Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the indigenous language of the remote Pacific island, is as steeped in mystery as it is mired in controversy.
How did the island go from lush tropical forest to windswept plains? Why were the massive stone moais carved, and did they play a role in the deforestation of Rapa Nui? Should the island’s story be interpreted as a parable for the perils of over exploitation of finite natural resources, or should it be celebrated as a tribute to human endurance and ingenuity?
But the most pertinent question is the most straightforward of all; how did a society, without the benefits of wheels or pulleys, transport stone statues which weighed up to 100 tons across hilly terrain, for distances of up to 11 miles (18 km)?
According to the received wisdom of the Rapa Nui people, the answer is simple: they walked. But for decades academic experts have refuted this claim, claiming instead that the moai were laid down and rolled on wooden logs.
Since the 1980s, however, an alternative school of thought among scholars has sided with the account of the Rapa Nui people, and now, a new study may just have swayed the argument in their favor.
“Given the way that some moais broke when they fell and the way in which they lie near prehistoric roads, we came to the conclusion that the only method was that they were upright when they were moved,” said Carl Lipo, professor at of California State University Long Beach and co-author of the study.
Lipo teamed up with the the University of Hawaii’s Terry Hunt and archaeologist Sergio Rapu, who’s part of the South Pacific island’s population of indigenous Rapanui, to develop an idea that the statues rocked their way across the island.
Noting their heavy, curved, bases and that the moais generously proportioned bellies that allows them to tilt forward easily, they claimed that a team of handlers with strong ropes could rock and roll the statues from quarry to destination.
And in an experiment with 18 people, rope and a five ton replica statue, the team proved it could be done.
Check out the video embedded above to see the statues in action. To get involved in a reforestation project on Rapa Nui, click here, while to read the full National Geographic article, click here.
This post is also available in Spanish