Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Project: Impossible — Easter Island


 My 26th book will be Project: Impossible, an exploration of how people achieved goals any reasonable person would have thought impossible. This week, the strange statues of Easter Island.

The European Discovery

On Easter Sunday 1722, a Dutch West India Company commanded by Jacob Roggeveen, seventeen days out of Chile, sighted a low, flat island, which he named after the day of his discovery: Easter Island.

Easter Island a windy place, flat and treeless. At the time of Roggeveen’s visit, he judged the population to be between 2,000 and 3,000 people. The poverty and barrenness of the island stood in remarkable contrast to what makes Easter Island famous: the monolithic rock carvings known as moai, the giant head-statues that dominate the landscape. The tallest of the moai towers a remarkable 33 feet in height; the heaviest weighs 86 tons.

About half the statues that have been discovered are still in the main quarry where they were all created. Many are only partially completed, as if the workers suddenly left their jobs, never to return. One thing, however, was abundantly clear: the sculpting, transporting, and installing of these statues was a remarkable feat — and clearly, one utterly beyond the capabilities and resources of the poor islanders.


Of the various theories on the creation, transportation, and erection of the moai of Easter Island, the most fanciful was advanced by Erich von Däniken, that they were designed and built by extraterrestrial visitors. Von Däniken was not alone in marveling about the Easter Island statues. Tribal folklore on Easter Island itself claimed that mana, or divine power, allowed the moai to walk from the quarry to their assigned locations.

A more serious theory was advanced by explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who actually moved a 10-ton moai using a sledge drawn by 180 islanders. Scaling up, it would have required approximately 1,500 people to move the largest moai. Anthropologist William Mulloy developed a complex engineering technique using huge trees for support, but later studies suggested that the necks of the moai couldn’t absorb the excessive stress the method would create.  Czechoslovakian scholar Pavel Pavel and Wyoming archeologist Charles Love attempted to move moai in a semi-upright position, but caused noticeable damage.

Moving the moai was difficult enough, but then came the problem of setting them upright on their ahu platforms. In 1994, archeologist Claudio Cristino could barely re-erect an 88-ton moai using a modern crane!

Of course, ancient civilizations (most famously the Egyptians) moved massive stones — all you need is lots of thick long ropes (traditionally made from tree bark in Polynesia) and lots of large trees. You also need a large labor force, and that also requires a generous amount of surplus food.

But on Easter Island, there are hardly any trees worthy of the name. Worse, the island is unable to support a large population.

Well, today, in any event.

A display of Easter Island moai atop an ahu platform. The ahu are an engineering feat in themselves.

How It Was Done (and Why It Shouldn't Have Been)

Although today Easter Island is relatively barren, botanical surveys have revealed that at the time of human settlement the island was heavily forested, with the dominant tree similar to the Chilean wine palm.
Chilean wine palms are prized for their nuts, for a sweet sap that can be fermented into wine or turned into honey, for fronds capable of being turned into a variety of useful products, and, of course, for the wood of their immense trunks. The trees were extremely important to human civilization on the island — and, of course, they were essential to the transport of the moai.

The imposing and majestic moai were built at the unwitting cost of the civilization that created them, triggering an ecological disaster. By the arrival of famous British explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, the islanders were, in his words, “small, lean, timid, and miserable.” The destruction was so complete that in the end, the people of Easter Island turned to the largest remaining source of protein — each other.

Map of Easter Island Showing Location of Moai

Managing the Impossible Project: The Consequences of Success

Every leader has to face the consequences of potential failure, but it’s important not to overlook the consequences of success as well. Too much focus on getting today’s job done can compromise — sometimes fatally — your future capabilities as well.

Even if you can do the impossible, it’s not necessarily always a good idea.

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