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Pacific News Minute: Mystery of the ‘Hats’ Atop Rapa Nui's Statues

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Scientists believe they’ve solved an enduring enigma: how the prehistoric Polynesians of Rapa Nui placed huge hats on top of the famous statues of Easter Island.

We know that the people of Rapa Nui were fabulous engineers. But scientists don’t know exactly how they erected almost 900 statues weighing up to 80 tons, nor how they put hats on top that weigh as much as 13 tons.

The answers involve a lot more than engineering puzzles. They have profound implications for the fate of the Rapa Nui.

One theory holds that carving, transporting and erecting all that stone required large numbers of people, and large quantities of lumber. The passion to honor the ancestors used up the small island’s resources, which lead to starvation and civil war. A case of what’s been called eco-cide.

In 2012, a group of anthropologists from Penn State and New York’s Binghamton University argued that the statues weren’t moved horizontally on log rollers, but rather rocked along while upright, and now the same team believes they’ve found evidence that the hats were hauled up a ramp of dirt and stone until they could be levered into position.

While still a major enterprise, many fewer people would be needed, and much less wood. In a press release, Carl Lipo of the University of Binghamton argued that the eco-cide theory was deeply flawed. “These were quite sophisticated people,” he wrote, “who...used their resources wisely.” 

So, what did happen?

Catrine Jarman of Bristol University argues there was no population collapse on Rapa Nui before European contact, and that the population plummeted as the result of disease and slavery.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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