UArizona expert among first to see Easter Island's recently discovered statue
University of Arizona archaeologist Terry Hunt, a leading expert on the island natively known as Rapa Nui, arrived a day after islanders discovered a previously unknown statue. It's the latest chapter in the isolated island's long story of sustainability against the odds.
Archaeologists have found and documented nearly 1,000 of the iconic statues that Easter Island is known for, and native islanders know of countless more. So, finding another one isn't often a big deal.
But the latest discovery was "a big surprise," said Terry Hunt, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Hunt is one of the foremost experts on the island, which is known natively as Rapa Nui.
"There's never been one found in a lake," Hunt said, as in the case of the statue found Feb. 24, lying face up in the dry lakebed of Rano Raraku, on the southeast side of the triangular-shaped island.
Members of Comunidad Indígena Ma ́u Henua, the organization that manages Rapa Nui National Park, found the statue – known as moai in the Rapa Nui language – which was not previously known to islanders. The find appears to have been made possible by climate change, which exacerbated a drought that slowly evaporated the lake over the last two years, Hunt said.
Serendipitously for Hunt, the discovery came just one day before he arrived on the island to appear in a series of stories on ABC's "Good Morning America." The trip, months in the works, was originally planned to cover recent changes on the island, including the return of tourists after the COVID-19 lockdown, and how climate change has impacted Rapa Nui's people and resources.
In the ensuing days, Hunt stood alongside "Good Morning America" co-host Michael Strahan to discuss the new moai, the island's history, the general significance of the statues to the Rapa Nui people, natural changes on the island and more.
"A moai in a lake is a big deal," Hunt said, "because then you have to ask: 'What does it mean that it's there?'"
It was the latest of many questions Hunt has asked about the island over the last 22 years. His countless visits to Rapa Nui with colleagues and students have led to discoveries about how the moai were produced and moved, and research that's helped bust myths about the island's past.
Amazing things in a difficult place
The moai, carved from volcanic rock, bear stoic expressions and represent the Rapa Nui people's deified ancestors, who colonized the island around 1200, Hunt said.
Fascination with the statues has long extended well beyond the island – more than 100,000 tourists visit Rapa Nui each year, Hunt said, serving as the economic foundation for its 8,000 residents. The island sits about 2,200 miles off the western coast of Chile and has about the same land area as the city of Flagstaff.
An expert on the Pacific Islands who spent years living in Hawaii, Hunt first visited Rapa Nui in 2000 and began doing fieldwork there in 2001.
"I was very interested in the paradox or theoretical problem of really marginal places – in terms of resources or isolation – having big stuff," said Hunt, who is also dean emeritus of the W.A. Franke Honors College. "In other words: Why do such amazing things sometimes appear in such difficult places?"
"Rapa Nui is one of those places," he added.
For the past decade, Hunt and his colleagues and students have created an inventory of 981 moai on the island, complete with precise GPS locations and measurements. It's the largest public database of the statues. Hunt and his teams work closely with Comunidad Indígena Ma ́u Henua and share their findings and data with the organization.
Many moai sit in a quarry near Rano Raraku, the now-dry crater lake where the newest statue was found, in various stages of completion. The largest statue, known in the Rapa Nui language as Te Tokanga, also referred to as "The Giant," was never finished and lies on its back, measuring 63 feet long. It's estimated to weigh between 90 and 100 tons.
The islanders' oral traditions tell of how the statues were "walked," using a series of ropes, into their final places to be displayed for ceremonial purposes. Hunt – along with his longtime colleague Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New York – helped demonstrate the practice with a full-size moai replica in a 2012 National Geographic documentary.
Hunt and Lipo, in a 2019 study, found that Rapa Nui islanders built the statues near freshwater sources. The research helped answer the long-asked question of why the statues ended up in their respective locations, considering how much time and energy went into building them.
In a 2020 study, Hunt helped disprove a widespread theory that the Rapa Nui people decimated their crops to make room for the moai, leading the first Europeans who arrived to the island on Easter Sunday 1722 to find a society that had collapsed. In fact, Hunt and his colleagues found through radiocarbon dating that Rapa Nui islanders continued to build, maintain and use the monuments for at least 150 years beyond 1600.
"It's fun to be out there challenging the older story," Hunt said, adding that the public interest in the island's history has been rewarding. "It keeps us going back."
Takeaways from the latest find
The moai found last month measures 5 feet, 6 inches long, and lies faceup in the lakebed of Rano Raraku. The crater lake evaporated over the last two years after a prolonged drought, which was likely brought on by climate change, Hunt said.
The statue will remain in place for now, Hunt added, as officials determine what to do next.
But in the recent weeks since the statue's discovery, Hunt and others already have been able to deduce quite a bit about its past.
The statue was made with rock from the island's quarry, and therefore not brought from elsewhere. It was likely on display in the lake or crater and not being transported, Hunt said; the statue had its eye sockets carved, which is historically the final step in a moai's construction before it's displayed. The base of the moai is also flat, rather than sloped, to facilitate the walking process.
Researchers don't know the statue's precise age, Hunt said, but the island's colonization around 1200 and the arrival of the first Europeans in 1722 provides a likely time frame. The statue is relatively small, meaning it probably came earlier in that 522-year range rather than later.
"Size doesn't determine age because there could have been small statues made late in that time range," Hunt said. "But there probably weren't big statues made earlier in that range."
Rapa Nui: A story of success, not collapse
Hunt is not planning to be formally involved in further research of the new statue. But he plans to return to Rapa Nui in June for more fieldwork.
Two grants, one from the National Science Foundation and the other from the National Geographic Society, will allow Hunt and his colleagues to further explore the ancient islanders' sustainability – how they survived and built such large monuments in an isolated place with limited resources. The work will focus on hydrology, building on the 2019 paper that found the statues were built near freshwater sources.
Hunt's work often involves 3D imaging of the moai using cell phones and drones. He's considering ways to use ground-penetrating radar to see if moai or architecture can be found underground, especially in the Rano Raraku lakebed.
"We could be involved in future research that helps us understand the context of the new moai," Hunt said, but added that there's still a chance that the lake could refill with water.
Hunt has watched the island change drastically, beyond just the withering of the lake, since his first trip more than two decades ago. Back then, horses outnumbered cars for transportation, and the island had a single public telephone that people stood in line to use. Today, most everyone has a cell phone, and many have cars.
Hunt is often surprised to hear people ask him whether people still live on Rapa Nui. It's a puzzling question for someone who regularly partners on fieldwork with descendants of the moai builders – many of whom have become his close friends.
The question, Hunt believes, is prompted by the ubiquitous photos, empty of the island's people but full of moai. The images give the island another layer of mystery, he said.
Rapa Nui's prevailing story, he added, should be the sustainability he's spent two decades studying.
"The island, through some amazing adaptations, was sustainable despite all the odds – limited resources, seasonality unlike in other parts of tropical Polynesia, and this amazing investment in giant stuff," he said.
"It all worked," Hunt added. "In all of that is a lesson for all of us. And it's not about collapse – it's about success."
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