most famous aspect of Rapa Nui is its extraordinary
assemblage of nearly 1,000 massive stone moai that vary in size from under a meter to
those more than 10 meters in height (Figure 19.3a and 19.3b). Of 233 measurable statues
(Shepardson 2006), the mean height is 5.28 meters, modal height is 5.5 meters and
weights are about 12 tons. Of the statues remaining on the island, 97.5% (937) of the 961
are made of volcanic tuff, a compressed volcanic ash that was quarried from Rano
Raraku, a vent of the Poike volcano. Others are made from red scoria, trachyte, and
basalt. The most iconic examples of moai are those found at the Rano Raraku statue
quarry: these bear classic stern faces, elongated head shape, and large ears. These
distinctive forms give many the impression that moai are unique in the Pacific, a notion
that has led some to look elsewhere for their origins (e.g., Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961).
Yet, when viewed as a population there is substantial variability in the forms of the faces,
heads, and body. This variability is homologous with statues found on islands across
Polynesia, documenting the roots of moai with traditions brought to the island by
Polynesian colonists.

The majority of moai can be associated with a systematic sequence of events beginning at
the statue quarry and ending at ahu, the large platforms upon which the moai were
placed. For the statues from Rano Raraku, their carving took place on the slopes of the
volcanic cone and statues were lowered down into pits or trenches to be finished. Once
prepared, the statues were transported along a series of constructed moai roads and
brought to ahu located predominately along the coasts of the island (Figure 19.4). Once
statues reached their ahu destinations, eye sockets were added to their faces, and coral
and obsidian insets represented eyes. Based on oral traditions, the moai represented
ancestors and with eyes open wide, looking over the well-being of their descendent
community.

Ahu, the platforms upon which these statues stood, are architectural marvels in and of
themselves. Built from carved multi-ton blocks of basalt bedrock, these rectangular
platforms were engineered to support the massive weight of multiple moai. With a steep
(p. 421) (p. 422) seawall at the back, the front of ahu are typically inclines often covered

with a pattern of rounded beach boulders and many are lined on the edges with red
scoria lintels (Figure 19.3a). Broad wings on the lateral edges of the platform contain

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boulders and cobbles that may have been materials initially used in ramps for raising the
moai to the height of the platform. Ahu find cultural parallels throughout Polynesia as
rectangular structures with raised areas, ahu are homologous to marae found in eastern
Polynesia and heiau in the Hawaiian Islands (Cochrane 2015).

Click to view larger


Figure 19.3 (a) Ahu Nau Nau reconstructed with
standing moai with pukao. (b) Detail of moai faces
and pukao.

(photographs by Terry Hunt)

Click to view larger


Figure 19.4 Moai and moai roads on Rapa Nui.

History of Observations, Archaeology, and


Research

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Attempts to reconcile the paradox of moai and ahu on this tiny and remote island date
back to the arrival of Europeans. Rapa Nui was first encountered by Europeans when
Dutch Captain Jacob Roggeveen sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. Roggeveen’s
visit was short, just two days. Nearly five decades passed until the Spanish Captain Don
Felipe González arrived in 1770. This visit was followed in 1774 by the English Captain
James Cook and then by French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse in 1786.
(p. 423) After this point, European explorers, missionaries, traders, whalers, and, most

tragically, slave-raiders, repeatedly visited Rapa Nui (Fischer 2005).

Cook and other voyagers made a variety of observations about the cultural features,
people, plants, and animals they encountered on the island (Richards 2008). Yet despite
over a century of interaction, no systematic observations or surveys were published until
nearly 150 years had passed after first contact. The first attempts describing the
archaeology in more than an incidental way can be traced to John Linton Palmer who
arrived as a surgeon on the HMS Topaz in 1868. In a brief account, Palmer (1870)
provided some of the first basic descriptions of four ahu that he also located specifically
on a map. Geisler’s visit in 1882 (see Ayres and Ayres 1995) added some details to these
basic descriptions.

The first comprehensive survey of the island comes from William J. Thomson (1891).
During his visit, Thomson walked the coastline of Rapa Nui and described 113 ahu. His
inventory included traditional Rapanui names known for ahu. Thomson was the first to
systematically count and map 555 moai, noting that 236 were associated with ahu.

Nearly three decades later Katherine Routledge, an Oxford-educated historian, traveled


to Rapa Nui with her husband William Scoresby Routledge in 1914 from England on a 90-
foot Schooner, the Mana, built especially for the expedition. Wealthy and self-funded, but
affiliated with the National Geographical Society and the British Museum, Routledge
spent sixteen months doing survey, excavations, and interviews resulting in detailed
descriptions of many dimensions of the island and its people, including the archaeological
record, traditional stories, language, and customs (Routledge 1919). Working with a
native interpreter, she recorded oral traditions and ethnographic information including
many stories about the statues. Much of the value of her work comes from her interviews
with the people of Rapa Nui who, at the time of her visit, had dwindled to just 250
individuals in the wake of disease epidemics and slave-raids. In terms of archaeology,
Routledge made a systematic inventory of moai and ahu as well as undertaking
excavations.

In 1934‒35, Alfred Métraux (1940) and Henri Lavachery (1939) of the Franco-Belgian
expedition conducted ethnographic documentation that expanded upon the work started
by Routledge. Their work was primarily ethnographic in its focus, though they also
extensively documented rock art. Around the same time, Father Sebastian Englert, a
Catholic priest, arrived and lived on the island for more than thirty years. In the 1940s
Englert (1948) made an inventory of moai and the red scoria “hats” known as pukao.

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While incomplete and only a listing, the legacy of his work are white painted numbers
visible on many statues across the island.

Much of the contemporary research conducted on the island stems from the Norwegian
Expedition to the island led by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl believed that ancient
Americans first populated the eastern Pacific, and he set out to prove his theory in 1955‒
56 by leading an international team in field research on Rapa Nui that included extensive
documentation and excavations (Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1962). Scholars swiftly rejected
Heyerdahl’s assertions for American origins (e.g., Golson (p. 424) 1965; Sharp 1963),
even while there remains long-standing evidence that some interaction between
prehistoric Polynesians and South Americans occurred (e.g., Scaglion 2005). Nonetheless,
Rapa Nui’s population is indisputably Polynesian in origin, as much human biological,
linguistic, and other lines of research have shown (e.g., Chapman and Gill 1997; Green
2000; Hagelberg et al. 1994; Hagelberg 2016).

Heyerdahl’s research, however, has had deep and lasting impact on our knowledge of the
island. Heyerdahl’s expedition included several archaeologists and other natural
scientists as collaborators including Edwin Ferdon, William Mulloy, Carlyle Smith, Carl
Skottsberg, Arne Skjølsvold, and Gonzalo Figuero. Over forty years following the
Heyerdahl expedition, each of these participants also influenced students who have
continued work on the island.

Originally a member of Heyerdahl’s team, American archaeologist William Mulloy


continued to conduct extensive studies on Rapa Nui beginning in the late 1950s. His work
included excavations associated with extensive reconstructions of ahu across the island
including Ahu Vinapu (Mulloy 1961), Ahu Tahai (Mulloy 1968, Ayres 1971, 1988), Ahu Vai
Uri (Mulloy 1970), Orongo (Mulloy 1975), and Ahu Akivi (Mulloy and Figueroa 1978).
While such large-scale architectural reconstructions are now viewed less favorably for a
variety of reasons, Mulloy was committed to the preservation of the archaeological record
and his priorities sparked the beginnings of extensive surface surveys in many parts of
the island (e.g., Ayres 1973; McCoy 1976).

McCoy (1976) pursued the challenge set by Mulloy and expanded surveys to include
landscape-scale tracts of the island divided into a defined series of large sectors or
quadrangles. His work was critical in expanding the focus of archaeological attention
from ceremonial ahu and moai features to architectural and artifact remains related to
subsistence, settlement patterns, and other aspects of prehistoric life on Rapa Nui.

Adding on to the work of McCoy, Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas have conducted
surveys across much of the island. Over a period from 1976 to 1997, Vargas and Cristino
ultimately surveyed about 128 sq. km or about 80% of the island, recording nearly 20,000
archaeological features (Vargas et al. 2006: 45). These data have appeared as summary
descriptions (e.g., Vargas et al. 2006) and as a series of large-format printed maps
(Cristino et al. 1981) known as the “Atlas.” The survey results, to the degree they can be

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discerned from the maps, suffer from low spatial precision given the technology available
at the time of the work (i.e., map and compass locations with small scaled paper maps).

Since the late 1990s, the number of detailed published surveys has begun to increase.
Stevenson and his colleagues (Stevenson 1997; Stevenson and Haoa 2008), for example,
have conducted detailed surveys of areas of the northeast coast. Similarly, work by
Wozniak (1997, 1998, 1999) has provided detailed information for the Te Niu area on the
northwest coast. Over about the past decade, Hunt and Lipo (e.g., Morrison 2012)
expanded surveys in the northwest (Maitakitemoa and Vai Mata) as well as in areas of the
south coast near Ahu Akahanga. These modern detailed field surveys document a (p. 425)
rich archaeological record from small artifacts, to structures, and monuments including
moai and monumental ahu found on a continuous landscape scale. Much of the surface
record reflects domestic occupations and subsistence activities, commonly including
features (Figure 19.5) such as earth ovens (umu), habitation structures (e.g., hare
paenga), stone enclosures for cultivation (manavai), rock mulch cultivation areas,
portable artifacts such as stemmed obsidian tools (mata‘a), lithic flakes, and stone adzes,
stone structures identified ethnohistorically as chicken houses (hare moa), modified
caves, as well as carved basins in bedrock or boulders to collect rainwater (taheta).
Extensive subterranean caves, often formed by lava tubes, are found in many parts of the
island. These caves have been mapped and studied in detail, revealing some structural
remains, low densities of portable artifacts, and some human remains (Ciszewski et al.
2009). The caves do not show intensive occupation by islanders in pre-contact or historic
times.

Field surveys have included moai (e.g., Cristino et al. 1981; Vargas et al. 2006), and some
initial detailed recording (e.g., see Van Tilburg and Vargas 1998). While Van Tilburg’s
later work (e.g., Van Tilburg 1995; Van Tilburg and Vargas 1998) reports having mapped
and documented 887 moai, these data remain unpublished, and not without errors (see
Liller 1993: 88; Shepardson 2006: 66). In the early 2000s, Shepardson (2006) greatly
increased the locational and metric data in his island-wide study of 711 moai. Working in
parallel with Shepardson’s survey efforts and using sub-meter GPS instruments to better
record location, we have documented 658 statues (Hochstetter et al. 2011). When
combined with the Shepardson dataset, we now have good locational information and
published descriptions for at least 962 moai available in a public database (Hochstetter et
al. 2011; Schumacher 2013).

There are more than 300 monumental platforms or ahu found throughout the island and
these remarkable architectural features have long been the subject of description,
inventories, and analysis. Thomson (1891) provided the first systematic survey of 113 ahu
throughout the island. Routledge (1919), Metraux (1940), and Englert (1948) offered
descriptions and attempted to create ahu typologies. Research on architectural
chronology, including excavations and the first radiocarbon dating came with Heyerdahl’s
expedition (1955‒56). William Mulloy and Carlye Smith focused on detailed mapping,
excavation, and radiocarbon dating in initial efforts to define chronology. Stevenson
(1984) proposed ahu types derived from cluster analysis and attempted to build regional

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chronologies using obsidian hydration. Martinsson-Wallin (1994) completed an extensive


island-wide study and analysis of 313 ahu and their attributes. She reports that of the
313, 164 are ahu moai (or image ahu, with statues), 57 are described as semi-pyramidal
in form, 26 rectangular, 8 ahu poe poe (rectangular form with up-turned ends, resembling
a boat), and 18 ahu avanga (rectangular burial structures), with 40 remaining
unclassified. These distinctions of form are similar to those made by earlier researchers
including Routledge, Metraux, and Englert. Other recent studies of ahu have focused on
detailed mapping, excavations, and dating (e.g., Ayres et al. 2014; Ayres and Saleeby
2000; Cristino and Vargas 1999; Hugye et al. 2002; Huyge and Cauwe 2005, 2006; Love
1990; Martinsson-Wallin 2004; Skjolsvold 1994; Vogt and Moser 2010; Martinsson-Wallin
(p. 426) (p. 427) and Wallin 2000). Primarily, these excavations have documented that

there is significant variability in ahu construction, rebuilding, and form over time and
across space.

Recent surveys by Hunt,


Lipo, and their team have
mapped and documented
seventy-five red scoria
“hats” (pukao) transported
from the quarry at Puna
Pau to every part of the
island, with many once
placed atop moai standing
on ahu. These pukao are
multi-ton and recent
research has explained
methods of transport and
placement atop erected
moai on ahu platforms
Click to view larger
(Hixon et al., in prep.).
Figure 19.5 Common archaeological features of
Rapa Nui. (a) A boat-shaped house known as a hare
paenga. (b) An earth oven or umu. Aspects of moai transport
(Photographs by Terry Hunt) have gained attention in
the last decade with
documentation of the ancient roads. While noted and sketched by Routledge during her
visit in the early twentieth century (Routledge 1919), prehistoric road features are found
across the island leading from the quarry at Rano Raraku to ahu locations throughout the
island. Lipo and Hunt (2005) provided the first island-wide mapping of the moai roads
from satellite imagery and field surveys. Love (2001) undertook extensive moai road
excavations near the south coast, providing details of road construction, form, and
associated features.

For the past several decades, a significant amount of attention has focused on the
prehistoric deforestation of Rapa Nui, with much speculation surrounding its
consequences. Beginning with the early work by Skottsberg (1920, 1956) on the native

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vegetation of the island, new research has included lake core analyses (e.g., Flenley 1979,
1993; Flenley and King 1984; Flenley et al. 1991), soil studies (e.g., Mann et al. 2003;
Mieth and Bork 2005), and analysis of changes in archaeobotanical assemblages (e.g.,
Orliac 2000, 2003). Controversies in this research are based largely on issues of
chronology (e.g., Butler et al. 2004; Hunt and Lipo 2006; Lipo and Hunt 2016; Mulrooney
2013; Stevenson et al. 2015) for the island’s human colonization and deforestation.

Recent research has provided new data for human osteological material found from
burials throughout the island (Stefan and Gill 2016). While the earliest work largely
focused on the relatedness of Rapa Nui populations with Polynesia versus South America
(e.g., Gill et al. 1983, 1997; Murrill 1968; Stefan 1999), more recent investigations have
explored patterns of biological variability within the island’s population (e.g., Furgeson
and Gill 2016; Gill and Stefan 2016; Stefan 2003) as well as health and diet
(Commendador et al. 2013, 2014; Stefan and Rozen 2016; Owsley et al. 1985; Polet and
Bocherens 2016), violence (Owsley et al. 2016), and the impacts of disease from
European contact (Owsley et al. 1994). While the biological evidence shows a clear
affinity of Rapa Nui with Polynesia, genetic studies of using modern samples raise
questions about Amerind admixture at some point (e.g., Lie et al. 2007; Hagelberg 2016;
Thorsby 2012). New studies of ancient DNA samples, however, are still needed and are
just beginning to be published (e.g., Dudgeon et al. 2016).

Other aspects of the archaeological record that have received attention in the past
twenty-five years include chronology (Hunt and Lipo 2006; Lipo and Hunt 2016;
Martinsson-Wallin and Crockford 2001; Mulrooney 2013; Stevenson 1984), studies of
artifacts such as stemmed obsidian tools (known as mata’a, e.g., Church and Rigney 1994;
Church and Ellis 1996; Lipo et al. 2010, 2016; Mulrooney et al. 2014), adzes (e.g., Ayres
et al. 1997; Harper et al. 2008), bone tools (Beardsley 1996), cultivation practices (e.g.,
Ladefoged et al. 2005; Mieth and Bork 2005; Stevenson et al. 2015; Wozniak 1997, 1998,
1999), (p. 428) petroglyphs (Lee 1992), caves (Ciszewski et al. 2009), and community
patterns (e.g., Morrison 2012).

Many well-known syntheses for the island were written prior to these recent studies.
Heyerdahl’s account for the island’s prehistory (Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961, 1962)
focused on his assumption that South Americans built the island’s monumental
architecture and then succumbed to violence with later Polynesian arrivals. Most
contemporary syntheses, however, build on the notion first posed by Mulloy (1974) that
the island’s history reflects an isolated population that over-consumed resources leading
to an ecological catastrophe (Mulloy 1974). Kirch (1984) follows on this narrative and
integrated Rapa Nui into a broader context of Eastern Polynesia. Bahn and Flenley (e.g.,
1992) have advocated for a late prehistoric ecological disaster, a series of events that
have seen wide acceptance (e.g., Kirch 2000; Mieth and Bork 2005). The ecological
disaster or “ecocide” narrative, however, has become particularly well popularized by
Diamond (1995, 2005). Based on these “collapse” syntheses, several derived works have
emerged that attempt to explain how such a Malthusian pattern might have unfolded in

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The Archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

terms of ecology, demographics, and economy (e.g., Brander and Taylor 1998; Cole and
Flenley 2008; Dalton and Coats 2000; Reuveny and Decker 2000).

The relative explosion of analyses over the past several decades offers us an excellent
opportunity for a new understanding that challenges existing assumptions about the
archaeological record of Rapa Nui. Such a challenge is long overdue. Recently, such re-
evaluations have begun to be published. We, among a few others (e.g., Boersema 2015;
Cauwe 2011; Mulrooney 2012, 2013; Mulrooney et al. 2010; Rainbird 2002), have
questioned some of the long-standing assumptions of the most popular versions of Rapa
Nui prehistory (e.g., see Hunt 2007; Hunt and Lipo 2009, 2011a, 2011b).

Explanations for the Archaeological Record of


Rapa Nui
Based on recent work, we can now synthesize an empirically sound framework for the
prehistory of Rapa Nui. The first issue concerns the timing of the colonization of the
island, particularly in the context of the movement of populations across Eastern
Polynesia. Second, we better understand how the islanders transformed the island from
native vegetation into an economic landscape. Third, we can examine the details relating
to how moai were made and transported. Finally, we describe how communities were
organized and explain how monument construction fits into successful strategies for
persisting on this small, remote, and challenging island.

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Polynesian Colonization and Chronology

A traditional name recorded for the island, Te Pito o te Henua, translates as “Navel of the
World,” or more apt, the “End of the World” reflecting its isolation and remoteness.
Rapa Nui’s geographic isolation is increased by its extreme windward position.
(p. 429)

Sailing to Rapa Nui from central Polynesia would have meant driving directly into the
prevailing east-southeasterly trade winds and strong currents of the South Pacific. Such a
windward voyage would normally require tacking, making the journey approximately four
times farther than a straight-line distance. Yet, recent research suggests “voyaging
windows” provided by westerly winds associated with periodic El Niño conditions may
have enabled Polynesian colonists to make a downwind sail to the island (Finney 2001;
Anderson et al. 2006; Goodwin et al. 2014). In any case, voyaging to Rapa Nui from
central Polynesia meant discovering or later relocating a very small target in a vast empty
region of the southeastern Pacific (Green 2000).

Until recent discoveries came to light (Hunt and Lipo 2006, 2008), most archaeologists
believed that Rapa Nui was first settled ca. A.D. 400 or a few centuries later, about A.D.
700‒800 (Flenley and Bahn 2002, 2007). The first signs of human impacts on the forest,
however, only appear after A.D. 1250 (Hunt 2007). Revaluation of radiocarbon ages used
to establish the chronologies (Hunt and Lipo 2006, 2008; Wilmshurst et al. 2011)
combined with multiple lines of evidence from archaeological and paleoenvironmental
research on Rapa Nui show that Polynesians landed on Rapa Nui sometime in the
thirteenth century A.D. and their presence saw immediate impacts to the environment
(Hunt 2007). Our excavations in the deep, stratified sand dune at Anakena Beach, for
example, provide several radiocarbon dates that clearly establish a chronology beginning
about A.D. 1200 (Hunt and Lipo 2006). The oldest radiocarbon samples from the deepest
layers of our excavation contain the first artifacts, charcoal, and bones found directly
above the undisturbed clay deposits riddled with the root molds of the now-extinct palm
trees. The oldest layers in our Anakena excavations contain significant numbers of the
introduced Polynesian rat, as well as the remains of the early subsidence items including
sea mammals, birds, and fish (Hunt 2007).

The relatively late dates for first colonization fit well with the chronology for the overall
migration of people across Eastern Polynesia. Scrutiny of radiocarbon chronologies with
additional dating from islands across Polynesia has resulted in island colonization that is
centuries later than originally assumed. Today, the most reliable and earliest dates for the
eastern Pacific show that the archipelagos such as the Cooks, Marquesas, Hawai‘i,
Australs, and New Zealand were colonized rapidly in the thirteenth century, between A.D.
1200 and 1290 (Wilmshurst et al. 2011), fitting well within the broad pattern now
documented for eastern and remote Polynesia.

Rapa Nui’s Transformation and “Ecocide”

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Speculations about the island’s deforestation and its resulting ecological and cultural ruin
can be traced to the island’s early European visitors. For example, from a single day’s
visit in April 1786, French explorer La Pérouse speculated that at some time in the past
Rapa Nui’s inhabitants had thoughtlessly cut down all the trees making the island almost
uninhabitable. He went on to describe that the present inhabitants were “indebted to the
imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation” (La Pérouse
(p. 430) 1797: 318–319). Captain James Cook’s expedition made similar speculations of a

population once more numerous and with greater resources. Modern authors would, it
seems, accept early European speculations as historical facts.

Drawing on Paul Ehrlich’s grim predictions in The Population Bomb, William Mulloy’s
essay (1974) recounts a pre-contact Rapa Nui society investing in spectacular
constructions, statues, and ceremonial activities leading to over-exploitation of the
island’s fragile resources and devastating warfare. In his narrative, Mulloy (1974)
speculates that the economic equilibrium disintegrated and mutually hostile bands
engaged in chronic warfare and cannibalism, where islanders barely survived in a grass-
covered land with few water sources. This remnant population, disorganized and
vulnerable, could not withstand the onslaught of nineteenth-century whalers and slavers.
Kirch (1984: 264) echoed this story, writing that by the time of European contact the
island had “already begun a downward spiral of cultural regression” and “crashed
devastatingly.” Bahn and Flenley’s (1992; Flenley and Bahn 2002) “collapse” scenario
suggested Rapa Nui served as a microcosm of the Earth’s impending resource and
population crisis. These accounts where taken up and widely popularized by Diamond
(1995, 2005) as a warning for our time: “In just a few centuries, the people of Easter
Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their
complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their
lead?” (Diamond 1995: 62). Diamond (2005: 118) asserts that Rapa Nui is “the clearest
example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources” and that
the consequences of deforestation “start with starvation, a population crash, and a
descent into cannibalism.”

Yet the earliest European visitors with Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 (Ruiz-Tagle 2005: 23–24)
report:

We found it not only not sandy but to the contrary exceedingly fruitful, producing
bananas, potatoes, sugar-cane of remarkable thickness, and many other kinds of
the fruits of the earth, although destitute of large trees and domestic animals,
except poultry. This place, as far as its rich soil and good climate are concerned, is
such that it might be made into an earthly Paradise, if it were properly worked
and cultivated; which is now only done in so far as the Inhabitants are obliged to
for the maintenance of life.

The suggestion that the island was well suited for human subsistence at the time of
contact challenges the notion that removal of the palm forest by humans led to an
ecological disaster. While Skottsberg (1920) speculated about native forest, the first clear

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evidence for deforestation on Rapa Nui came with pollen studies by John Flenley and his
colleagues (Flenley et al. 1991; Dransfield et al. 1984). Sediments of the lake floor of
Rano Kao contained pollen from a giant palm tree (Paschalococos disperta) similar in size
and form to the native Jubaea chilensis of mainland Chile that once dominated the island’s
vegetation. The pollen evidence shows that the forest disappeared and was replaced by
the grassland. Dating dramatic vegetation changes, and even how fast deforestation
proceeded, has been problematic, especially based on samples from lake core (p. 431)
sediments. However, careful field work by Daniel Mann (Mann et al. 2003, 2008) and his
colleagues, Andreas Mieth (Mieth and Bork 2005) and his team from Germany, and
French researchers led by Catherine Orliac (2000, 2003) and our excavations (Hunt and
Lipo 2006; Hunt 2007) have shown that the forest disappeared over a period of about 400
years, from around A.D. 1250 to 1650. Clear association of radiocarbon-dated palm nuts
with people and introduced rats provides a sound chronology for when the forest grew
and disappeared. Rats would depress recruitment of new vegetation and burning cleared
areas for cultivation (Hunt 2007). The island was simply transformed from a natural to an
agricultural environment, as occurred in so many parts of the world. From accounts of
early visitors, some native forest may have survived until the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. Intensive ranching between 1888 and 1953 with tens of thousands of sheep
would have devastated the vegetation and accelerated the serious erosion evident on
Rapa Nui today.

Notions of “ecocide” (Diamond 2005) have their roots in the enigma of the disparity
between the magnitude of monumental architecture and statues versus the limited
resources of Rapa Nui. Over the past thirty years, researchers have addressed this
paradox by theorizing that the island once was a much more fertile place. This theory
holds that Rapa Nui, like many Polynesian islands, was verdant with rich soil, dense
vegetation, ample wood, and abundant native fauna. These resources supported a vast
number of people who engaged in the construction and maintenance of monumental
architecture that involved a grand statue cult. Over time, however, these natural
resources were consumed by increasingly larger numbers of humans as well as excesses
related to investments in monumentality. According to the modern narratives, at some
point late in prehistory, resource demand exceeded the capacity of the island resulting in
a crash of the populations and the end of the statue cult (Bahn and Flenley 1992;
Diamond 1995, 2005; Flenley and Bahn 2002; Heyerdahl et al. 1989; Kirch 1984, 2000). In
this narrative, the early Europeans are thought to be visiting the aftermath of a collapse—
an assumption that apparently accounts for why the island is denuded of natural
resources as well as why Europeans find relatively low numbers of people—about 3,000—
at the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722.

These observations—hundreds of massive moai, a relatively small population, and the loss
of a palm forest over the course of human occupation of the island—form the assumptive
foundation of the “collapse” or “ecocide” narrative. Recently, however, this narrative has
been challenged (Hunt and Lipo 2011a, 2011b). While the pollen record clearly
documents changes in the island’s ecology coincided with human occupation of the
island, a prehistoric “collapse” never occurred. The “collapse” model mistakenly links
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deforestation and assumptions about Rapa Nui’s population decline following and
resulting from European contact; changes separated in causation and chronology. Loss of
the palm forest was a multi-century process in which the native vegetation was converted
into a cultivated landscape (Lipo and Hunt 2010; Mann et al. 2003; Stevenson et al. 1999;
Stevenson and Haoa 2008). The second event—dramatic population decline—occurred
later and resulted from the (p. 432) impacts of European contact and the introduction of
disease (Fischer 2005; Hunt and Lipo 2011a). The case for European-caused population
loss is unquestionable; it is documented in historic accounts (see Fischer 2005) with the
population ultimately declining to just 111 people in 1877.

Post-contact population loss on Rapa Nui should not come as a surprise, and we now
understand that the island experienced a history of social cooperation and sustained
success despite limited resources. In terms of subsistence, our excavations conducted in
2002‒2004 (Hunt 2007) as well as human skeletal evidence (Commendador et al. 2013)
show that the island’s population was never primarily reliant on fish, most likely due to
the limited size of and access to the near shore reef environment. A substantial source of
food came from terrestrial sources and included Polynesian introduced rats, chickens,
and a suite of cultigens.

In addition, we know that vast areas of the island were transformed into rock mulch
gardens (e.g., Bork et al. 2004; Stevenson et al. 1999; Wozniak 1997, 1999). The remains
of these gardens can be seen across the island as rock concentrations on the surface.
Such rock mulch formed a critical dimension to survival. The soils of Rapa Nui derive
from heavily weathered volcanic ash and rocks. Given their age, these soils are relatively
nutrient poor. Adding broken rock to the soil (i.e., “lithic mulching”) served to enrich
nutrient leached soils (Figure 19.6a). Soil samples taken from rock mulch areas show
elevated levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, key nutrients for cultivation of
plants such as taro and sweet potato (Hunt and Lipo 2011a; Ladefoged et al. 2005, 2010).
Thus, a key dimension to the island’s productivity was the area covered by rock mulch
gardening. More than 10% of the island’s total land surface may have been devoted to
lithic mulch cultivation (Flaws 2010; Ladefoged et al. 2013). Small walled gardens known
as manavai (Figure 19.6b) and numbering more than 3,000 also contributed to the growth
of food with plants such as banana, sugar cane, and taro that needed additional
protection and care to flourish (Bradford et al. 2005).

Recognizing the significance of rock mulch gardening has played a central role in
rethinking Rapa Nui’s prehistory. Contrary to early observations, rock mulch formed the
basis of a productive agricultural system that was key to the success of the population.
Second, replacing the now-extinct palm trees with gardens increased agricultural
potential and was not a catastrophe, as often assumed. Third, cultivation was widely
dispersed, and no single area provided a greater abundance of crops. Dispersed
cultivation coincides with a relatively small population living at low density. In fact, the
population size observed by the first European observers, about 3,000 individuals,

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reflects a likely stable population size and not a remnant population that survived “post-
collapse” (Hunt and Lipo 2011a; Morrison 2012).

In sum, the popular notions of “ecocide” (e.g., Diamond 2005) conflate prehistoric
deforestation with post-contact demographic collapse brought on by the introduction of
Old World diseases and slave trading (Hunt and Lipo 2011a). There was no “ecocide,” but
a historically well-documented near-genocide following, and as a consequence of,
European contacts. (p. 433)

Click to view larger


Figure 19.6 Cultivation features. (a) Lithic rock
mulch gardening with modern taro plants growing in
and amongst the rocks. (b) Aerial image of manavai
feature in the upper half of the photo. A moai road
runs across the middle and a rectangular ahu poe
poe is visible in the lower half of the image.

(Photograph by Terry Hunt)

(p. 434) Moai Transport

The question of how the multi-ton moai of Easter were transported has puzzled visitors
and researchers for centuries, and for some, played a role in deforestation. No visitors to
the island ever witnessed moai transport, leaving much to an array of speculations. The
islanders’ oral traditions have long recounted simply that the statues “walked” (Thomson
1891).

While noted and sketched by Routledge during her visit in the early twentieth-century
(Routledge 1919), prehistoric moai roads are found across the island leading from the
quarry at Rano Raraku to ahu locations throughout the island. Love (2001) undertook
extensive moai road excavations near the south coast, providing important, yet largely
unpublished details on their construction, use, and potential age. Lipo and Hunt (2005)

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provided the first island-wide mapping of the moai roads from satellite imagery and field
surveys.

Modern attempts to explain moai transport have focused on experiments that began with
Heyerdahl’s efforts in the 1950s that involved simply dragging them (Heyerdahl 1989). To
resolve problems of friction and damage to statues, later efforts employed wooden
sledges, pods, rollers, and sliders in various configurations (Hunt and Lipo 2011a).
Among those proposing use of wooden devices, the debate focused on whether moai were
moved in a horizontal or vertical position (Love 1990; Mulloy 1970; Van Tilburg and
Ralston 2005). In contrast, Pavel (1995; Heyerdahl 1989) attempted to move an actual
moai in a vertical position using ropes and padding, but he met with limited success given
the statue’s unsuitable form, vertical instability, and great friction quickly causing
damage to its base. The most recent attempts have employed a wooden sledge with an
“average” moai replica in horizontal (prone or supine) positions pulled over logs in a
sliding motion (Van Tilburg and Ralston 2005). A conclusion favoring horizontal
movement of moai in prone or supine positions on wooden sledges slid over logs emerged
as a near-consensus, appearing to fit the assumed impact the statue cult played in the
island’s deforestation (Diamond 2005). While experimental attempts highlight the
plausibility of methods that could have been used to transport moai, they have ignored
systematic variation in the statues and their broader context in the archaeological record.

During field research on moai roads, we documented sixty-two statues located on and
parallel to road features (Figure 19.4; Hunt and Lipo 2011a; Lipo et al. 2013). These moai
were in the process of being moved, but fell and were abandoned. This conclusion relies
on several lines of evidence. These moai are not associated with platforms (ahu), but
along ancient roads. Second, like the statues remaining at the quarry, they lacked eye
sockets, in contrast to those erected on platforms. Adding the eyes was a final step in
completing moai for display on platforms. None of the road moai in our analyzed set has
eye features, defining their incompleteness and status as in transit when abandoned.

The statues found along the roads have shapes that also distinguish them from those
erected on ahu. The road moai have statistically wider bases when measured relative to
(p. 435) shoulder width than ahu moai (see Lipo et al. 2013: fig. 3). Once statues arrived

on platforms, prehistoric carvers modified the statues to decrease the width of the base
relative to shoulder. In addition, while ahu moai stand in an upright fashion with their
mass located well over their base, road moai show a distinctive angled base that would
cause them to lean significantly forward, often well over 10 degrees. The reduction of the
base width changed the vertical orientation of the statue from a forward lean to a more
stable upright position (see Lipo et al. 2013: fig. 4).

Finally, three additional observations of the road moai inform on their method of
transport. Thirty-seven percent of road moai are broken into two or more fragments
indicating breakage that resulted from a fall from a vertical position. Second, 70% of road
moai exhibit evidence of fracture caused by force being applied in inverse vertical fashion
along the lateral edges of the base. These fractures form broad shallow concave scars

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from which a wide pressure flake was removed. Third, the positions of fallen statues are
statistically non-random with respect to the slope where they rest. The majority of moai
are found in prone position on downward road slopes, and often in supine position when
on uphill road slopes (Hunt and Lipo 2011a).

These observations are explained by the hypothesis that moai were transported in a
standing position and some fell, an observation made long ago by Routledge (1919: 195).
Hypotheses for horizontal transport using wooden devices do not account for this set of
archaeological observations.

To better understand transport, we analyzed three-dimensional models of road moai using


structure from motion software (Lipo et al. 2013). From 3D models, we measured moai
center of mass, shoulder to base ratios, and forward lean, documenting systematic
differences in moai found on the roads versus those altered for display on ahu. We then
produced a precisely scaled model based on a moai located along the ancient roadway on
the south coast of the island. Our moai replica measured 3 m in height and weighed 4.35
metric tons (Lipo et al. 2013).

The pronounced forward lean of the road moai points to how they were “walked” in an
upright position with little wear to the base, in contrast to Pavel’s attempt with an actual
moai already altered for ahu emplacement. Moai “walking” is achieved by ropes tilting
the body from side to side while allowing it to fall forward, controlled by a rope to the
rear (see Figure 19.6). This arrangement minimizes friction between the base and the
ground, allowing for conservation of energy, increasing overall efficiency, and removing
the potential for damage as the statue “walks” (Lipo et al. 2013). Indeed, “walking”
describes the physics of a controlled fall forward as gravity shifts from side to side and
producing a pendulum effect. Pendulums conserve energy and can remain in motion for
some duration provided the movement generates minimal friction during each swing.
“Walking” the replica statue demonstrated that road moai can be moved efficiently and
with minimal friction and wear (Figure 19.7).

This means of transportation is only possible, however, because the statute is carefully
shaped to move in this fashion. Once moai reached their final locations, however,
reshaping was necessary to allow them to stand upright in a stable fashion on their
(p. 436) constructed stone platforms. Consequently, completed statues at the ahu could

no longer be “walked.”

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In our experiments, small


teams (e.g., eighteen
people) were easily able to
initiate “walking” of the
4.35 metric ton road moai
replica. The “walking”
covered ground rapidly.
Although our experience
was limited, in one
Click to view larger
continuous effort we
Figure 19.7 A ‘walking’ road moai replica.
“walked” the statue about
100 m in just 40 minutes.
(Photograph by Carl Lipo)
In contrast, Heyerdahl
(Heyerdahl et al. 1989)
estimated that a highly experienced crew might “wiggle” a moai 100 m in a full day. The
evidence shows that moai were specifically engineered to “walk” in an upright position
achieved using only ropes, human labor, and simple cleared pathways. Moai production
and transport do not suggest that a large population once existed on Rapa Nui, contrary
to earlier and now popularized notions (e.g., Brown 1924; Diamond 2005, 2007).

Apart from labor and engineering expertise, moai transport required only ropes; few if
any trees were required in statue transport. A woody shrub (hau hau, Triumfetta
semitrioba) provided abundant materials for making rope (Metraux 1940; Skottsberg
1920). Thus, moai carving and transport did not contribute to deforestation, nor can one
argue that forests were cleared for extensive cultivation of surplus crops to feed
thousands of statue workers, as some have supposed (see Diamond 2005, 2007; Van
Tilburg and Ralston 2005: 299). Instead, the evidence for moai carving and transport
points to activities by small-scale social groups rather than the product of laborers unified
under a powerful centralized chiefdom.

(p. 437)

Prehistoric Community Patterning

Previous speculations about the island’s prehistoric population asserted that the island
once saw as many as 20,000 or even 30,000 people (e.g., Diamond 2005; Flenley 1993).
Such numbers overestimate the natural productivity of the island as well as the amount of
labor assumed necessary to have supported production and transport of statues. New
evidence documents that the island was always resource poor and that small numbers of
people could easily have carved and transported the moai. This observation is supported
by studies of archaeological community patterning and structure: we do not see evidence
of large, dense settlements indicative of large populations previously suggested. Instead,
archaeological data from extensive field surveys and satellite image analysis of rock
mulch (Ladefoged et al. 2013; Kovalchik 2014) and manavai gardening (Bradford et al.

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2005) suggest that the island’s communities consisted of distinct groups arrayed along
the coast in dispersed settlement patterns (Figure 19.8; Morrison 2012; Stevenson 1984).
Rather than living in nucleated villages, communities consisted of family groups living at
low density interspersed with areas of cultivation. Ahu and moai served as central
locations for episodic gathering that served to bind communities in activities and
resource sharing (Hunt and Lipo 2011a).

Based on our studies of the northwest and south coasts (Morrison 2012) artifact
assemblages vary functionally and economically inland from the coast. We find, for
example, more taheta as local sources of freshwater and quarrying activity in inland areas
and ahu are preferentially located on the coast. Cultivation features, on the other hand,
are more evenly distributed across the island, though tend to be higher in density in
flatter coastal zones. Along the coast, the archaeological record is composed of replicate
groups of co-varying artifact/architecture classes reflecting distinct communities. Ahu
structures, for example, are repeated with sets of redundant groups of domestic features
such as manavai (walled gardens), umu (earth ovens), and other domestic features.

Water as a Critical Resource

Fresh water is a limiting resource on Rapa Nui. The only permanent surface water
reservoirs are in volcanic lakes, distant from much of the island’s ancient population.
Significantly, the island experiences periods of drought making the availability of pooled
rainwater unreliable. In addition to land available for cultivation of crops, water
resources must have held a controlling influence on the community patterning and
activities of prehistoric Rapa Nui. Métraux (1940: 11) noted, for example, “ruins of
ancient settlements are always thick around water holes.”

On Rapa Nui rainwater quickly drains into the water table. Ultimately groundwater meets
the saline freshwater interface and is diverted to the tidal zone where it emerges. In his
ethnohistoric survey of Rapa Nui Métraux (1940: 11) stated that (p. 438)

rain filters into the porous ground forming local water tables where it meets
impermeable layers. The chief water bodies are only slightly above sea level and
thin streamlets often flow towards the shore. Unfortunately, the fresh water,
especially during high tide, mixes with salt water and becomes decidedly brackish.

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Archaeological and
ethnohistoric accounts
indicate that islanders
accessed this groundwater
and would occasionally
build features to impound
it or provide better access.
Some of these features
consist of walls that
surround a basin and traps
freshwater emerging from
seeps in the intertidal
zone. Métraux (1940)
described pits or wells
Click to view larger
(puna) dug (p. 439) in
Figure 19.8 Rapa Nui settlement patterns.
selected locations along
Generally, settlement activities vary economically as the coast used for
a function of distance from the coast. Inland collecting water for
resources vary from those found along the coast and
communities. Sets of communities are then found drinking and bathing.
along the coast that differ stylistically reflecting These puna consist of 2‒3
localized sharing of ideas (cultural transmission).
Communities gather for cooperative activities at ahu.
m deep ditches excavated
parallel to the shore with
stonewalls on the seaward
side of the ditch (Métraux 1940: 11). Several of these features are still visible on many
parts of the island’s shoreline.

Our preliminary analyses show a strong association between the presence and volume of
freshwater flow from the groundwater lens and the location and size of ahu and moai. We
suggest that greater amounts of available freshwater supported community activities
centered around ahu and moai, where monuments represented shared resources and
social group investment. For example, Ahu Tongariki situated at a low elevation along the
south coast is the largest ahu known for the island (with 15 moai) and is also the site of
multiple wells (puna) and a high volume of freshwater outflow. Many other ahu are
associated with distinct wells and other groundwater catchment or storage features (e.g.,
ahu at Vaihu and Akahanga; see also Vogt and Moser 2010 for an inland example).

Settlement Patterns and Community Structure

Dispersed settlements have advantages over nucleated ones when resources are not in
dense patches or are unpredictable through time. During periods of resource shortfalls,
dispersed systems can rely on the sum of the resources across the space of the
community. For example, food sharing through trade or other methods of social
integration may act as buffers to reduce risk (defined as the variance in the outcome of a

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given decision; Cashdan 1992; Smith 1988; Smith and Boyd 1990). Central to such a
dispersed system are cooperative activities and sharing of resources such as food.

A potential problem in cooperative and resource-sharing networks arises when


individuals benefit without making any future substantive contributions. This is the “free-
rider” problem (see Blurton-Jones 1987). Unless a mechanism develops to regulate free
riding, most groups will remain small and relatively egalitarian to effectively avoid
cheaters (Boone 1992). One means by which cooperation is encouraged and enforced
within groups is through signaling, whereby participation in group-level activity is used
as way of marking those who cooperate from those who do not (Fehr et al. 2002; Gintis et
al. 2001; Smith and Bleige Bird 2005).

In the case of Rapa Nui, the archaeological record reflects relatively small and low-
density populations with evidence of cooperation consistent with visible group-level costly
signaling. The patterns of moai production, transport, and display on monumental
architecture fit these expectations (Hunt and Lipo 2011a). Such efforts involve
cooperative visual endeavors in which group members participate to “walk” the statue
from the quarry at Rano Raraku to their positions at ahu (Lipo et al. 2013). Second, the
“walking” transport of moai provided an ingenious way for relatively small groups of
people to collaborate in moving even the largest statues.

For Rapa Nui, ahu building and moai transport likely served multiple purposes related to
decreasing the threat of conflict over unevenly distributed resources (a form of costly
signaling), and enforcing information sharing through communal activities (p. 440) (e.g.,
Gintis et al. 2001). Rather than conflict emerging from competition, the expectation is
that moai and ahu reflect a response to unpredictability and the need to share
information and resources and mitigate potential violence. Investment in ahu and moai
activities, therefore, is explicable as being related to costly signaling where individuals
simultaneously compete by demonstrating access to resources, while also gaining
benefits from group membership needed to build and sustain such monuments (Glatz and
Plourde 2011; Hunt and Lipo 2011a; Joye and Verpooten 2013; Kantner and Vaughn 2012;
Maynard Smith and Harper 2003; Neiman 1997). In this way, costly signaling enabled
populations to compete yet succeed over the long run without systematic violence: while
interpersonal conflict occurred, serious, lethal warfare among communities appears to
have been absent (see Owsley et al. 2016). DiNapoli et al. (2017) have sketched such a
model for Rapa Nui in contrast with the small island of Rapa Iti.

Resource distribution influences settlement location and structure (i.e., dispersion versus
nucleation). Thus, our working hypothesis for Rapa Nui is that dispersed settlement is a
response to predictability, quality, and spatial distribution of water and food-related
resources. This hypothesis explains the association of low-density settlements with
resource quality (e.g., water salinity and availability, gardens, rock mulching). Shared
community labors such as construction of ahu and moai tend to be most prevalent when
resources are sufficient to support group members, yet are nowhere plentiful.

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When we compare field survey evidence from the south and northwest coasts, the latter
with much less access to water and land available for cultivation, the south coast
communities, while dispersed, are more densely packed and settlement redundancy (i.e.,
replicated patterns of domestic features) occur over smaller distances. Ahu and moai are
also more numerous on the south coast (see Figure 19.4).

Revisiting the Prehistory of Rapa Nui


Rather than a story of catastrophe and collapse, Rapa Nui prehistory is a case study of
success on a remote resource-poor island. Polynesians populated Rapa Nui around A.D.
1200 as part of rapid expansion throughout the remote Pacific. Colonists brought a roster
of plants (taro, sweet potato, banana, sugar cane, etc.) and animals (rats, chickens) along
with a variety of knowledge about subsistence strategies (fishing, cultivation) and cultural
practices (statue and monument construction). Following colonization, population grew
rapidly and reached a sustainable equilibrium (ca. 3,000) as the island was transformed
from a palm forest into an agricultural and human landscape.

Polynesian rats, as hitchhikers or an intentional introduction, rapidly spread across the


island, potentially reaching numbers in the millions in a very short time (Hunt 2007).
Given their predilection for palm nuts, the slow rate of growth of the native palm, and
slash-and-burn cultivation practices, ultimately the palms went extinct. However, (p. 441)
no carrying capacity calamity befell the island as a consequence. Clearing the landscape
for cultivation and nutrients released from the burned trees created opportunities for at
least short-term soil enrichment and cultivation.

From the available archaeological evidence, populations resided in multiple, functionally


redundant dispersed communities, but groups benefited by interaction through costly-
signaling activities at large ahu. Significantly, this model explains why the investment in
monuments, while present elsewhere across the Pacific, took such an exuberant form on
this particular island. On Rapa Nui the payoff in monument construction for individuals
and communities was that it mitigated problems of resource uncertainty and inevitable
intergroup competition as population grew.

A model for Rapa Nui prehistory that addresses the benefits of moai and ahu construction
allows us to explain these phenomena beyond the “ceremonial.” In conventional thinking,
moai making and transport appear incongruous with the resource limitations and remote
isolation of the island, and thus stands apart from what one might assume as central to
survival. Yet, on this island, moai are anything but separate from daily life. Indeed, they
seem to be the key to long-term sustainability for the island.

While activities and forms of investments varied over time, the Rapanui successfully
persisted. Populations remained stable and reasonably healthy until 1722 and the arrival

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of the Europeans. The success of Rapa Nui over its pre-contact occupation is tied directly
to the cultural practices involved in moai and ahu and how these practices shaped and
supported the island’s communities.

Failure of Rapa Nui subsistence, settlement, and social systems, of course, did eventually
occur. This “collapse,” however, is documented by historical records and eyewitness
accounts. We know that beginning in 1722 a series of European visitors brought disease
and foreign goods. Multiple epidemics and slave trading devastated the population. By
1876, there were only 110 native Rapanui people living on the island: this was the real
“collapse.”

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Terry L. Hunt

Terry L. Hunt Professor in the School of Anthropology and Dean of the Honors
College at the University of Arizona.

Carl Lipo

Carl Lipo Director, Environmental Studies Program, and Professor, Anthropology,


Binghamton University, New York, USA

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