The statues of Easter Island could have "walked" into place

Using nothing but rope, how many people does it take to move a 10-foot tall, 5-ton statue a distance of one hundred yards? It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it's a serious question for archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, who are studying how prehistoric inhabitants of Easter Island transported the region's iconic, monolithic figures — called "moai" — from place to place.

The answer? As few as 18 people. The key, say Hunt and Lipo, is teamwork; by rocking the statue back and forth, three cooperating groups were able to coax the giant replica into walking in a reasonably coordinated fashion (though I'd probably describe it as more of a waddle).

You can see a demonstration of the technique demonstrated below. It's an interesting theory, and one that the researchers say corresponds well with the mythology of the islands' current residents, who maintain that the moai walked across the island.

But could the three group/teamwork model be used to transport statues larger than the model used by Hunt and Lipo? (Five tons may sound like a lot, but the majority of the island's 887 monoliths weigh in at close to three times that much, or more). That remains unclear, along with the true fate of the island's first inhabitants. The L.A. Times Thomas H. Maugh II explains:

UCLA anthropologist Jared Diamond famously detailed what the called the "ecocide" of [Easter Island] in his 2005 book "Collapse." When Polynesians first settled the island about AD 800, they had the misfortune to select one that was dry, cool and remote — and thus poorly fertilized by windblown dust or volcanic ash. They chopped down forests to provide wood for construction and for moving the moai, and the trees didn't return. The denuded landscape allowed winds to blow off the topsoil, and fertility fell sharply. When the natives no longer had wood for building fishing canoes, they killed and ate all the birds. Before the Dutch arrived at the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, the population had descended into cannibalism and barbarity. Diamond called it "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources."

But archaeologists [Lipo and Hunt] have a different take on the events based on more recent research. They agree that the island was an ecological disaster, but argue that the inhabitants share a smaller portion of the blame. Their research indicates that the Polynesian settlers did not arrive at Rapa Nui until about AD 1200, which would not leave nearly enough time to devastate the forests solely by slashing and burning.

Read more at The L.A. Times.

Images and video courtesy of National Geographic