cover image The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge

The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge

John Flenley, Paul Bahn. Oxford University Press, USA, $43.5 (274pp) ISBN 978-0-19-280340-5

Theorists have invoked everything from restless spirits to extraterrestrials and anti-gravity to explain Easter Island's giant stone statues. The reality, according to this comprehensive reconstruction of the island's history, now in its second edition, is more prosaic. The megaliths were carved by humans from the island's soft volcanic stone to commemorate prestigious ancestors, express clan pride and demarcate""a sacred border...between 'home' and 'out there'""--and because on Easter Island there""was little else to do"" but carve stone. In addition to the mechanics of sculpting, dragging and erecting the idols, Bahn (Written in Bones; The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology; etc.) and ecologist Flenley cover other aspects of the island's vanished culture, from the remarkable seafaring skills of the Polynesians who settled the island to the prevalence of phallic, vulval and birdman motifs in the islanders' eccentric artistic stylings. Above all, they see Easter Island's saga as a cautionary tale of mankind's""eco-stupidity."" As the Polynesians and the rats they brought with them decimated the once verdant forests, the island withered into a treeless desert stalked by famine, violence and possibly cannibalism--a microcosm illustrating the consequences of resource depletion for an all too finite Earth. The authors develop an occasionally cumbersome scholarly apparatus as they delve into the minutiae of archaeology, linguistics, sediment cores and pollen analysis and fence with academic rivals, especially with Kon-Tiki voyager Thor Heyerdahl, whose theory of settlement from South America receives a lengthy, scathing rebuttal. But in dispelling the mythology of Easter Island, they show us a society that is all the more interesting for being recognizably human.