Mysteries of Rapa Nui

Easter Island
December 8, 1995

The past few years have seen the appearance of a number of books devoted to Easter Island, a place that continues to fascinate the public because of its spectacular stone statues. This new volume is a glossy product with an attractive cover; but on reading it one rapidly becomes distracted by a virtually endless stream of errors of every conceivable kind.

To take just one example, Jo Anne Van Tilburg states that Katherine Routledge - to whom the book is dedicated - was born in 1880 and was (absurdly) "a student at Somerville College, Oxford, from 1891 to 1895". Yet this is not a typographic error, for the author a little later states that Routledge died "in 1935 . . . aged 55", and also that Scoresby Routledge, her husband, was born in 1883. In fact, he was born in 1859, and Katherine was 69 when she died in 1935.

The author's interpretations are a further source of problems. This is a very personal book, filled with "in my view", "it is my opinion", "in my judgement". She is entitled to her own interpretations of the evidence, but often makes unwarranted assumptions. Her theory of statue transportation involves computer simulations of statues being dragged supine to the back of inland platforms or prone to the front of coastal ones; but she admits that prone transportation is very risky, expensive and complicated, and that erecting horizontal statues causes damage. She concedes that the alternative method of upright transportation on a sledge and rollers, tested by American geologist Charles Love, is viable although, at 45 metres in two minutes, "slower" than the one metre per second hypothesised for her computer method! The difference, of course, is between reality and theory. Van Tilburg proudly claims her hypothesis is "replicable and testable" - so why not test it?

The book is very heavily dependent on the data and advice of a few, but is far less generous to others: Thor Heyerdahl, whatever one thinks of his theories, is a pioneer in this field and surely merits more than a single paragraph; and it is simply outrageous that in a book on Easter Island, with "ecology" in its subtitle, the seminal work of palaeobotanist John Flenley is accorded one brief mention. Even worse is the complete absence of Steven Fischer's 1993 edited volume Easter Island Studies, the most up-to-date survey of the subject, despite the fact that the book contains photos and personal communications from 1994; and the Rapa Nui Journal merits only two minor mentions. Apparently Van Tilburg sees no value in what has been called "the foremost serial publication in Easter Island studies". Why? It is another of Easter Island's mysteries.

The book does have good points, such as some fine illustrations, many of them old and little known; and the footnotes and the links/comparisons made with other parts of the Pacific are not without interest. But it provides little new information, and no real message except that the islanders were Polynesians, their culture has lots of Polynesian traits, and they coped well with change.

Paul G. Bahn is vice-president (UK) of the Easter Island Foundation and co-author (with J. Flenley) of Easter Island, Earth Island.

Easter Island: Ecology and Culture

Author - Jo Anne Van TIlburg
ISBN - 0 7141 2504 0
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 191

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