Thursday, April 11, 2019

NOVA: “Mystery of Easter Island” (WGBH-TV, PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. last night, with no Law and Order reruns locatable on TV (one station does them Mondays and Tuesdays, one does them Thursdays and Fridays, but Wednesday seems to be the nodal point), I ended up on PBS watching a 2012 episode of Nova called “Mystery of Easter Island,” originally aired November 7, 2012 and dealing with the legend that the famous rock statues on Easter Island — or Rapa Nui, as it’s called by the native Polynesians — actually walked to their places in the mountains. The big question the archaeological team at the center of the show, led by Carl Lipo with ethnic Polynesian Sergio A. Rapu Haoa as  his associate, were trying to answer was how the statues got moved into their ultimate positions. The statues themselves were made of tuff, a soft stone formed from volcanic ash (I’m not sure whether those would be considered igneous or sedimentary rocks — they come from volcanoes, which means igneous; but they are formed from layers of deposits of fine material, which would mean sedimentary), and cut with stone tools, so we have a pretty good idea of how the statues were made. One worker on the show illustrates how the eye sockets would have been carved, saying that with modern equipment he could do it in 45 minutes but with the tools the Rapa Nui had it would take a day or two. 

The big clue is that a lot of the statues did not make it to their final destinations but fell along the way. They were somehow dragged along roads carved into the island’s surface, and some of the roads sloped down while others sloped up. When a statue fell en route, if it were on a road going downhill it fell on its face and left its back showing, but if it fell on an uphill road it fell on its back and left its face showing. Also, the scientists did a comparison between statues that made it to their upright positions and those that didn’t, and found that the ones that didn’t had larger eye sockets that were not finished carvings; the ones that fell were also fatter and their center of gravity was lower. With this information they made an Easter Island statue of their own out of concrete and rebar, and made it 10 feet tall — about two-thirds the size of the originals — to see if they could move it vertically so it would appear to “walk” when it was dragged with ropes, as the ancient legends had described the statues walking. One of the tricks they learned is that the sculptors made the statues’ bases rounded and curved them so there’d be a slightly forward tilt. Their technique — wrapping a rope around the statue’s shoulders and having two teams pull it in alternate directions, sort of like a rowing crew (they had the team members practice by playing tug-of-war but trying to train themselves to pull with even force so the game would always be a tie) — worked on the wooden mockups but failed with the replica statue, and there’s a nice bit of suspense on this show when, with just a few hours left on the team’s last day on the island, they realize that the unfinished eye sockets looked like standards with which to hook a rope. Accordingly they tied their rope around the statue’s forehead, using the eye sockets as standards, and had three teams pull the statue instead of just two — and they managed to move it 10 yards even though at one point their statue fell down and they had to use a construction crane (obviously a piece of equipment the ancient Rapa Nuians wouldn’t have had!) to get it up again (no pun intended). 

The show was interspersed with a bit of historical analysis which attempted to explain why the original Easter Islanders disappeared and what happened to the thick rain forest of palm trees that had once covered their islands — one theory is they entered a sort of arms race to see which tribe could build the biggest and most monumental statues, and as a result they cut down all the palm trees. Other people argued that the Easter Islanders were farmers and, like a lot of farmers in the Amazon today, they were practicing slash-and-burn architecture that ultimately undid the ecological balance of their island. Another case argues that the Easter Islanders did themselves in by hunting and killing the sea birds that flew by the island for meat, thereby depriving themselves of guano — the bird-shit fertilizer they had been relying on for their own crops as well as maintaining the palm trees. Still other people argue that the real culprits were rats, imported by sailors from other parts of Polynesia, who bred uncontrollably and, with no natural predators, gobbled up the palm nuts and thereby killed what would have been the next generation of trees. It’s interesting that such an ecologically conscious show would appear with David Koch as one of the named and most prominent funders given that he’s an oil multimillionaire who’s donated heavily to the Republican and Libertarian parties and specifically to candidates who reject the idea that human beings are causing climate change — when his credit appears as “The David H. Koch Fund for the Advancement of Science,” I can’t help but think, “As opposed to the David H. Koch PAC for the End of Science.”