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Easter Island Controversy

Easter Surprise: A UH professor stirs up controversy with a new book on the Rapanui people of Easter Island.


A bird-man petroglyph at the ceremonial site of Orongo, high on the sea cliffs of Easter Island—evidence of a rich Rapanui culture.

Photo: Courtesy Terry Hunt

For such a tiny island, Easter Island, off the coast of Chile, is rife with mysteries. Chief among them has been how a thriving population of as many as 15,000 people all but vanished in just a few generations. By the late 1800s, barely 100 Rapanui were left on Easter Island.

A controversial new book by University of Hawaii anthropology professor Terry Hunt offers some answers to the questions, and overturns much of the accepted wisdom about the island.

Photo: Courtesy Terry Hunt

For years, the prevailing theory was that the Rapanui were victims of their own carelessness. Ecological mismanagement and too much time spent carving the monolithic statues for which the island is best known doomed the isolated tribe, it was said. It was a popular allegory among environmentalists, a cautionary tale of what can happen when you don’t care for your natural habitat.

When Hunt and co-writer Carl Lipo began studying Easter Island in 2001, they weren’t expecting any big surprises. “This island has been so intensively studied that we thought we’d just be dotting a few Is and crossing a few Ts,” Hunt says. “But the story we thought was there fell apart.”

The Statues That Walked recounts the surprising conclusions they reached. For starters, Hunt contends that it was European explorers who unwittingly did in the Rapanui, infecting them with Old World diseases against which they had no immunities.

Hunt and Lipo also challenge other theories, including the standard explanation of how the Rapanui transported the huge moai, which each weigh as much as 80 tons, and the idea that they practiced cannibalism.

The book is a compelling new look into the history of the Rapanui people, as well as the unexpectedly turbulent world of archaeology itself. “People don’t like to be criticized, and we’ve pulled the rug out from under just about everything people thought they knew about Rapanui,” Hunt says. Free Press, $26.


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Honolulu Magazine November 2017
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