If only they could talk.

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson

Remote and distant places have always been fascinating to me since I was a child. Of course, what’s ‘remote’ to me in the UK isn’t necessarily remote to other people, but Easter Island, in the South Pacific, is a place that fits any definition of the word. It’s 1,300 miles from any other land – so how did people manage to get there originally? OK, they probably went by canoe – but imagine that journey across the open ocean. How did they organise food and drink, for a start? But you only need to look at the statues they built once they got to Easter Island and it’s clear that these were exceptional people.
The article in this blog, taken from the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, explores some of the mysteries of the statues and people of Easter Island.

The statues walked, Easter Islanders say. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how – and whether their story is a cautionary tale of environmental disaster or a celebration of human ingenuity.

On a winter night last June, José Antonio Tuki, a 30-year-old artist on Easter Island, did one of the things he loves best: he left his house on the southwest coast and hiked north across the island to Anakena beach. Tuki sat on the sand and gazed at the colossal human statues – the moai. The statues range from four to 33 feet and some weigh more than 80 tons. They were carved long ago with stone tools and then transported up to 11 miles to massive stone platforms. As Tuki stares at their faces, he feels a connection. ‘It’s something strange and energetic,’ he says. ‘This is something produced from my culture, the Rapanui.’ He shakes his head. ‘How did they do it?’

When the first Polynesian settlers arrived at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), there were probably only a few dozen of them. The island lies 2,150 miles west of South America and 1,300 miles east of its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn. Nowadays 12 flights arrive every week from Chile, Peru and Tahiti, and in 2011 those planes delivered 50,000 tourists, ten times the island’s population. Just about every job on Easter Island depends on tourism. ‘Without it,’ says Mahina Lucero Teao, head of tourism, ‘everyone would be starving on Easter Island.’ And the tourists go there for only one thing: the moai.

Several decades ago, the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, helped ignite the world’s curiosity about Easter Island. He thought the statues had been created by pre-Inca people from Peru, not by Polynesians. Modern science – linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence – has proved the moai builders were Polynesian but not how they moved their creations. Researchers have tended to assume the ancestors dragged the statues somehow, using ropes and wood.

More recently, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond has suggested that the moai contributed to the downfall of the islanders. Building and moving the moai needed many people and used up the island’s forest resources. The land which was cleared was fragile and quickly eroded, so fewer crops could be grown – this process of clearing the land was an early example of an ecological disaster, according to Diamond. He sees the collapse of their civilization as ‘a worst-case scenario for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.’

On the other hand, a more optimistic view of the island’s history comes from the archaeologists Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach. They suggest that the inhabitants actually pioneered a type of sustainable farming, building thousands of circular stone walls, called manavai, and gardening inside them. And their theory about how the moai were moved is that they could be ‘walked’ along using a system of only ropes and a few people.

For José Tuki, as he contemplates these enormous statues, the ambiguity is too fine. ‘I want to know the truth,’ he says, ‘but maybe knowing everything would take its power away.’


assume (v) if you assume that something is true, you imagine that it is true, sometimes wrongly
crop (n) crops are plants such as wheat and potatoes that are grown in large quantities for food
deliver (v) if you deliver something to somewhere you take it there
drag (v) if you drag something, you pull it along the ground, often with difficulty
erode (v) if the weather, sea or wind erodes rock or soil, it cracks and breaks it so that it is damaged
gaze (v) if you gaze at someone or something, you look steadily at them for a long time, for example because you find them attractive or interesting, or because you are thinking about something else
ignite (v) if something or someone ignites your feelings or interest, they cause you to have very strong feelings about or interest in something
stare (v) to look at someone or something for a long time
starve (v) if people starve, they suffer greatly from lack of food which sometimes leads to their death

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1 The origins of the moai are ...
well documented by archaeologists.
the subject of several theories.
a complete mystery to the islanders.

2 On Easter Island today, the moai …
are important for the island’s economy.
have lost their significance.
are regarded as a problem.

3 The people of Easter Island today …
are isolated from the modern world.
are often unemployed.
depend on foreign visitors.

4 The story of the moai can teach us lessons about …
our interaction with the environment.
the role of art in society.
island communities.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

5 José Antonio Tuki …
is from Easter Island.
came to Easter Island to work.
carved some statues on Easter Island.

6 The moai were made …
from rocks on Anakena beach.
to be all the same size.
miles away from Anakena beach.

7 On Easter Island …
there are now more tourists than inhabitants.
people fly away to work in places like Chile and Peru.
there isn’t enough food for everyone.

8 Thor Heyerdahl …
proved who had created the statues.
was wrong about the origins of the statues.
thought the statues had been brought to the island from South America.

9 Jared Diamond thinks that …
the forest resources on Easter Island were poor.
there were never any forests on Easter Island.
it became difficult to grow food after the forests were cut down.

10 Hunt and Lipo’s theory about the movement of the statues involves using …
wood and stone.
ropes and people.
wood and ropes.