Statues That Walked

Who Built the Easter Island Moai
and Whatever Happened to Them?

The known history of our presence in this planet is poked with huge gaps, where the data is either lost or undecipherable. We may have learned something about the past by analyzing the geological record, tree rings, uncovered objects, and even the content of burial sites left by ancient peoples.
But the more we explore and compare the data about lost civilizations, the more we realize the gargantuan canyons that separate us from a full knowledge about our own past.
We still don’t know for sure who built Stonehenge, a civilization said to predate the Druids. Or who erected the Great Sphinx, thousands of years before the earliest pyramid. And whatever happened to the sophisticated Mayan society that thrived during hundreds of years only to all but disappear in a few generations?
Perhaps one of the most mysterious among such interrupted accounts of our past that we can’t quite piece together yet is Easter Island, in the South Pacific, known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui. The history of the almost naked natives discovered by a Dutch expedition on a Easter Sunday in 1722 is about to get a huge, scholarly jolt.
The accepted theory, centered in two books, “The Enigmas of Easter Island,” by Paul Bahn and John Flenley, and Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,” proposes that those impoverished Polynesian natives merely took over the island and exhausted its natural resources, way after the original, more advanced society who built the moai, had already left.
Such view is about to be challenged by archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt’s new research, which points to the Europeans and the foreign virus they were carrying in their bodies as the main culprit for the annihilation of the original population, along with enslavement and other factors. And more, it dates the arrival of the Polynesians to the island in 1200, much later than it’s currently believed.
The discussion about the origins of such a small island 4,000 miles off the coast of Chile is a big deal for historians and anthropologists, but it may not change just yet the way you butter your bread every morning. Then again, away from the treacherous and thankless scientific method, all wards and trials and errors and ridiculous assumptions and lucky guesses, what’s left may be even scarier.
Take Swiss bestseller author Eric Van Daniken, for example, who never let facts get in the way of an enticing, magical narrative about the mystery of lost civilizations and the inexplicable signs they left behind. For him, it was all very simple, really: the ancient gods were astronauts and, magnanimously, taught us everything we know. If that’s your cup of tea, served on a shinning flying saucer, then by all means, you need to go no further.
It’s really not too hard to picture the moai of Easter Island as sentinels, keeping an eye on heavens, perhaps expecting a second-coming of a different kind.
Much harder is to guess who built them and why and for what. Or to imagine that for many, the search is almost half the fun to be had, even if at first it’s just about a bunch of fossilized rocks and a few teaspoons of volcanic ash. It all pays off in the end, of course.
Apart from the blatant fact that some of the earliest civilization on earth managed to leave behind monuments of such eloquence we’d have a hard time finding contemporary counterparts for them, all these centuries later, there’s certainly something else to be said about their desire to last, to transcend.
The Easter Island moai, as other ancient monuments, are a form of dialog initiated by the people who built them. As there’s no extraterrestrial around to take their call, it’s up to us to pick it up where it was left off and continue the conversation with our own past. Has anyone known a better way for us to move forward?

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