Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island : Wiki Commons
For hundreds of years they have gazed inscrutably upon the most remote island in the world, standing with their backs to the Pacific Ocean as if defying attempts to understand their enigma. But the mystery of how the giant stone statues of Easter Island came to their resting places without wheels or animals may finally have been unravelled – they walked.
The seemingly unlikely proposal comes from a team of local and US anthropologists and archaeologists who have conducted experiments that suggest the statues, called moai by the islanders, could have been "walked" upright down a path by teams pulling them with ropes.
The successful demonstration at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii with a three metre tall, 4.35-tonne concrete replica moai, captured on video by the researchers, offers an alternative to the traditional hypothesis that the 887 statues, which stand as high as 32 feet and weigh up to 80 tons each, were rolled across the island, now know as Rapa Nui, on wooden logs.
A team of 18 people attached three ropes to the replica moai’s head, with two groups pulling forward on either side and one group at the rear steering the statue and preventing it from toppling over. Chanting "heave-ho", they managed to shuffle the statue 100 metres in under an hour.
The study, led by Carl Lipo, from California State University, Terry Hunt, from the University of Hawaii, and archaeologist Sergio Rapu Haoa, the former Easter Island governor, looks at the moai that were successfully placed on stone pedestals and those that the original islanders apparently abandoned on road sides during their journey from the stone quarry where they were carved.
Their research, published in the Journals of Archaeological Science, suggests the abandoned moai fell over from upright positions, with one showing signs of attempts to return it to an upright position, which would contradict the popular theory that they were rolled on logs.
"The figure is usually shaped from the top down leaving a narrow ‘keel’ connecting it to the bedrock," the three experts write. "Statues were ‘walked’ out of the pit through excavated openings to moai roads."
The experiment followed the publication last year of Hunt and Lipo’s book, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, which led a US television programme to ask the pair to put their theory to the test.
But Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, decried the demonstration as a stunt.
The archaeologist, who has previously conducted experiments that show moai can be moved horizontally on logs, told Nature magazine that the model statue used in the Hawaii study was not an accurate replica and so the study’s findings were irrelevant.
A previous similar experiment by another team in 1986 was halted after large chips of stone chipped off the bases of the statues while they were being walked. The damage caused by the stress of upright movement appeared to rule out walking as the likely method used to transport the moai.
The moai represent the ancestors the early Rapa Nui people worshipped as part of their religion. The dominant theory is that they were a statue-making cult who felled the island’s once-luxurious palm forest to build devices to move the stone statues. With the loss of trees, civil war broke out and, reportedly, cannibalism became common.
By the time the island, due west of Chile, was accidentally "discovered" by Europeans on Easter Sunday in 1722, it was entirely treeless and the population had fallen to between 1,000 and 2,000, down from a peak of about 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.
• This article was amended on 29 October. The original stated that the video was created by the journal Nature. This has been corrected.
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