Last week at one of Long Now Foundation’s ongoing, and always interesting, seminars two archaeologists, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, presented evidence from work on Easter Island that the story of self-generated ecocide on the island, most famously set forth by Jared Diamond in his widely read book, Collapse, was wrong.

Evidence enough to convince that new findings overwhelm the old can not be marshaled in a two hour lecture.  What we did hear and see (in the slides) was thought provoking and in one case, astounding. However, Diamond and others have responded to the Hunt-Lipo findings, detailed in The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island,(2011) with counter arguments, chief among them that the pair have ignored, or at least not cited, well respected, carefully done research that preceded their own.

Drawing from 1797 voyage of French explorerer La Pérouse.

The argument put forth by Diamond, and others, is that the Easter Islanders arrived sometime in the 300s-500s, a small contingent of the enormous out-spread of peoples from south Asia to all the Pacific Islands.  By the time of the first European arrival, in 1722, they were a civilization on the ropes.  They had  cut and burned down the original forests to near extinction (for which there is evidence.)  Deep water fish could not be caught because boats could not be built without the wood.  Caught in a world of diminishing resources, clans and families turned on each other in mass killings and cannibalism.  Though statues had been built by islanders from the earliest days, as catastrophe loomed, obsession manifested itself.  Larger and larger statues were built, and transported horizontally, using rollers or sledges (more forest resources gone) and needing great numbers of people (more labor lost on the land.)

Hunt and Lipo, on the basis of what they repeatedly cited as, following the evidence, dispute almost all of this.  Their carbon dating says the islanders arrival was more like 1100 than 500.  Evidence of rat gnawing leads to the conclusion that the forest (palm) disappeared because of a Pacific rat infestation, not over logging.  The people compensated for forest loss by socially controlled birth rates and subsistence farming and had arrived at a ‘sustainable’ model of living on the land.  They claim, on the basis of early European drawings and some reports, while debunking others, that the Rapanui were in good health and not in a state of warfare — until the Europeans arrived, bringing with them the scourge of disease.  By the time later Europeans came, and reported, the Rapanui were definitely in swift and sad decline.

The moai, (statues,) Hunt and Lipo claim, were not pulled over land from the quarries to the shoreline on palm logs, but had been ‘walked’ by means of several ropes around the necks of the erect statues and  sequential pulling and releasing from small teams on either side of the statue.  Hunt-Lipo came to suspect this by examination of the bases of the statues, and by the face-up or face-down position of fallen statues on the roads.  They went on to prove the concept by doing it themselves with a group of untrained volunteers.  The video showing their 5 ton statue walking, brought gasps from the audience.

Of course proving that walking the statues can be done does not prove that it was done. Walking a 5 ton statue is different than walking an 85 ton statue.  Walking on a level path is different than walking it up and down rocky trails, etc.

In the best of all possible worlds, investigators who had previously asserted horizontal transport would stop and after some praise for innovative work –which extended and improved upon Heyerdal’s failed attempt to show vertical transport–  go back to their own data, incorporating the new and eventually, on both sides, taper towards a most probable answer — not only as to the question of how they were moved, but when, why, by whom, for what reasons, at what cost and what lost opportunity cost. Countering questions would be asked: If the moia were moved by walking, and no log rollers were needed, what about the 7 ton basalt rocks used as temple walls? No logs?  Not very many?

Since this isn’t the best world, the scientists and writers — like most of us– limber up their scathing remarks, ad hominem attacks and pejorative analysis. For some observers, it’s just good fun and the future will tell.  For others the wish remains that competition of ideas could be the ideas of evidence and argument and not those of rhetoric and motive.

What will most likely happen, as a result of a researcher who best integrates all observed data, not just his or her own, is that the paradigm will shift.  As with all explanatory theories all the data must be accounted for.  If some data once considered reliable is no longer thought to be so, it must be shown fairly why the the re-evaluation has occurred.

In the two hours Hunt and Lipo talked it would have been impossible to touch on all the interesting problems of one theory vs. another and in any case they were talking to curious citizens not to fully invested fellow professionals.  Even so, I thought more could have been done to stand their new alongside the others old. Although the statue walking was strong visual evidence of the possibility of truth in at least one of their views, important matters were scarcely touched upon.  Visual evidence in the form of drawings by early Europeans showing a happy, thriving people, does not prove that they were so; it proves that the artist drew what he drew.  Though Hunt-Lippo claim that the Rapanui had figured out a way to keep the population in balance with their food sources nothing was suggested as to how that was done: evidence of birth-control plugs or infanticide, for example. Sexual distraction through building more and bigger statues (which I think I heard them suggest) seems improbable given what is known about human sexuality, competition, proof of prowess and festival behavior.

For those interested in further pursuit of the subject, Diamond writes here why Hunt and Lipo assessments regarding the arrival time, disappearance of the forests, transport of the statues could not be right. The Easter Islanders are an object lesson in careless stewardship of their home he says, not because they were stupid but because they were human.

Hunt and Lipo reply, marring their evidential riposte and request of Diamond for competing or otherwise counter-explanatory evidence, by accusing him of having a ‘vested interest’ in his own theories — as if they themselves, or all investigators, did not.  They ask fair questions, however.

Brian Fagan, whose books,The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer, are readable histories of climate change, thinks Hunt and Lipo are on to something. (Or here at HuffPo.)

Paul Bahn and John Flenely are ‘profoundly disappointed in Fagan’s review. And they’re aren’t very nice about it.

 Hunt and Lipo offer a scholarly refutation of Diamond in “Pacific Science.”

Michael Tobis in Planet 3.0 takes up the cudgel from his own experience, mapping Easter Island onto Montreal and explaining how far the moving of those statues would be in an environment most moderns can understand. [Of course his demonstrating the difficulty does not disprove vertical walking anymore than Hunt and Lipo’s demonstration proves it was done this way. Both speak to possibilities rather than proof.]  Tobis also makes the unsettling discovery that one of Hunt and Lipo’s cited supporters is a well known climate change denier  –“Surely not our old friend Benny Peiser.”  This link is particularly interesting if you work down through the comments, most of them grounded and informative while contending with each other in reasonable ways.

There are, it turns out, more push-backs against Diamond, and not just on the Easter Island issue. Here is an interesting essay citing arguments against Diamond’s conclusions about several matters, and tying it back to earlier, similar arguments between other anthropologists over vexing issues, all of which will bear some looking at.  Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years, explaining how the material world, which we encounter by chance and develop by luck and observation and application, is the key to what we humans have become.  I have no idea if it is correct in every particular and I don’t think he would claim so. But for a curious, capable reader it knocked a lot of mud off old ideas to show a startling new thought-object.  If he is wrong, not about details, but in the sweep of this idea, I’d like  to know — and not just that he is wrong, but what is the more inclusive paradigm.

The reason why any of this matters, to my mind, is not actually how the statues moved, but, as Diamond set out to understand, what happened to these micro civilizations?  Can we see patterns in their behavior similar to those in ours, from which we can take lessons and warning?

The movement of the moia is a curious problem, though finally just that: curious. Hunt and Lipo’s larger claim is that the Rapanui are not an example of ecocide but of right-living, destroyed by outside forces.  Their argument, as far as I know, is about Easter Island only, not about any other examples of collapse in Diamond’s book.  Nor are they, as I read in their own words, trying to make a larger argument than about what happened to the Rapnui.

Unfortunately, from a brief perusal of recent material it looks like the rigorous, steady assimilation of facts by all investigators is being over-washed by what people want to be true:  the Easter Island Rapanui are an example of self-inflicted casualty, or they are an example of good people trampled by the more powerful. It is easy to see why deniers would come to champion the latter view — anxious as they are to muddy any suggestion from anywhere that bad things are happening now, and that action must be taken.

The fact that the Hunt-Lipo arguments attract deniers is proof of nothing as regards their own research.  Nor would disproof of Rapanui ecocide disprove other instances of it, or the possibility of our own.  We can hope that the evidence is pursued by all investigators,  that gaps are filled in and contradictions explained and that eventually the answers come.

Meanwhile, whether Easter Island is prime evidence of collapse or not, we need know nothing of their experience to get focused on our own. Whether the Rapanui were careful adapters or careless wastrels in their little lifeboat shouldn’t affect how we choose to be in our own slightly larger one.

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