Easter Island, as they'll tell you, is the most remote inhabited spot on the planet. Its nearest inhabited neighbor, Pircairn Island, is about 1300 miles west and home to under 100. Barely inhabited.
It's hard to get a feel for all that. Maybe flying five and a half hours out from Lima will help.
The more I read, the more I buy in that it really is a mysterious place, having confounded just about everybody since 1722, the date of the first known non-Polynesian contact. What's great is, everybody has a theory, so you might as well develop your own, too.
In this corner, Jared Diamond, he of the Pulitzer Prize, asserts in his well-argued book Collapse that whatever calamity befell Rapa Nui (the local name) was of the islanders' own making. In the other corner, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo play iconoclasts in a newish book that's almost belligerently insistent that everything you know is wrong.
There are multiple mysteries. First the huge statues, called moai, and how (and why) the islanders moved them from quarry to perch. Archaeologist (and the first indigenous Easter
Island governor since European colonization) Sergio Rapu seems to side with Hunt and Lipo on this one.
He describes how he thinks it worked in a YouTube video. You can watch a new (November 2012) episode of the PBS series Nova
that sets out to demonstrate how the moai got down
from the quarry at a place called Rano Raraku to the beaches all around Easter
Then there's the question of the society's apparent collapse. Did they squander resources (Jared Diamond)? Was it European contact, and the diseases thus unleashed (Lipo and Hunt)?
Seems to me as a layman that both the Diamond book and Lipo and Hunt's have weaknesses, which, if you want to keep a few good mysteries going, is as it should be, after all. Diamond asserts without attribution, summarily
declaring that the moai "represent high-ranking ancestors." That may be
true but it would be good to know if he has that on any authority beyond
his own conjecture.
and Lipo's weakness is that they're relentlessly revisionist. They have
an anti-conventional new theory for every last thing – when Rapa Nui
was settled, how society worked, how the moai moved around, how society
So who knows?
At least the question of how Rapa Nui was originally colonized seems to have been answered. Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl pointed to the Incas and Spaniards via Peru. The Swiss author Erich von Daniken put it all down to spacemen.
Clearer heads traced the larger colonization patterns of Polynesia via pottery, back originally to today's Papua New Guinea via the Solomon Islands. The distance between the Solomon Islands and Easter Island, though, is some 6000 miles and even Terry Hunt says colonization took around five centuries.
The work of a group called the Polynesian Voyaging Society established a plausible route to the farthest east Polynesian island by sailing from Mangareva to Pitcairn to Easter Island over some 23 days in 1999.
In the end, it's just hard to get a non-academic feel for the place from home. For now, it's all words in books. They say the tallest moai weighed 82 tons and the heaviest weighed 86. How can you tell what you think about how they hauled those things around until you stand under one and look it in the eye? So we'll go and see.
Off we go. Watch this space for comment and we'll be putting up the photos here starting in about a week.