The Statues That Walked

It seems there are two kinds of scientific controversy. Controversies take very different trajectories depending on whether results are of general public interest or not.

In matters where the public is disengaged, the normal scientific process seems healthy enough. A few scientists line up on either side, evidence gets tested, and sooner or later one viewpoint or another wins out.

It is in the cases where science is interesting to the public where something novel and unfortunate tends to happen. Our usual cases in this crowd relate to climate change or to energy supply. Here, the real science tends to skew more in favor of urban, liberal philosophies, and we find great stubborn swaths of pseudoscience on the other side. But those of us already inclined to urban and liberal philosophies should take no great comfort from this: we can see that in the matter of alternative medicine it is people of our political stripe who are coming up with the nonsense.

It’s refreshing, then, to look at an unfamiliar controversy, one where the trappings of science remain all but undisturbed, but which also masks a fundamentally political debate. This is the story of Easter Island.

The story Jared Diamond tells of Easter Island is, depending on who you ask, summarily rejected or broadly supported by a majority of experts in Polynesian history and prehistory. Both sides are claiming the consensus!

Now the story that Diamond tells is shocking and evocative. A key role in the downfall of Easter Island civilization, according to him, is the deforestation of the island, which was largely or predominantly undertaken to create rollers allowing the weighty statues, built atop the hill at the center of the island, to be installed at the beach facing the vast (insofar as the islanders knew, indeed, endless) sea. Easter Island is the single most isolated populated island on earth, and it is likely that a few generations after settlement, the islanders had little confidence in the existence of any other land anywhere!

That is, they succeeded in destroying what to them must have been the entire world!

Mark Lynas (famed for his global warming book Six Degrees) reports on the contrary position taken by Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt. In their book “The Statues that Walked” they argue that Diamond is wrong on several major points:

  • The forest was made extinct by rats, not islanders
  • The deforestation did not harm the islanders
  • The statues were not rolled down the hill but “walked” upright

and so on. Leaving nothing whatever of Diamond’s amazing parable.

But notice, everything they stress is about what didn’t happen. Isn’ t this familiar?

  • There’s no hockey stick
  • The warming is natural
  • The warming has been reversed
  • The greenhouse effect does not exist
  • The CO2 is accumulating for natural reasons

etc. etc. No coherent story, just contradiction of the main points of the opposition. So who is to be believed?

This sheds quite a lot of light on the phenomenon of postnormal science, if you ask me. Postnormal science happens after science comes up with an inconvenient result. Then a body of anti-science is concocted to oppose it. In general, then, your best bet is to look for the science that was emerging before the controversy started. Also, look for the science that doesn’t look like a lawyer came up with it. Look for the science with an actual narrative, not a scattering of incoherent counternarratives.

But what especially turned me back to Diamond’s side of the story was the “Statues that Walked” hypothesis. Lipo and Hunt propose that rather than rolling the massive stone obelisks down the hill, they were tilted upright at the mine, and shifted down the hill vertically!

Now why the hell would anyone do that?

Let me offer a few of you some scale. It happens that I have a certain personal obsession with wide, obtusely triangular islands, hailing from one myself.

It turns out that Easter Island is comparable in size to Montreal, perhaps a bit under half the size. (Google refused to put these two maps on exactly the same scale for some reason.) So for the benefit of those in the audience familiar with Montreal, we are talking about “walking” a 90 ton obelisk from the cross above the Cartier monument, down the hill, across downtown, the whole way down the canal, to be placed at the beach at the first lock in Lachine! And why?

There is only one possible reason I can think of for such an astonishing travail, and that is to prove Jared Diamond wrong!

Diamond sees it the same way I do.

How could tall 90-ton statues have been dragged over unpaved hilly terrain?  The only reasonable solution, to avoid their tipping and breaking during transport, is to transport them horizontally and then lever them into an upright position.  Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the leading scholar of Easter statues, who has spent decades cataloging the hundreds of statues, carried out an experiment in which Easter Islanders demonstrated for her their horizontal transport and levering-up of a model statue.  But Hunt and Lipo claim that statues were transported vertically.  This seems an implausible recipe for disaster.  Imagine it yourself: if you were told to transport a 90-ton statue 33 feet high over a dirt road, why would you risk tipping and breaking it by transporting it vertically with all its weight concentrated on its small base, rather than avoiding the risk of tipping by laying it flat and distributing its weight over its entire length?

That’s decisive as far as I am concerned. But there’s another small detail that I was startled to notice. In another part of Diamond’s rebuttal, we see

Hunt and Lipo, relying partly on a paper by Peiser (written apparently without first-hand experience of Easter Island), claimed that Easter’s collapse was due to European impact, and that the islanders were coping successfully before European arrival.

Peiser? Surely not our old friend Benny Peiser. But it is! And check the link! See where he got his piece published!

See, there really is a postnormal science industry, and the players in it are indifferent as to what topic they address!

Newcomers to the climate wars should be informed that “Energy and Environment” is a quasi-journal which exists largely for the purpose of publishing weak papers which contradict climate science.

Here’s Wikipedia on Benny:

Benny Josef Peiser, born 1957, is a social anthropologist specializing in the environmental and socio-economic impact of physical activity on health. He was a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) until July 2010, and is a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham.

Peiser is director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, was the founder of the Cambridge Conference Network, and is a member of the editorial advisory board of Energy and Environment. He is a regular contributor to Canada’s National Post.[1]

UPDATE: I made the following comment at Kloor’s (with slight amendments here):

Maybe now that I’m trying on a journalist hat rather than a science blogger hat, the people who say I should have read Hunt & Lipo before saying anything have a point. I am obligated to read through accounts that I am very confident are misleading before making a public case that they seem misleading.

It may be the correct way to “act like a journalist”. The idea that this has to do with “acting like a scientist”, though, is in my opinion incorrect, and revealingly so. Being a scientist means, among other things, having the expertise to winnow positions that cannot be correct, and focusing attention on positions that have some chance of being correct. This is not commonly understood; this skill is widely taken as “arrogance”.

Let me illustrate by getting back to the particulars. The Lipo and Hunt hypothesis, as I understand it, has a late arrival of Polynesians, cutting by the number of years available to develop the statue building culture and build the statues from 1100 to 500. Let’s say it takes 200 years to get the idea going. Then the rate of statue building has to triple, since it had to take 300 years rather than 900. Further, the population is fixed at 3000, rather than going up to 15000. This further quintuples the per capita effort, making it 15 times more work per capita. Further, while on the overshoot model most of the time the island was in food (i.e., energy) surplus, on the sustained peak population model the island was in food scarcity through the entire time. Finally, instead of rolling the statues down the hill to the beach, they have to pivot them in a vertical position.

Assume 1/3 of the population is able-bodied and vigorous at any time, which is generous given the food scarcity already postulated. This leaves basically 1000 people who are on subsistence agriculture (and since there are no big trees, there is limited fishing) to carve three statues a year, averaging some 50 tons each, and move them in a vertical position an average of five miles. (Note also that they are much taller than they appear, because a large base is buried.)

In short, however astonishing the achievement of the Easter Islanders in the overshoot model, it is approximately a hundred times more astonishing (or more) in the Lipo/Hunt late-arrival, early-deforestation, walking statue subsistence model.

Is that dispositive? No, perhaps not. But it sure seems like a long shot, and I take it as such.

That all said, my observation in the lead article was not primarily about Lipo and Hunt but that established participants in the obfuscation of climate science were taking up their cause. My resulting proposal is that “postnormal” science is a feature that science accretes by the actions of people driven by extrascientific motives, not by the core participants of science.

I think it is clear that having a perfect model for overshoot/collapse is appealing to some of us, myself included. I am very taken by the apparent confusion of symbol with substance in the latter days of the moai culture as described by Diamond, and I would in fact dislike it if that lesson were imaginary.

I think it is equally clear that the remaining Easter Islanders are looking for a more heroic myth than being an object lesson for modern growth economics gone amok, and that Hunt and Lipo are sympathetic to them. And I think the E&E crowd just wants to deny the possibility of overshoot altogether, which makes them allies of Hunt and Lipo here.

So the ingredients for postnormalcy are all there. The question, as always, is which side has the most compelling story. I have to say that all else equal the story I prefer seems to me dramatically more plausible, but I may be fooling myself.

If I were a real science journalist, if the world really supported those, I’d have the time and resources to chase this story down. As it stands, I am just voicing an opinion.

And one thing I want for Planet3.0 is that people voice their opinions. In some ways I am pleased to see some genuine disagreement over something other than the usual output of the climate-confusion factory. At least people have to think their own way through it rather than having their opinion mass-produced and prepackaged.

UPDATE: I find it silly to be instructed by Keith as to what a scientist does or doesn’t do. That said his implicit point that, as a journalist, I should have read the book before taking on its position, which comes from his own expertise, is taken, and learned. I’ll endeavor to be less timely and more thorough in future.

UPDATE:Anna writes:  “MT, IMO to the orig. post you should add Hunt&Lipo’s response to Diamond, at Lynas’s blog. (you say you found it redundant, but IMO it should still be added”


  1. Forget breaking the statues. Who'd want to be ahead, beside, behind any of these gigantic things when they're being transported upright? Even rolling them horizontally you'd skip out of the way pretty smartly if a bit of a bump on a downhill slope, on an unmade road, knocked them a tad skew-whiff.

    These are people-breaking devices.

    Looks like someone's becoming a denier renaissance man here. What's next? Vaccines, tobacco, HIV, Y2K, heliocentrism?

  2. There seems to be a somewhat more substantial criticism of Diamond at this link: which Keith Kloor did a post on a while ago (and mentioned on Lynas' blog). I just scanned it and did not see that it addressed the issue of transporting the statues. It does discuss the rats.

    As with many of these types of debates, I would like to know if the archeology community has come to some kind of consensus, and whether Diamond is going against it.

    I'm under the impression that his previous book - Guns, Germs, and Steel - essentially revived a field that had been considered disproven, and did so successfully, which might be why that book won a Pulitzer.

  3. PS - Lipo and Hunt have a followup on Lynas' blog. It includes this:

    In the book we discuss how fallen statue positions, kinds of breakage, statue shapes with a forward center of mass, as well as statue modifications made between quarry and placement on platforms can only be explained by vertical movement.


    In recent experiments funded by National Geographic and fully filmed, we “walked” a multi-ton replica of an actual statue (one found along an ancient transport road). Moving a statue in a standing position is not only possible; it’s relatively easy and can be done with a small group of people using only ropes. Our experiment will be highlighted in a forthcoming NOVA-National Geographic television special to be broadcast on PBS in the spring of 2012. Then the rest of the world will see what we have seen—the statues of Easter Island walking upright! Stay tuned!

  4. Good catch on the parallelism, Michael.

    I have a few comments resulting from several hours spent reading up on the situation:

    Of course it's possible with sufficient care to walk a statue, although I suspect they didn't try it with one of the big ones, but it's indisputable that it would be much easier to move one horizontally (and perhaps more to the point, with vastly less risk of breakage). Hunt & Lipo seem to think it's persuasive that present islanders believe that the statues literally walked (i.e. were magically animated for the purpose). Um, no it isn't. They also make a pitch for the need for current islanders to be proud of their ancestors, which is an admirable sentiment but not exactly a good scientific attitude.

    IIRC Hunt & Lipo also made a claim that the palm trunks would have made for poor rollers. One word: skids (involving a couple of trunks lashed to the back of a statue to make a sled-like arrangement), perhaps with palm fronds as a lubricant.

    Interestingly, the botanist who named the extinct palm species isn't convinced from the remaining biological evidence that the palms had trunks, but proposes that regardless of that the palms may have met their fate due to their edible hearts. Even if there were trunks, his idea would help explain the complete extinction. I should note that there is some quite strong other evidence for tall palms with trunks, a relict script that includes a glyph that's a dead ringer for the distinctive shape of the Chilean wine palm (the closest potential relative).

  5. Lipo and Hunt's theories are bizarre.

    The walking statues is about as relevant as the Little Ice Age, but that won't stop it being used as "proof" that Diamond is wrong..

    AFAIK, the archaeological record supports Diamond: there was a period of chaos, starvation and cannibalism, and toppling of statues, after the last of the forest disappeared. A new stable order did emerge but with a lower population. The arrival of the Europeans was the worst disaster, as they brought small pox, Christianity and slavery.

    None of this invalidates the narrative of Diamond in Collapse.

  6. Interesting. Fellas, it really sucks when a popular environmental meme gets thoroughly deconstructed, doesn't it? Let me tell you, it's taken decades for ecologists to disregard the "balance of nature" myth. (See Daniel Botkin.)

    Anyway, Michael, have you read the new book by the two archaeologists? Are you familiar with the well-publicized criticism by (respected scholars) of many of the Collapse book case studies (not just the larger thesis)--including the one on Chaco Canyon?

  7. No I'm not familiar with any of the controversy. Nor am I suggesting any blanket agreement with Diamond's ideas, though they do seem compelling. I'm just saying that the urgency to defeat him has an air that lacks in the sort of dispassion that gets at truth, that I'm pretty much convinced that the statues didn't walk, and that I'm bemused by the involvement of Benny Peiser and Energy & Environment, confirming my long-held suspicion that this is postnormalcy, not science.

  8. It sucks (for some), and yet it's strangely exciting (for others).

    The book's not peer-reviewed, KK, and given the tone and content of the H&L post at Lynas' I don't think it's worth the time to read. (Besides, I'm still in recovery from having fallen for a similar pitch to read RP Jr.'s latest, which turned out to contain not a speck of anything new. Fool me once...) There's plenty available on the web from a variety of EI scholars that is peer-reviewed, and oddly most of it seems to support Diamond. You've read all of that material, right?

    Re the Chaco business, I was similarly unimpressed. The abandonment of so many of the "big houses" sure seems like a loss of complexity. Note that Tainter also thinks there was a collapse, albeit via different analysis.

    And say, how's that New Guinea lawsuit doing these days? I seem to recall you making lot of noise about it.

  9. Steve,

    It feels like old times. 🙂
    I've touched on Diamond numerous times at my site and elsewhere, regarding much of this business, so I'm not interested in rehashing it here again. I've made my arguments there and at Stoat's. So I'll let you and others believe what you will.

    But as for the New Yorker story-related lawsuit you're referring to--as it happens, I'm sympathetic to Diamond on that one and called out the anthropological website Savage Minds for making a lot of noise of it, as you put it.


    Using Peiser as a rationale to dismiss all the legitimate scholarly criticism of Diamond is a red herring. It's like a climate skeptic invoking Joe Romm's hyperbolic excesses as a reason to dismiss the argument of someone who references Romm while making an otherwise legitimate criticism of the media.

    Additionally, your citing of the Diamond/Easter Island controversy as an example of post-normal science doesn't hold up. The criticism of Diamond is not politically based. It's largely coming from anthropologists and archaeologists (some who are jealous of his popular success) who argue that he has arrived at the wrong conclusions. This is all well known to anyone who follows this stuff in anthro circles.

  10. Michael,

    Not sure if you read this post of mine at the Yale Forum site, but it provides an overview of what this debate (e.g., those clinging to the eco-collapse metaphor), over Easter Island is really about:

  11. We aren't "clinging to an eco-collapse metaphor". Easter Island's human population did collapse after suffering a decline in resources. What is this "clinging" to which you refer?

    Keith, your conclusion to the Yale article is "But precisely because of the way Easter Island’s history has been interpreted and invested with powerful symbolic meaning, we may see this debate over scholarly evidence harden into entrenched positions, as has happened with aspects of the climate debate. Because of legitimate concerns about climate tipping points and ecological thresholds, some will feel compelled to defend what may well be an inaccurate metaphor."

    I am happy to stipulate (and Diamond himself does stipulate) that the story has some complexity and in particular that Easter Island had some unique vulnerabilities. The whole point of the book, after all, is that these vulnerabilities come in cross-cultural patterns and can be used to predict robustness to collapse.

    But your concluding paragraph has at least two places where it irks me. First, there is your concluding noun phrase, the "inaccurate metaphor". But what is meta for? Metaphors are by nature imprecise. We certainly have no expectation of an interplanetary rescue mission - in that regard the metaphor is dead on accurate. The earth has always been an island, and with each extinction and with each disruption, it becomes a smaller and more fragile one.

    Second, you miss the nature of the debate, and this was my key point. Indeed, several of our crowd noticed it before I did. This is not a normal scientific controversy. It is cart-before-horse postnormal controversy. The question of the history of Easter Island doesn't drive the debate at all, any more than large animal biology drives the endless obsession over polar bears. What drives the debate is that some people don't like the clarity of the message that the evidence provides to a distractible public. Therefore they attack the evidence, not with any intent of winning the scientific question, but with the intent of cloaking the message in the public eye.

    Could our bank accounts and stock portfolios be no more magical than moia? Could we be destroying ourselves in a frenzy of activity that used to be good for us and now is bad for us? Has our semiotics so led us astray that what was once care and diligence is now follishness and neglicence? These are terrifying questions.

    A suitable distraction is to walk an obelisk down a hill in vertical position using rope tricks. It's more Svensmark cosmic rays, Keith. It's obviously and clearly a distraction.

    Do we know everything about Easter Island? No. Do we really know what befell the last giant palm? No, and we probably never will. Did the European colonists do more damage than the natives? Probably not in terms of absolute mortality, but nobody is calling them good guys either. Did the statues get transported vertically? Well, I think that is laughable. But it's beside the point.

    Even if they did, Easter Island is a lesson for us. Easter Island is a lesson for us no matter how you interpret it. And the questions posed by the moai do not go away despite Lipo & Hunt's stunts. Or shouldn't anyway.

    But if you don't want to examine those questions, a smokescreen is useful. So you walk a statue with ropes. (How did Easter Islanders constrict such robust ropes, I wonder?) It is a ridiculous strategy for moving obelisks, risky to men and gods alike, but it provides a clever distraction.

    We already know what sort of creature Benny Peiser is. What is known about Lipo and Hunt?

    And why the hell should we not consider the fate of collapsed societies on their say-so?

  12. This all reminds me a bit of the issue of whether the (relatively) recently-arrived humans in North America drove the megafauna into extinction or not. The physical evidence is pretty weak for any conclusion, but it seemed that some wanted to push it so as to show that native americans are not necessarily ecologically benign, others to show that humans inevitably destroy the environment. Some others pushed back against it because they held opposite views on those same issues.

    While the heat on these two issues is nothing like climate, it has nonetheless confused the ability of some people to evaluate the evidence as it is.

  13. Michael,

    You're clinging to the Easter Island metaphor for the same reason people clung to the Nature in balance and Indians Lived In Harmony w/Nature memes.

    They are useful to advance a narrative. What surprises me about this debate (at places like this site) is that people who normally champion science are willing to ignore data and evidence that might contradict a thesis.

    The eco-collapse metaphor is a compelling one, with supportable evidence drawn from biologists, climatologists, archaeologists, et al. It just doesn't fit for Easter Island, for the variety of reasons that have been laid out by Diamond's scholarly critics.

    By clinging to Easter Island, you run the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the larger argument. You want a parallel? It's kinda similar to overhyping climate change/severe weather connections at every turn, whether the instance deserves it or not. The larger argument is supportable. But if it's made indiscriminately and simplistically, the argument gets diluted.

    So before you double down on Easter Island, think carefully about all the evidence, and then consider if that's where you want to place all your chips.

  14. Michael,

    I agree we should all be wary of "denialists" who challenge scientific findings simply to further some agenda. Many of these are exactly what you describe -- pseudo-science, arguments by authority and common sense logic. Our evaluation of the archaeological record of Easter Island (documented in our book, The Statues That Walked) was not done to simply "deny" the Collapse story that has been long associated with it. As archaeologists, we went to the island fully expecting to be able to study the growth of the island's population after colonization and eventual collapse that was reported to have occurred ca. AD1680. It was much to our surprise that the archaeological record simply didn't have evidence that supported much of what has been claimed -- no evidence for cannibalism, no evidence for widespread lethal warfare, no evidence for the 10,000+ population that has been argued to have once lived on the island and so on. Our best explanation of what we could find in the record is that there never was a prehistoric collapse and much of the features associated with "collapse" come from the effects of contact and post-contact history.

    We do our best to layout the evidence that we have generated (based on our own field work and that of others who have worked on the island). The book attempts to explain why people think that there was a "Collapse" (and the roots of this account go back to the earliest European visitors, with Diamond just the latest in a series of apocalyptic scenarios) along with our best explanations for the current empirical evidence. We fully admit that future findings might falsify our claims -- as is the process of science. However, we conclude that much of what people say about the island's prehistory simply has no empirical basis and is largely stories retold over and over.

    I should also note that while we are aware of Peiser's argument (and others e.g., Rainbird) we did not in anyway rely on his claims. We are not stooges for anti-environment corporate entities. Both of us are faculty at public universities. Our intentions are archaeological in nature and in doing science the best that we can. If you examine our cumulative academic record of publications you will find that we are both ardent supporters of science (and have even been criticized by some of our colleagues as been "too scientific" in our demands for constraining our explanations to descriptions of the empirical record).

    I urge you to evaluate the book on its own merits -- examine the evidence we present and see if you can find a better explanation then what we arrive at. We greatly appreciate any dialogue on these grounds.


    Carl Lipo, Professor
    Department of Anthropology
    California State University Long Beach

  15. Sorry, Keith, no matter how much you may try to make claims to the contrary, Diamond's "scholarly critics" have failed to make the case you claim. Proof otherwise requires a survey of the entire recent literature, which I did (admittedly in a fleeting, half-assed way, but I read some articles, skimmed others and looked at a bunch of abstracts) and you did not. And it seems that your main intellectual bulwark remains Tainter's snarky (un-peer reviewed) book review, unless you're now willing to substitute a book you haven't read. It's peculiar how such indirect knowledge can support such strong assertions.

    (Michael, the ropes likely weren't a problem, noting that modern Andeans e.g. retain the skill to make some damned good rope bridges out of local grasses. A video I saw showed them doing it impressively quickly. In any event some serious ropes would have been needed to get the statues vertical.)

  16. Oh, here ya go, KK, noting just one of the links Diamond's article included.

    The authors are described by the editors of Current World Archeology as "renowned Easter Island authorities." Go figure. They start out:

    "We were profoundly disappointed by Brian Fagan’s
    review of The Statues that Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo. The book is extraordinarily selective in the data it chooses to mention, and the authors’ theory about what happened on Easter Island has already been refuted by a number of articles, most notably in the Rapa Nui Journal.

    "The review refers to myth-making about a once-prosperous society that dissolved in the face of deforestation, food hortages, and endemic conflict, a textbook example of seemingly catastrophic ecological collapse. Far from being a myth, this consensus view is the result of decades of painstaking research by archaeologists and palaeoenvironmentalists. What the reviewer sees as the book’s ‘compelling alternative’ is, in fact, largely erroneous. This is not the place to challenge all of the points on which we believe the authors are in error, so we shall limit ourselves to a few of the most important."

    (Note that Brian Fagan is *not* any sort of relevant expert.)

    Did you follow any of Diamond's links, KK? He provided them so people wouldn't have to just take his word for it.

  17. Thanks for commenting, Dr. Lipo. Could I get a response to the following from the CWA review rebuttal (referring to "no evidence for widespread lethal warfare")?

    "They cite a 1994 paper by Douglas Owsley et al. to support their claim that ‘the skeletal remains of prehistoric Rapa Nui show few signs of lethal trauma’. They appear unaware that, in a 2003 BBC documentary, Owsley stated that, after examining more than 600 Easter Island skeletons, he realised he was looking at the evidence of people at war with themselves: ‘When I compare the frequency of injuries that I have observed in the Easter Island population with other collections that I have worked with, it certainly shows the high end, it’s the extreme. It was a period of social disintegration. You have got endemic warfare, it is chronic – they are slugging it out, there is no doubt about it.’"

    We can't rigorously compare competing claims about research details here, but we can examine this sort of thing.

  18. The 1994 Owsley et al article presented our one of our early observations that all wasn't as it seemed on Easter Island. Like the case for early dates (where Chris Stevenson, an archaeologist who has generated a large # of obsidian hydration dates wondered why he didn't have early dates that he assumed must be present) we found Owsley's comments puzzling. In that article he describes the skeletal material (showing 2.5% having some form of healed trauma) yet says (paraphrased) "for a people under going a downward spiral of cultural disintegration, there is little evidence of lethal trauma". Among the skeletal samples only two individuals appeared to have suffered a lethal wound and of those two, one of them was from a bullet. So whatever was going on didn't result in a lot of violent deaths.

    We certainly wouldn't say that the population didnt have conflict -- they certainly did as one would expect in any environment that has constrained resources. There was lots of competition -- it is just the case here that that competition didnt lead to organized lethal combat. The skeletal evidence shows that as does the lack of any defensive structures (which appear elsewhere in the Pacific when warfare is endemic) and lack of deadly weapons (the obsidian "spears" are simply sharp edges on sticks used for plant processing as is demonstrated by observations of wear).

    One must remember that Owsley's comment comes from a filmed documentary not in a publication. We also know that he assumes "warfare" already (as do many folks based on what they have been told) since he has to confront the lack of lethal trauma with the skeletal evidence. For him, there is a conflict. What we wondered is whether the assumption is simply wrong to begin with. The oral accounts of warfare on which a lot of the "collapse" narrative is based come from stories collected in the early part of the 20th century -- and have been described as being likely of very recent origin (Metraux 1940). So if we simply start with the archaeological record as the evidence to explain, we don't find that we need to assert warfare at all. Thus, Owsley's conflict is resolved.

    In our book we talk about competition and how that was necessarily an important factor in structuring prehistoric populations -- it had to be. On an island that is only 6x10 miles, resources are going to be limited and there will be competition. The skeletal evidence support this directly in the form of enamel hypoplasias in teeth that form as the result of dietary deficiencies during childhood. In fact, our explanation of the investment made in statues relies on there being at least some physical competition. This kind of violence is not "warfare" (as defined as some winner take all endgame).

    Some have argued that 2.5% is an incredible amount of violence in any community (in an ethnographic comparison). At the same time it is much less violence that is occurring in Europe at this time. The number is also a bit misleading since we know very little about the age of these skeletons -- they are likely late (and possibly post-contact as is clear from the bullet wound) but the span of time they represent is unknown. Thus, having 2.5% of the individuals showing trauma is not exactly clear -- was this over a 200 year period? 500 years? 10? LIke much of the archaeological record on Easter Island, more research is needed (specifically much better chronological information needs to be generated).



  19. Question - how do we deal with the "respected scholars" meme?
    (as in, "respected scholars A&B have been proponents of [marginal viewpoint] Z", implying that we should accord credence to Z)

    The disadvantage of responding with a denial that they're respected (since some aren't) is that it has an ad hominem flavor. Better would be "They don't have expertise in this area", when it's accurate; or we can sidestep the "respect" issue & note that "even respected scholars have blind spots which is why consensus matters" (as Bickmore pointed out in his recent video).

    Is the latter the best response, or are there better (or equally good) ones? And when is it appropriate to accord credence to a not-widely-held view based on the identity of its proponent?

  20. Dr. Lipo;

    The tone of reasonableness in your reply, which we have learned to expect from the most egregious misrepresenters of climate science, is less reassuring for me than it might be for someone who hasn't engaged in that way. What's more, it doesn't really get at what I see as the key questions:

    1) Both you and Diamond claim the support of the consensus. How many people actually study Easter Island (it must be a small and well-defined group) and what do they think? How is a lay person to check this?

    2) Both you and Diamond acknowledge many complications to your versions. Diamond nevertheless has extracted obvious lessons from the events; specifically that cultural adaptations can become maladaptations after after an environmental sustainability threshhold is crossed. Do you disagree with Diamond's conclusion in general, or only with regard to Easter Island?

    3) Do you draw any lessons from the events of Easter Island other than that it is a bad idea to be conquered?

    4) Since your claim is that the island was always environmentally stressed at a small peak population, where did the surplus resources to create and move the statues come from?

    5) Given that you postulate a smaller, more stressed population producing the statues, what could possibly have motivated them to take on the extra effort and danger of moving them in a vertical position?

    6) Why is the vertical transportation of the statues so relevant to your version of events that you thought to replicate it for the TV cameras?

    7) Given that you postulate that there was no population explosion, what explains the large number of partially finished or partially relocated statues?

    In short, Diamond has drawn a tightly coherent picture and you have replied with a scattershot set of critiques that leaves a plethora of loose ends. Your argumentation is thus very remeniscent of the "climate skeptics", (leaving aside that you reference the work of one of them in their pet journal) providing, in answer to a coherent theory, a whole slew of doubts on particulars and a barely plausible scenario with little underlying structure. It's, at best, intellectually dissatisfying. That isn't really evidence against your position. However, it matches my prior expectation that emotionally resonant results about sustainability will always end up challenged and obfuscated. Therefore the burden of proof, in my estimation, lies with you.

    Would you be willing to identify who funded your research?

  21. I haven't read the book. I am trying to decide whether it is worth reading.

    Consider that if Diamond is wrong about Easter Island, I have little intrinsic interest in Easter Island. I do want to know if he was totally wrong of course, but I don;t want to read a book about it.

    The case I am making is that postnormal science emerges from outsiders' challenges to science, usually with the participation of a few credentialed people. In the case of archaeology, the group interested in a particular place will be much smaller than the potential pool of people qualified to make a credible challenge. I didn't see the usual boilerplate about funding agency at the conclusion of Hunt and Lipo's 2006 piece in Science.

    My question is whether they got funding from a private source because somebody disliked Diamond's 2004 book. If they went through normal channels with an interest in Easter Island that would refute my suspicion that their mission was postnormal as opposed to normal science.

  22. Interesting commentary. As Carl Lipo wrote, we would ask you to read our book and the abundant peer-reviewed, scientific research (published in places like Science and Journal of Archaeological Science) that our conclusions are based upon. Judge our book on its merits. We are not denialists or anti-environmentalists (we are both progressive liberals!) and funded by teaching at pubic universities as well as peer-reviewed grants from National Geographic. The questions raised here are answered in our book.

    As one commentary pointed out, it is dangerous to put all your chips on the veracity of Diamond's Easter Island example. Easter Island does not have to be the ecocide poster child for environmental issues to be of great urgency.

    The story about Easter Island was one that grew out of early European misunderstandings and colonialism. The archaeological evidence does matter and simply doesn't support a pre-European ecological-demographic collapse.

  23. Michael,

    If you are not willing to read our book then there is precious little to discuss since you apparently know what the answers are already. If you would like to discuss the evidence of the record and how archaeologists have been explaining it for the past 10-15 years, I would be happy to talk. But if you want to keep to your faith-based approach, there little hope of finding a common ground. Your suspicions about funding sources also makes me wonder if you also prefer tin-foil hats.

    All that aside, please consider the possibility that an genuine study of the archaeological record turns up strong evidence that contradicts popular notions because those notions are based on stories and oft-retold myths. Our findings on Easter Island in no way are meant to discredit climate change and the predicament we find ourselves in -- However, if the question matters as much as it does, we need to glean as much information from the past as possible. In this case, the story of Easter Island is one of success telling us how a small population can survive on a tiny remote island (where in a number of other places in the Pacific such occupation was abandoned or the people went extinct). It is a remarkable achievement and a remarkable record that deserves our clear-eyed and open-minded consideration.


  24. I see that Paul Bahn also has a recent piece in Nature, apparently (without a sub only the first sentence is visible) refuting the rat hypothesis.

    Note that most of this recent material is not a defense of Diamond as such, but rather of what seems to be a near-consensus view that Diamond stuck to and Hunt and Lipo seek to undermine.

  25. Bahn says:

    In The Statues That Walked, Hunt and Lipo argue for a late date of around 1200 AD for the islanders' appearance on Rapa Nui. They claim that deforestation was mainly caused by the rats that came with them. Having found some palm nuts bearing gnaw-marks, they attribute the extinction of the island's big palm to rat predation, although they say little about other tree species. The statues, they posit, were moved upright for many miles by swivelling, which required little timber. And despite the deforestation, they say, the islanders continued to grow sufficient food and remain free of quarrels until Europeans brought violence, germs and eventual devastation.
    But coverage of work by others is incomplete. For instance, the authors mention only their own survey of the statues and not the decades-long (and ongoing) cataloguing by US archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg. Nor do they note some recent published evidence that, in my view, refutes the book's basic tenets.

    For example, a variety of evidence contradicts their claim of rat predation: numerous palm fruits not gnawed by rats, palm stumps burned and cut, continued germination of palms despite the rats' presence, and the disappearance of other plant species that coexist with rats elsewhere. Hunt and Lipo's claim that human skeletal remains show little evidence of lethal trauma is refuted by quotes from anthropologist Douglas Owsley

  26. Michael,

    I had high hopes for your site, I really did. But your line of questioning with Carl Lipo, your ugly insinuations, and your argument by intuition is so disappointing to me.

    You're not behaving at all like a scientist yourself in this thread. I hope you think long and hard about what Carl is telling you in his 4:29pm comment.

  27. I'm reminded that people tend to argue more the less they know. Or something like that. And we can't be very certain about these ancient events. Maybe one day the picture will be a lot clearer, but my reading (I have only read this post and comment thread) says that things aren't clear here. At least not clear enough to evaluate the main idea mt has proposed.

    Perhaps there is some other argument that can demonstrate more clearly the influence of postnormal science. I can't think of one. In biology we have gone through a lot of argument over "exactly what is a species?" There is a multitude of species concepts. You might think that creationists would be championing a particular one of them, but they don't (at least not noticeably). So I think mt's postnormal science doesn't seem to happen in this case. Perhaps it's already confused and distracted enough? Anyway, I'm hoping to see more clearly the fundamental principles we're looking to learn about, rather than bickering about the specifics of the Eastern Island case, those specifics not being sufficiently known.

    (MT, I think we'd need to read their book before claiming that they're offering scattered contradictions rather than a coherent thesis.)

  28. Pingback: Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Games People Play

  29. Michael,

    I'd have to agree with Keith that your insinuations about Hunt and Lipo' motivation seem pretty tactless given you haven't read their book and don't really know much about them.

    While I'm also sympathetic with Lipo and Hunt's refusal to substantively engage with those who can't be bothered to read their work, I'm nevertheless also sympathetic to those who feel that making arguments expensive raises suspicions about the basic merits of the position they're being asked to consider. Are arguments so nuanced that they can't be summarized in an abstract?

    Along those lines, I agree with Steve that Keith has failed to back up his rather strong opinions on the work of Diamond with sufficiently transparent evidence.

    A pox on all your houses it seems 😉

  30. Marlowe,

    I was clear upthread that I am not restating my argument here, since I've done it in exhaustive fashion elsewhere. Additionally, why should it matter what I think when you have the two authors of the book arguing on their own behalf in this very thread?

    It's also clear (as I laid out in my post) that Michael is not interested in having a substantive discussion on this very interesting topic. So I would be wasting my time.

    But contrary to what Steve Bloom asserts, I have read much collapse scholarship (have posted on it, too, at my site, too), and part of my thinking is also informed by the many incredible conversations I've had various esteemed archaeologists over the years. These usually take place over beers or a campfire somewhere in the wilderness. Sometimes, nuggets from these conversations have made their way into stories I've written.

    I'm also a big fan of cultural geography and environmental history and probably would have pursued a Phd in one of those fields had I not gone on to become an environmental magazine editor turned professional pain in the ass to bloggy windbags in the climate blogosphere.

  31. Marlowe, two things:

    (1) If someone asks you to buy an expensive book before he'll listen to you debunking his theories, will you personally think that's a reasonable requirement, or not? Will you buy the book, or not? I ask because you won't be able to play the question both ways when an issue actually involves you.

    (2) As Steve Bloom pointed out, there seems to be a preponderance of academic literature in favour of Jared Diamond's account, rather than Lipo and Hunt's. At the end of the day, the academic literature is what really matters when determining which way the academic consensus really goes.

    -- frank

  32. Frank,

    I tend to agree which is why I said put in the link about making arguments expensive (it's one of my biggest peeves with RPJr). OTOH, I think that if you're going to impugn someone's character the way that MT has (uncharacteristically) done in this instance, then it seems to me that one should be prepared to invest some time to see if such uncharitable behaviour is warranted.

    I have no idea where the consensus on this issue lies and would hope to find out. I think MT's questions @1:29 were all perfectly reasonable -- the snark that introduced them was completely uncalled for and counterproductive to a constructive dialogue.

  33. Hello--

    It seems some of those sharing their thoughts have not had a chance to read our detailed response to Diamond's attack on our book. Please have a look. We address several of the questions raised in the comments here, and of course the details are covered in our book, The Statues that Walked.

  34. You don't need to have read the book BEFORE having a constructive conversation about this. If that were the criteria, nobody would ever get around to talking about anything of intellectual or scientific interest.

    You just need to not presume to know enough while dismissing an argument or evidence out of hand--if you haven't read much about the topic--including the most recent research.

    The problem with the way this debate played out--on this thread--is that it proceeded along the least constructive fashion possible: cherry-picking information, guilt-by-association, etc.

    That doesn't strike me as the kind of criteria this website had wanted to be known for.

    As for the merits of the argument, I have found the Lipo & Hunt rejoinder to Diamond at Mark Lynas's site pretty convincing:

  35. Hunt, I just read your reply, and [ed - this seems highly dubious] to me:

    Our work in The Statues that Walked brings a wide range of current research into focus and combines more than a decade of our own field and related Easter Island research to form a coherent picture that is the basis of a new scientific consensus.

    In other words, your (Hunt and Lipo's) account is not the scientific consensus; it's merely "the basis" of what you hope will be a "new scientific consensus".

    -- frank

    [ Excessive language toned down. The original can be viewed here. -mt ]

  36. Michael Tobis: I have read many climate science blogs over the last three years, but I comment very rarely. Your posts and responses on those various blogs have always been ones I've read because they were usually thoughtful, balanced, and well-intentioned. Your behaviour on this post, and especially your treatment of the authors, has been despicable. Your credibility has been diminished by your actions. I think you owe the authors a full and complete apology.

    I realize this is a comment that doesn't "move the discussion along" and may be purged. But I think it's important that you recognize your personal actions when they are incorrect and detrimental to the effect you are attempting to achieve.

  37. Hmm, I simply found it redundant so I didn't link it.

    Look, why do peacocks have elaborate feathers? Why do moose have huge antlers? Why do cities put on olympics and world's fairs? Why did medieval cities build cathedrals? Why do people buy and display jewels and finery?

    In short, why bling?

    The purpose of bling is to advertise a surplus, to attract allies and mates, and to intimidate enemies and critics. The moai are clearly, whatever else they are, bling. And this fits in perfectly with the morality tale version of events.

    Yet, on the Lipo and Hunt model, the society was at capacity all along. And yet, with the smaller population and the absurdly more difficult transport problem and the shorter history, they nevertheless managed what appears to be a surplus-driven exuberance.

    The so called sustainable Easter Islanders are like a family at the very limits of its resources which buys jewelry at every opportunity. For generations.

    If anyone knows of a comparable instance in any culture, I'd appreciate it. L&H are replacing an astonishing but understandable historical development with one that insofar as I know has no precedent and is fundamentally at odds with ordinary behavior in animals, individual humans, and societies. And yet they are being held up as exemplary!

    So, Lipo & Hunt have a hell of a job to do to make this sensible, and insofar as I can tell they have not done it.

    Can anyone come up with a comparable example, anywhere, in any context?

    Again, it reminds me of, "well, yeah, there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, and yeah, humans are burning lots of fossil fuels about the right amount, but those are not connected." The number of epicycles you have to go through to make sense of that kind of position pretty much takes the argument off the table.

  38. Since about our second week, P3 does not purge comments except if they are obvious spam or flagrantly irresponsible (credit card numbers etc.) but we occasionally move comments to the moderated comments thread. So far this has been exceedingly rare.

    I welcome the participation of Lipo & Hunt but I continue to find their position far from convincing. Contention on facts cannot always be polite.

    I am not sure where this perception that I have been 'despicable' comes from, though, and I hate to be that. Could you quote chapter and verse, please, so that I might reconsider and apologize if necessary?

  39. I have found the Lipo & Hunt rejoinder to Diamond at Mark Lynas’s site pretty convincing:

    Keith, but in what way was it "convincing"? Is it "convincing" because it builds on facts which you knew to be true, or is it "convincing" because it sounds nice to your ears?

    As a journalist, have you tried to follow up on the cited references and check out whether they say what Hunt and Lipo claim they say? Have you tried to contact the authors of the various papers (McLaughlin; Ladefoged; Athens; Butler; Auld; etc. etc. etc.) to find out what they think of Hunt and Lipo's use of their work? Have you done any of these things before proclaiming that Hunt and Lipo's rejoinder is "convincing"?

    Do you not think that pursuing leads to ascertain the truth is the kind of thing that a competent journalist would do?

    -- frank

  40. Keith,

    I find it interesting that Hunt points out that Diamond lacks expertise in archealogy, while he and his co author have decades of experience.

    I wonder if MT considered some the arguments he makes about listening to experts on this matter?

  41. I should add that I expressed bemused astonishment at the "walking statues" idea before they showed up. It appears that I am not alone in this.

    If the authors show up being polite, I can't really unsay that I think their idea is ridiculous, even if it is in some sense technically possible. So I'm at a social disadvantage.

    Does this mean that no idea may be considered ridiculous for fear that its originator may show up?

  42. Michael,

    Laurie says your behavior is "despicable." I disagree. It was just shabby. More importantly, it reinforced exactly why many working scientists don't ordinarily come to blog discussions such at this. I wonder if you will see that irony.

    So you flunked your first real test at being a journalist, if this is what you're aspiring to do at this website. Don't confuse tough questioning with condescending boorishness. There's a way to ask tough questions without turning off your sources--I mean guests.

    The best probing interviewers happen to be great conversationalists. They also don't walk into the conversation with their mind already made up. And if they do, they at least know how to conceal that bias. You need some learnin' to do.

    One last thing: I found one of your updates interesting: "I find it silly to be instructed by Keith as to what a scientist does or doesn’t do."

    Really. For nearly two years, at my blog and elsewhere, you've been lecturing me about what a journalist is supposed to do, and what journalists are not doing WRT to the climate change story.

    Myself, John Fleck, and other journos have tried in vain to dialogue with you on this. For a while, we stayed patient with you, even though you exhibited the same behavior with us that has been displayed here. But both John and I have long ago given up. I still think there's hope for you. I'm an eternal optimist.

    But your blinders are not going to help you make this site what you'd like it to be. Take this advice from someone who would like to see you succeed.

  43. Well, I'm willing to concede that I did something wrong here, because various people seem to think so, but I'm not sure what it was.

    All of my beliefs are subject to change given evidence.

    But do you really think it makes sense to walk a thing like this down a hill upright? I thought it was silly and said so in a fairly restrained way.

    I didn't slap the guys in the face with this. I said it was very unconvincing and applied some gentle mockery, and then they showed up. So am I out of line because I said it seemed implausible? Or because I didn't withdraw it when they showed up?

    Here is what I said again:

    It turns out that Easter Island is comparable in size to Montreal, perhaps a bit under half the size. (Google refused to put these two maps on exactly the same scale for some reason.) So for the benefit of those in the audience familiar with Montreal, we are talking about “walking” a 90 ton obelisk from the cross above the Cartier monument, down the hill, across downtown, the whole way down the canal, to be placed at the beach at the first lock in Lachine! And why?

    There is only one possible reason I can think of for such an astonishing travail, and that is to prove Jared Diamond wrong!

    Then I quoted Diamond:

    But Hunt and Lipo claim that statues were transported vertically. This seems an implausible recipe for disaster. Imagine it yourself: if you were told to transport a 90-ton statue 33 feet high over a dirt road, why would you risk tipping and breaking it by transporting it vertically with all its weight concentrated on its small base, rather than avoiding the risk of tipping by laying it flat and distributing its weight over its entire length?

    Now Hunt and Lipo show up. (Diamond, whom I invited, so far has not.) So, should I not have given my ideas, or should I back off them? The sequence matters here. You are so sure I did something wrong and offer me a learning experience. Fine, teach me.

    But what? Where did I go wrong?

  44. Michael,

    I don't understand your obtuseness. Why don't you reread my post again.

    Evidently, you are not as open-minded as you claim.

    Then there's this:
    "Well, I’m willing to concede that I did something wrong here, because various people seem to think so, but I’m not sure what it was."

    That is like a politician's non-apologetic apology: "I'm sorry if I offended anyone..."

    You are being a bit thick. Not conducive to being teachable.

  45. (I have failed commenting to this article twice. This time I avoid linking to a web page unlikely to be readable by most of you, I add more explanation of my intention.)

    I do not discuss what Lipo and Hunt or Linus said, but I would like to mention why this issue becomes often contentious.

    I think the choice of Diamond and many others to take the Easter Island in pre-modern times as an example that a human society can collapse by overconsumption of natural resources, and that the fate is more likely when the society is isolated.

    But, as Toby said here (November 15, 11:21), "The arrival of the Europeans was the worst disaster". Some may say that colonialism brought collapse to the island society which had still survived. Therefore, for example a human ecologist Malm (2007) criticized Diamond and said that Easter Island is an example of collapse caused by globalization rather than by isolation.

    I think it better to notice two collapses there. We can discuss the first collapse. But we must be careful. All the information about the first collapse was collected since the second collapse has started. So it is often ambiguous, and we need to mention many aspects of uncertainty when we scientifically explain historical facts. In addition, all of us can be called members of the society which brought the second collapse. So we need to be morally careful when criticizing the decisions of the people who brought the first collapse.

    Thomas MALM, 2007: No island is an "island". The World System and the Earth System (Alf HORNBORG & Carole CRUMLEY eds., Walnut Creek CA USA: Left Coast Press), 268 - 279.

  46. I do think that this response to Carl Lipo was overly harsh and accusatory. It wasn't so much that the substance was wrong, but it came across very poorly.

    This seems like one of the more offending statements:

    The tone of reasonableness in your reply, which we have learned to expect from the most egregious misrepresenters of climate science...

    Yes it is absolutely true that many unreasonable people often communicate with a cloak of reasonableness, but generally so do reasonable people. And even though it might result in time wasted (if the person turns out in the end to be unreasonable) one needs to give people who appear reasonable at the beginning the benefit of the doubt. Especially when dealing in areas outside of one's core competency.

    This is an interesting discussion to have, but we need to be able to do so in good faith, otherwise it seems unlikely that these discussions will be interesting and valuable (kind of like the comments sections on most sites).

    I think that this post written by Michael Tobis in May last year might shed some light on what has happened. MT (and most who have been at the climate game long enough including myself) are clearly exasperated. Sometimes people who are exasperated lash out in ways that are counter productive.

  47. I've written a bunch in this thread and on Keith's. It;s hard for me to remember it all, since I'm not the person who took offense.

    I think Dan Moutal was helpful in showing me an instance where I was in fact rude. So, fair enough. I handled that one in an impolitic way. I am convinced now that L & H are not in league with those who are indifferent to the fate of the world. I should not have presumed they were, and I regret that.

    Anything else? I would genuinely appreciate it.

  48. Michael,

    You write: "I’ve written a bunch in this thread and on Keith’s. It's hard for me to remember it all, since I’m not the person who took offense."

    You really ought to think about going into politics, instead of journalism.

    On my post, I was very specific in highlighting where I think you went off the tracks. There's really no reason to try and jar your memory. I've laid it out for you.

    This next bit from you is pretty amazing:

    "I think Dan Moutal was helpful in showing me an instance where I was in fact rude. So, fair enough. I handled that one in an impolitic way."

    Really now. Dan happened to point out exactly one of the things I did.

    Obviously, I'm talking to a wall. Oh well, I tried.

  49. You did, but you moved on so quickly from that to more complicated stuff that I didn't manage to focus on it.


    The fact remains that I consider the walking statues idea risible. It's hard to know how to be respectful toward someone who shows up after one says their idea is ludicrous.

    Clearly, politics is exactly not what I should be doing... The politic thing to do is to treat all ideas as equally plausible. But I've had quite enough of that.

  50. So, instead of discussing things like how you transport huge statues upright, we whine about Michael being so impolite. Gosh, that reminds me of a certain tactic in a certain other debate...

    If researchers aren't willing to educate and explain, they really shouldn't engage in an online discussion. Playing the ad hominem/impolite card and 'just read the book' is a sign of major weakness.

    And, Keith, when can we expect your piece on how the story of the boy who cried wolf should be used by fundamentalist free market libertarians to mock environmentalists at their own peril because recent research is pointing at potential evidence that there actually wasn't a wolf, but a ferocious alpaca?

    There's only one lesson in all of this: No emergency will ever be great enough to induce collectively agreed upon action. Every example, every line of evidence, every metaphor, will be deconstructed to buy more time of BAU.

  51. Yes, sometimes a concern troll is just a concern troll.

    I notice that the latest issue of the Rapa Nui Journal (scroll down to see the October contents) contains several reviews of The Statues That Walked. Does anyone have on-line access to see what they say? I think this would go a long way toward answering where the bulk of the research community is on this question.

    Elsewhere on the same site they mention that a recent examination by researcher Charles Love of the roads used to haul the moai finds that they were actually V-shaped. If proven correct (erosion might also explain it), I expect it's a strong argument for the sled hypothesis. Love, BTW, is or at least was several years ago a proponent of the vertical movement hypothesis (although on the face of it sleds and vertical movement probably aren't mutually exclusive modes).

    I mentioned above a comment by the botanist who named the extinct palm species. Here it is. Again, note that he thinks the major extinction driver was felling the palms for their edible hearts, although obviously this doesn't exclude pressure on the palms from other uses. He doesn't explain further, but I expect the fact that hearts can be harvested from young palms is central to his thinking. As someone who is obviously intimately familar with the status of palms world-wide, I think his failure to even mention the hypothesis that rats were the major driver is significant. See also this recent peer-reviewed article by others.

    As I look through recent scholarly publications, I'm just not finding evidence for Hunt and Lipo's claim that a majority of the relevant scholars supports them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe a bunch of them have changed their mind recently, but where's the evidence for that?

  52. Be careful, sure, but some points are clear from archeological evidence:

    The ahus and their moai were put up in a relatively compressed time period, followed by the abrupt abandonment of moai carving and extensive toppling/breakage.

    The loss of the palms (and, note, of many other plant species) was roughly contemporaneous.

    It all sounds rather collapse-y to me, the details notwithstanding.

    That there was a second collapse forced from without has never been disputed by anyone, although the important question of whether the islanders had managed to reach a sustainable condition post the first collapse seems to be not entirely resolved.

    More broadly, of course the whole "collapse" meme has become controversial precisely of its implication for some of the cherished myths of modern society. There's such a thing as being too careful when it comes to such matters.

  53. FWIW, here's Lipo and Hunt responding to Flenley and Bahn:
    (peer reviewed, in Rapa Nui Journal)

    I too would like to know what the other experts in this field think.

  54. Steve, interesting. From reading recent literature (2010) on the paleobotanical evidence it seems that most researchers seem to think that the palm was a species of Jubaea, although your link makes a good argument as to why this classification may be too hasty.

    I must say that all of the papers I read point to a few things, the most important one being that the "extinction by rat" hypothesis is ill supported by the evidence. Also interesting is that the evidence for human disturbance of the ecosystem points to an arrival time of ~900AD. It does appear that human disturbance of the ecosystem in the form of slash and burn agriculture was extensive so the predominant story of logs being overused to provide transport transport for moai may not be right either. It does however seem highly likely that humans and not rats caused the extinction of the palm.

  55. I've seen a huge Roman villa reconstructed from scratch using contemporary tools, techniques and materials (as far as Health and Safety would allow), where the academic in charge of the project lost his cool not because of the insulting graffiti one of the builders painted across the entire roof, but because the builder got the latin wrong. They succeeded. You can go and visit it.

    I've seen Ray Mears and an archaeologist, expert on Neolithic bows, recreate a bow and flinthead arrows entirely from scratch, using only flint tools and pine resin and bluebell bulbs for glue. They succeeded and hit the target without the bow breaking.

    I've seen a replica House of Commons blown up with historically accurate gunpowder to see if Guy Fawkes would have done the job if he hadn't been thwarted. The explosion and shockwave were spectacular - bits of the dummy King James I and his court everywhere.

    I've seen a professor of engineering lead a theoretical reconstruction of the Dambuster bouncing bomb, including dropping the spinning bomb from an equivalent plane piloted by a nutter from the same crazily low height where altimeters no longer work, at a recreated dam wall. The bomb span below the plane all the way from the airfield to the target without the need for any motor, hit and sank hugging the dam wall, and they even used a live version to blow the dam wall up. All without crashing the plane.

    I know that there's more to the argument than just the method of transporting the statues, but that seems quite pivotal to the debate. When Lipo and Hunt actually "walk" a replica statue from A to B in the time that they claim it could be done, using only authentic tools and materials, unassisted by machines, I'll be impressed. Rocking a fridge won't do.

  56. The real issue here is why did the forests disappear, people or rats. More to the point were both necessary but insufficient by themselves. The statue moving thing is just a sideshow

    Pretty clear how you could roll the things downhill on their backs, but how do you do it standing up? (note the bit about uneven terrain, that means you are moving the damn things UPHILL for a fair and gut busting amount of time. While Eli has no experience moving 90 tons, the bunny has maneuvered a whole bunch of a ton like optical tables and without rolling it ain't a whole lot of fun.)

    So to move these things standing up you need strong ropes which you can get from palms (or other trees), and some sort of grease to put under the narrow base and a smooth road of some sort. Since there were not large animals on the island that throws you back on palm oil, or maybe oil from porpoises/wales. To get the sea creatures you need boats, which means wood and ropes to build ships. Otoh rounding logs with obsiden tools is not a walk in the park either.

    What is comes down to is both Diamond and Hunt and Lupo say that the civilization had to collapse when the palm and other trees disappeared, and that appears to have happened ~ 1400.

    Where they disagree is why the palms disappeared. Diamond has a strong point that other islands with palms were not deforested. If the island were overpopulated, the stress on the forests from farming and fishing (to build boats) would have been immense without any pressure from log rolling anyhow, the rats would have been another source of pressure, and either the need for logs/rope to move the statues would have been a third.

  57. PBS on the statue moving, various hypothesized methods and their limitations:
    (it's interesting, but apparently 11 years old)

    (and MT, that PDF's still online, for me.)

  58. frankswifthack,

    Alternatively, if your major concern is the expense of the book....try the library. One should at least have the decency to actually read someone's argument before attempting to belittle or debunk it.

    As for the preponderance of the academic literature, that will vary with time. With more details come refinements on theories.

  59. Yes, noting that Hunt and Lipo have to do a very large handwave ("died of old age") to explain the rapid disappearance of all of the palms (which we would normally expect to be long-lived regardless of exact species, and very, very long-lived if they were close relatives of the Chilean ones). Rats don't eat palms, people do.

  60. The moving statue thing is irrelevant.

    I have no personal experience of Easter Island, only of two islands in the Indian Ocean - Mautitius and Rodrigues. These were unsettled by humans until the mid-17th century. Then Europeans and their slaves arrived, and began to clear the indigenous forest for cultivation - mainly of sugar.

    Rats apparently did for the dodo (and its Rodriguan cousin, called the solitaire) by eating their eggs, but there is no doubt about the deforestation - humans. Mauritius was a big sugar island, and you could put fown the deforestation to the insatiable world demand for that commodity.

    But Rodrigues is much smaller and less fertile and sugar was never grown there for export. Yet it only took a few hundred years for the expanding human population to remove most of the forest, leaving the island denuded and badly eroded. So much so that a food crisis arose in the mid-20th century.

    So I think "rats" are a very unconvincing answer to the question of the deforestation of Easter Island. I seem to remember Diamond daying that domestic animals, controllable by humans, may have been partly responsible. In any event, humans would seem to have the more direct responsibility.

  61. "Otoh rounding logs with obsiden tools is not a walk in the park either."

    It would take more calories and replacement blades without Bronze Age technology, but the adze is one of the most common tools in the archaeological record, in use since the Mesolithic. Expert use cuts down calorie expenditure, and the Rapanui could never have reached Easter Island in the first place without skilled use of the adze. The ropes for walking the statues might have even needed more calorie expenditure, especially to make the necessary lengths with the required amount of strength. This is why experimental archaeology has an important part to play.

  62. This Horizon documentary pre-dates Diamond's book, and contains extensive commentary by Jo Anne Tilburg.

    This is part 1 (abt 9 mins). Parts 2 & 3 can be found at the link.

  63. On a different forum somebody compared the response of "I can't be bothered with a summary, just read the book" to claiming to having a girlfriend in Canada.

  64. Resonances and correspondences...
    MT sees correspondences between the Easter Island controversy [in books and literature] and climate denial. The more I think about it, the more I also see correspondences between our discussion here and a site like WUWT; here we are, non-experts all, trying to adjudicate a controversy and coming down in support of the non-expert who wrote a book.
    (this is assuming we have no clue where the consensus lies, or if one exists)

    On the other hand, when there's really not enough data, relying on experts might be counterproductive, since what's likely to emerge in the absence of sufficient data is human dogmatism etc.

    Thanks Steve Bloom for looking at the literature as much as possible, and thanks Marlowe Johnson for the "making your arguments expensive" concept (though IMO the linked-to exposition was muddy) - which is irksome to encounter, thus helpful to have a name for it, to call it out.
    (, anyone?)

    I've emailed a couple of Rapa Nui experts asking where the consensus lies & if there is one; will report back, if they don't contribute here directly.

  65. Anna, that Bahn and Flenley represent a long-standing consensus that Hunt and Lipo are trying to overturn seems clear enough. Diamond was simply reflecting that consensus (noting that the leading academic center for EI research seems to be at UCLA), and we are more or less defending it, which makes our situation quite different from the WTF rabble (or Kloor or Lynas, for that matter, who have given in to the seemingly irresistable pull of "man bites dog"). We are certainly amateurs here, but OTOH the subject matter isn't faintly comparable to radiative physics or physical oceanography.

    I'll appeal again for anyone with on-line academic library access to have a look at the current (October) issue of the Rapa Nui Journal to see what those reviews say (the other two that is, since we already know in at least general terms what Flenley and Bahn have to say).

    Thanks for emailing the two experts. I was thinking of doing the same with Owsley, noting the unsatisfactory exchange up above, so please let me know if he was one of your two.

  66. 1) Lipo & Hunt wrote in mark lynas blog tha: “(…) anyone who has seen a palm tree cross-section with its thin, brittle bark and soft fibrous interior would quickly recognize these would not be suitable. Nor frankly would they have been capable of supporting the weight of multi-ton statues as rollers.”
    are they wrong??? because if they are right, they have a very good point…
    2) i have seen pictures from ancient egypt, where large stone statues of the pharaons were moved around with levers and a little sled (sorry not links)

  67. Thanks for that summary, Anna. It was finding out that attempts had been made at experimental archaeology with the statues that made me wonder whether Hunt and Lupo had attempted it themselves. I didn't realise there'd been so many, though.

  68. My best guess is sleds (made of two or three long logs lashed to the back of the statue), using not rollers but palm leaves (slippery when crushed) as a lubricant.

    Absent a documented test, I question L&H's statement that palm logs would be unsuitable as rollers. The weight of the statue would get distributed among a large number of them, and the statues didn't have to be moved all that far.

    Even if they are right, noting that their bare assertion isn't any sort of evidence, other tree species would have to be excluded as candidates (especially the now locally extinct toromino).

    All of this is not to say that it's impossible for the natives to have decided they wanted to move the statues vertically for religious reasons, and as L&H say they've now demonstrated I'm quite confident it's possible to do it, albeit with considerable breakage and great risk to life and limb. Even so, I would assert that that the largest statues would be a different matter altogether.

  69. Sure Dr. Tobis. Can you point me to someone you know who is genuinely "indifferent to the fate of the world".

    All are fair game. But my requirement is that they clearly don't care, not that they don't believe there is a problem. There's a difference.

  70. Check out this article before continuing to be, or pretending to be, so naive.

    People lie for personal gain, political advantage, and even just trolling, all the time. I personally don't name names because that's a very sticky tar pit, and would rather nobody else did on this site. But a little bit of attention paid reveals some awfully dishonest sorts of argument in various corners on a habitual basis, much of it about climate.

    If it would stop or slow down, there would be much less confusion around these issues.

  71. Nice find!

    Yes, just look at that cross-section. 🙂

    I suppose it could be easily confirmed whether this is true for the Chilean palms as well, but from the WP information I expect that it too would have to be rather tough stuff given the width/height ratio.

    Shorter Kloor: "But this can't be right. After all, I confirmed that these people have bitten their dog!" 🙂

  72. 1) Well, since talking to the guys yields “read the book”, not much point talking to the guys. The remaining issue is whether “read the book” is good advice. Coming from an author the advice contains little information. I would like to hear it from someone else.

    2) My back of the envelope leads me to question the idea that deforestation for statue transport has the scale needed to denude the island without assistance from the other factors.

    3) Whether some or most statues can be moved upright tells us nothing. The largest statues have to have been moved, and were among the most recent ones, so whatever equipment was needed for them existed through the statue building time. Demonstrating the swivel technique on a modest sized statue is insufficient to prove plausibility. And I can’t see how you safely swivel a thirty foot obelisk from well below the center of gravity.

    4) The crucial question insofar as its applicability to our own situation is whether the statues were being built at an especially rapid pace at the time of the deforestation, which led to violence and the first collapse. The sequence of events constructed by L&H seems specifically designed to avoid that conclusion, rather than to explain the evidence. The resulting story is unsatisfying and feels ad hoc and lawyerly. In short, it has the flavor of denialism.

    5) L & H have no beef with overshoot and collapse as a general rule, apparently, but they are disinclined to attach it to the Rapa Nui population. They are funded by an Easter-Island based institution, which in turn must receive external funding from somewhere. So the motives of their funders, notwithstanding Tom C’s amusing satire of my position in #77 at Kloor's, remain murky.

    6) L & H’s idea of a marginally sustainable society of 3000 is called into question by the enormous expenditure of resources required to put up 900 statues. It seems much more plausible that these were put up by a society in surplus. Most other workers put the peak population of the island at 10000 to 15000. It is also clear form evidence that fish and seabirds abruptly disappeared from the diet, and it seems generally agreed that both of these can be accounted for by abrupt deforestation.

    7) The large number of unfinished statues is consistent with a frenzy of statue-building contemporaneous with the collapse. I personally find this the most interesting aspect of the story. I think our own moai are our portfolios and bank accounts, symbols which we ourselves mistake for substance, totems which represent wealth and which we agree to allow to control distribution of wealth, but which are not actually wealth at all. (Which makes the whole final frenzy business less mysterious, actually. It is just an ordinary inflationary spiral.)

    8 ) Insofar as my hopes for Planet3.0 are concerned, I handled the matter badly. I probably should have resisted the temptation to feature it altogether, despite my longstanding fascination with Easter Island (see point 7 above). We ought to focus on discussion of what is true, not of what is bunk.

    9) Unfortunately, we see that harsh disagreements, even and perhaps especially clumsy ones, attract attention and participation far more than calm conversation does. This article generated far more participation and research than any other in our short history to date. I don’t know if that means that the prospects for a site which is more interested in genuine news than in bunk are totally implausible but it doesn’t bode well. So I find the relative success of the article ironically discouraging.

    Not that I wan't y'all to stop, please notice. It is very interesting.

  73. Point taken, Michael, but I think it would be very interesting indeed to crowd-source this to the end, understanding that such a process may not be repeated for other topics. Unfortunately doing so would involve one or more people reading the book, to say nothing of lots of other material. I'm up for it if a few others are.

    On your point 2, I agree. The explanation needs to account for the destruction of the mature palms as well as the young ones that would have been unsuitable for use as rollers, canoes or general lumber, and needs to consider the possibility that none of the palms had trunks (or even that there were a couple of different palm species involved, as one paper suggests). But trunkless palms nonetheless have edible hearts, would be even more vulnerable to slash-and-burn agriculture than trunked ones, and would have other uses such as thatch (which given a large population could add up fast). One can easily imagine those factors being sufficient to do them in, although despite the lack of botanical evidence the telltale glyph and the abrupt cessation of major fishing (implying the loss of material for canoes) seem to constitute a strong case for trunks. So both use for moving statues and rat depredation start to look like minor factors.

  74. Why the Chilean Palm? The native species on Easter Island was "Paschalococos disperta (Rapa Nui Palm or Easter Island Palm), formerly Jubaea disperta,..."

    According to the Discussion page there aren't even any drawings of it, but even more importantly...

    "...It disappeared from the pollen record circa 1650 AD. It is not known whether the species is distinct from Jubaea, but there is no evidence that it was Jubaea either,...“

    There seem to be a lot of assumptions being made by the authors. Perhaps they could comment?

  75. > "...doing so would involve one or more people reading the book..."

    ...which I've now checked out from the local library.
    (And being unwell at present, the prospect of vegetating with a book is extremely appealing)

  76. JB, in a sense there is a picture, i.e. the distictive rongorongo script glyph. *Maybe* that could be explained by contact with the mainland, although there would seem to be no other evidence for that, but there's also the coincidence of the major dietary change (big reduction in seafood/seabird consumption), implying a loss of material for building canoes, with the disappearance of the trees. Those seem to me to make up a reasonably definitive case, but perhaps unsurprisingly the botanist would like botanical evidence. The notes from him I referenced elsewhere in the thread say that there's some prospect for the latter and that it's being worked on. The note has no date, so perhaps he should be emailed and asked about the status of that effort.

  77. I know Michael's been a bit frustrated by the responses and discussion here, but I've found it interesting and feel I have gained some insights about something that I was really almost completely unfamiliar with before. In particular, my assessment of Jared Diamond has actually gone up - I had read "Guns, Germs and Steel" and been impressed, but then read some critiques and realized he was a little too glib on some issues and not really very original on others. I haven't read "Collapse" (nor the book in question here) but I had guessed from my completely out-of-the-field lack of experience that on Easter Island he was again being either mostly unoriginal or glossing over important caveats.

    From reading the discussion here it seems Diamond actually stuck much closer to the peer-reviewed science than I had expected and that this science demands our attention for what it tells us about the human capacity to beggar our children. Some details of the history are surely subject to debate and he likely got wrong, but the overall arc of the Easter Island story seems pretty clear here, and it is a very sobering one.

    So, Michael, thanks for hosting this one. I think more like this would be a good thing, in general, though not to overwhelm the things more closely connected to our expertise...

  78. Thanks, Arthur.

    It's not so much frustration; it's seeing people expressing discomfort with how I handled it. I know you are no fan of Kloor's, and I don't really know who Laurie is, but I'm pretty sure Dan Moutal isn't just a concern troll.

    Now maybe nothing would satisfy Kloor other than a retraction, which will be difficult because I remain strongly inclined to believe that L & H are not, despite their claims, neutral observers who found themselves surprised to find the evidence not aligning with the previous consensus.

    But there are several reports of dismay and disappointment directed at me. I'm trying to take them seriously.

    The trouble for me is, this topic has been by far the most successful so far on the site because it actually has attracted not just comments but independent research efforts from quite a few people. This is exactly what we want, and what we need to be able to afford to give the site the polish and depth that our beat merits.

    So despite the scolding, there is a reward. On one hand this is sort of the dynamic that creates grotesques such as Watts' and McIntyre's. On the other hand, without a broad audience we don't get anywhere.

    So the question is ultimately an ethical one. Ideally, people need to attend to the real positive evidence. But it is somehow more attractive to go for contentious argument. It seems to be the way citizen science is done these days; if you don't have an argument you hardly have a conversation!

    That is the part that's most confusing, and in some ways a bit discouraging. Mind you, I enjoy a good argument as much as the next person. Maybe being a bit abrasive and doing some shooting-from-the-hip is for the best. They aren't real bullets after all; if an innocent bystander gets hit you can usually make it right after the fact.

  79. I am noticing some curious aspects to the book's trappings.

    It's published by Free Press, which also published The Bell Curve and a Behe book, and "was considered one of the few bastions of political conservatism among large commercial publishers, although the imprint has broadened its focus." (though this quote is from back in 2001, so who knows if it's still relevant)

    > They are funded by an Easter-Island based institution
    Easter Island Foundation? its resources seem extremely modest.

    One back-cover blurb is by a former Environmental Literacy Council board member, although this might not be a fair characterization;

    Another is by a co-editor of the Diamond-rebuttal compilation "Questioning collapse: human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire" (containing a paper by H&L), but this claim to fame isn't mentioned.

    Another is by someone who's co-located with and co-authors papers with the author of the other book review in the Rapa Nui Journal, the one whose assessment we have no knowledge of.

    And the dustjacket description, "...Shattering the conventional wisdom, Hunt & Lipo's ironclad case..." does seem a bit hyperbolic.

    > They are funded by an Easter-Island based institution

    Are you sure? to what degree? I don't see anything odd about the Easter Island Foundation, which seems a modest, low-budget endeavor.

  80. I noticed the Free Press imprint and thought it funny for a book of this nature. Free Press has published some pretty execrable work, "The Bell Curve" among them, I read that thing and thought it was pretty weak. They aren't as bad as HarperCollins, but still are pretty bad for publishing politically motivated work.

    I do not think that this book is politically motivated, I'll have to get a library card (I'm unemployed right now, so while in the past I would have purchased the book, the library is the way to get it now) and check the book out.

    I do think that H&L have a point with a somewhat later date of arrival than F&B (seem to) claim, although I do not think that it is as late as they claim. I do not think that the "rats are to blame" hypothesis seems to have much to recommend it. As discussed above there is some question about what the genus of the large palm on RN was. The placement of the species as Paschalococos disperta was coined in 1984. Later work (Meith and Bork, 2010(?) and others) seems to place it as a species of Jubaea, but not Chiliensis (Wiki disagrees). If this is indeed the case the one extant species, Jubaea Chiliensis, is a very long lived species, which under natural pressures would not need huge reproductive success to survive. Since they do survive and reproduce in the presence of rats elsewhere, that brings the "rats did it" idea into question.

    On the question of cannibalism which F&B seem to claim, based on the response linked above, I have been unable to find any support for this, so this claim on the part of F&B (do they still hold it?, is it tied up with the reference to Owsley?) seems questionable. Usually evidence of cannibalism is pretty clear cut and not being able to find any is odd.

    So here is how I see it:

    1) Later arrival than consensus, probably around 900-1000AD, but not as late as 1200AD.

    2) Additional evidence from endocarps shows only a small amount of damage from rats (~10% in endocarps not found in caves)

    3) Number and size of settlements seems to indicated a larger population than H&L claim. Micheal's points about apparent economic surplus would be well taken.

    4) Evidence of heavy slash and burn agriculture shows substantial human pressure on the native palms and associated ecosystems.

    5) We have anecdotal evidence that warfare was heavy at some point from Owsley, although no reference to the literature is provided (Anna, please help!).

    6) Palms disappear from the pollen record around 1650. This is the extinction of the species, but does not indicate when the large, older members of the palm disappeared.

    7) Change in apparent use of offshore marine species for food would seem to indicate earlier "economic extinction" of the palm.

    In sum, there seems to be a whole lot of evidence for an overshoot and subsequent population collapse, although it may not follow the timeline of the accepted story. H&L seem to have some good points, but, to my mind at least, do not bring into question the overshoot hypothesis put forward by F&B.

    With the exception of the entry of Peiser (and why did they bother to cite a POS like that, there was no reason to) this seems like a fairly normal scientific argument. One side has some good points, the other side has some good points and both overplay their hands. More research is necessary!

  81. ... I asked for examples of those who agree there is a problem, but simply don't care, not about those who don't believe there is a problem.

    You're still talking about people who likely don't see a future problem the same way you do. Perhaps they are naive, or in your world, stupid deniers, but that does not make one "indifferent to the fate of the world". ...

    [ That's the best of it. See the full comment in the borehole if you like. It's mostly statements of opinion without much in the way of reasoning or evidence. I do acknowledge that my "indifferent to the fate of the world" is hard to defend and was probably a tactical error on my part, so Lurker has a point. -mt ]

  82. Ah, defending your fellow ratti, then?

    I am mostly on the same page as you, O Rattus.

    However, the H & L position appears desperately opposed to a pre-European collapse. As you say, the evidence is pretty compelling of a fairly late decline coincident with a loss of food supplies (no bird habitat, no access to deep sea fish). And probably coincident with a statue building frenzy. Which is the core of the story, isn't it?

    So I would say that H & L's peculiar aversion to a pre-European collapse, even absent walking statues and Benny Peiser, is therefore a bit outside the norms of science. They seem to me to have an axe to grind.

  83. I don't buy their idea about a European induced collapse. They need to make a stronger case than I have seen for that. It is fairly clear that once the Europeans came and settled the island in the 19th century that they screwed things up royally.

  84. (P3, could we enable deeper comment thread nesting please, if such is possible? it'd make it easier to indicate what the comment is actually replying to.)

    > I don’t buy their idea about a European induced collapse.

    What happened on other islands? As I recall, H&L argue for heavy mortality based on what happened to North American indigenous populations after contact with Europeans (who didn't need to settle, to introduce diseases fatal to the locals).

    re Owsley - I asked him whether the evidence pointed one way or the other, or if we should remain at sea, as it were, & his advice was, stay at sea for now, pending analysis of data from his recent fieldwork.

    Simberloff responded, & his blurb involvement looks reasonable (a prominent invasion biologist, was contacted by the publisher, knows Hunt & his work, has previously been a critic of Diamond's work.)

    No response yet from the Field Museum book reviewer (in Rapa Nui Journal); though given his colleague's having done one of the dustjacket blurbs, I assume the review was positive.

  85. MT, IMO to the orig. post you should add Hunt&Lipo's response to Diamond, at Lynas's blog.
    (you say you found it redundant, but IMO it should still be added; personally, I find myself swayed to an unseemly degree by whatever I've read most recently about this, & also, you've characterized H&L's response as just "go read the book".)

  86. Thoughts after having read the book:

    I found several parts of the H&L book far-fetched, in a way that leads me to question the rest:
    their conclusions might be correct, but some arguments they advance do seem extremely weak.

    Re rat predation on palm nuts, at one pt. H&L assert that even if only a small proportion of seeds get eaten, the cumulative effect would be substantial - an argument which seems ignorant of the ecological concept of "limiting factors": not counting humans, what probably limited the palm population wouldn't have been the # of seeds, it would have been available sunlight, water & space.
    (On the other hand, I don't see that Diamond's "rats and palms coexist fine in Chile" counterpoint has any power, since on the mainland, rats will have predators keeping their populations in check.)
    (Also, what's the evidence for rats eating "tender young palm seedlings"? and up until what age of palm, do they do so?)

    Much of the book was devoted to the rock windbreaks and to "lithic mulching", i.e. covering the soil around your plants with rocks to reduce evaporation. Presumably this info was to make the point that the islanders were being savvy gardeners & tenders of their habitat, not wastrels. But one of the arguments H&L made, namely that these farmers added small rocks to the soil in order to enhance the soil's mineral content, struck me as extremely week. (How long would it take, for the minerals in those rocks to become bioavailable? I don't recall that the book addressed this, and without it, an argument that such rocks were added for this purpose seems fanciful.)

    H&L also argue (p.49) that humans cutting down the palm forests was "by no means an ecological disaster", rather it was gardening, since it enabled more agriculture via slash&burn; but if, when the palms are gone, the ability to catch fish goes too, doesn't that constitute a disaster?
    (what's the evidence for fish in the diet, before vs. after deforestation?)

    There is also the whole "benefits of making moai" evolutionary biology scenario, grafted onto the book, that endeavors to present the making & moving of the statues as beneficial, in achieving cooperation and as population control - get everyone sublimating their energies into that kind of statuesque, not the virile/fertile-body kind.
    You really want to be out of range of the handwaving here, the propwash is intense and if you venture in range you could lose your head. The just-so stories are painful to read.
    (e.g. they suggest that a reading-tea-leaves equivalent, interpreting the pattern of cracks on a fire-cooked shoulder blade as indicating where you should hunt next, confers an evolutionary advantage since it sends you out on varying routes & not the same one all the time.)
    The creativity is a sight to behold; the evidence, alas, is not.
    ("Irish elk" is the analogy that comes to my mind, but it's missing from the index.)

    The more I think about this, the more I'm coming around to MT's view; it's as if the assignment was to write a book presenting the islanders as thrifty, far-sighted folk, & so H&L marshalled evidence and interpretations to support this thesis.

  87. I suppose I should have been more clear in my statement. I don't buy the argument that there was no precontact collapse. Of course there were problems introduced with European contact (diseases and slavery the two primary ones).

  88. Thanks, Anna. I feel vindicated if unsurprised. In fact I remain surprised that people expected anything different.

    I know the signs of people arguing backwards from the result they want to the evidence pretty well, I guess. Better than Lynas and Kloor do, apparently.

    Regarding the disappearance of fish from the diet, that is rock solid AIUI. There are fish and bird bones to be found in various deposits of cooking refuse. They can be carbon dated accurately, and as as I recollect it from Diamond and from a documentary I watched recently on YouTube they clearly and quite abruptly end about a century before contact with the Europeans. Again, this alone seems decisive. I take it H & L didn't get around to mentioning that small detail?

  89. Anna, above: "the Easter Island Foundation, which seems a modest, low-budget endeavor."

    But that's exactly the point. They may be stated to be the source (where did you see that, Michael?), but if so they're not the original one. The Hunt and Lipo effort may have been many things, but low budget wasn't one of them.

  90. Thanks from me, too!

    BTW, what claim of relevance did they make for the Hawaii rat paper in particular? I had the impression from their various remarks that it's their main evidence for palm extinction by rat. Which reminds me, I need to locate and read it.

    Also, re Owsley, presumably they would have gotten a similar answer had they asked him for comment. Hmm, maybe they did, noting that they were technically silent on that point.

    Speaking of Owsley, Anna, would you be willing to request an electronic copy from him. That's unlikely to be otherwise available since it was a book chapter. I could go to the UCB anthro library to look at it, but IIRC I wouldn't be allowed to make a copy of copyrighted material.

    Michael, would it be possible for you to check to see if you can access the Rapa Nui Journal on-line via UT? If not I suppose I could try the anthro library for that too.

  91. Dude, read the book. Lipo and Hunt have just nailed it, and I've already seen the footage of the statues walking. This isn't about climate change - as I'm pretty sure that (as real scientists) both Lipo and Hunt BELIEVE in climate change.

    This is about Jared Diamond being very wrong - and not even using science to be very wrong.

    Diamond's work is just supposition. Lipo and Hunt's work is real, physical, data-driven, hard science.

  92. Poor Monte doesn't even seem to be aware that there's a long-standing consensus about the large picture of what happened on Easter Island that Diamond in no way originated, but merely reflected.

    So I would say to Monte: Read the book, i.e. the new edition of Bain and Flenley hot off the presses.

    Hunt and Lipo targeting Diamond rather than Bain and Flenley (and many others) is a pretty transparent tactic, wouldn't you say? Dude.

    Oh, look, here's some more long-time EI researchers saying Hunt and Lipo are entirely wrong about the rats. Try reading that too.

  93. Quick interim comment - I emailed Lipo yesterday & he responded promptly and at length, saying among other things that yes, they really did go to the island expecting to build upon the existing story, and that their research is sponsored by the Englert museum (meeting the foreign researchers req't) but not funded by it.

    Plus he made a lot of more substantive points about the archaeology, previous research, etc, which I'd probably get wrong if I tried to do a quick paraphrase now.

  94. Why does everybody seem to be assuming that the creation of the statues was a sign of extravagance or boredom rather than desperation? If resources were collapsing and building statues was the only known way to appease the gods and restore resources, I'd be building statues as fast as I could.

    Regarding the WUWT analogy, there indeed is an undeniable pleasure in proposing an idea in a blog comment from a position of complete ignorance.

  95. Thanks for trying, Michael. I can probably hit the UCB anthro library by the end of next week, but first I'll want to have a list of everything I should be looking for. In addition to the most recent issue with the reviews of TSTW, there appear to be several things worth looking at in back issues. I'll post a list of what I'm going to look at a couple of days before I go so others can add to it.

  96. ahaynes, was there any reference to Heyerdahl's early work on EI in Lipo and Hunt's book? I realize that Heyerdahl was pretty wrong-headed about a great deal in the Pacific archaeology arena, but as I recall he had some observations upon moai building and transportation (including a re-enactment of horizontal sledding of an actual statue from a considerable distance to one of the platforms overlooking Anakena Bay, and its erection, using techniques apparently recalled by the native population and using local labour; also including resumption of work on one of the unfinished moai in the quarry on Rano Raraku, again by native labour, using the tools and techniques that their traditions retained). In addition to listening to what the indigenous people had to say about statue making, transportation and erection, Heyerdahl also listened to what they had to say about the events around the throwing down of the statues. None of this ever seems to come up in discussions of Easter Island as an ecocatastrophic paradigm, regardless of whether you think that it is one or not; admittedly Heyerdahl had some funny ideas about the Mysterious White Strangers who, after founding the native New World civilizations, moved on to the Pacific and carried aspects of South American culture there, but he did at least listen to what the people living on Easter Island had to say about their ancestors.

  97. I've asked H&L. L. responded:
    "All work was done as part of research that we do for our universities as well as field schools both of us ran over the past 10 or so years. This is common in archaeology. In our case no external funds were necessary. ... We really are underpaid public institution faculty doing research for the purpose of science."
    He also suggests that Diamond is the one more showered with cash for sharing his views.

    If there's something Heartlandish here, I haven't found it. Even what caught my eye, the marshalling of even-weak arguments to support their thesis in the Statues book, can, I think, be understood as following advice from their agent (who wrote "Thinking like your editor", advice for authors seeking book contracts) to find your book's target audience and aim it smack at 'em.

    Neither the old nor the new Media Matters site seems to find any org having contributed to a center or museum or fndn likely to have supported their work.

    Admittedly I am still intrigued by one dustjacket-blurb author (who's also coauthor of the anti-Collapse compilation) who's seemingly funded by an unnamed private foundation, & I've emailed asking about that; but haven't heard back yet.

    (And I haven't heard from Hunt yet, so there could - conceivably - have been some funding coming via U. of Hawaii's Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center, which gets funding from the Dept. of Education & is "...the only [U.S.] academic program... to focus on the entire Pacific region and the only National Resource Center for this region recognized and supported by the US Department of Education since 1973. ...[with] faculty of over 40 regional specialists"; the Dept of Ed. having been Madame Cheney territory and having been a source of funds for the National Association of Scholars, this isn't impossible.)

  98. The desperation angle indeed is part of the way Diamond tells the story. But of course the belief had to have emerged at a time when it seemed to work.

    The speculation is that a statue installation ceremony obligated the other clans to contribute food to the clan that had the new statue. Thus in addition to a belief in the gods, the statues functioned somewhat as a currency, affecting the balance of trade. So in fact building a statue wasn't just a superstition - it was in fact an investment. Like America producing movies and videos and expecting to get bananas and Toyotas in return, it worked as long as everybody believed it. And so as resources became scarce, the statue building frenzy amounted to a sort of inflation...

  99. I no longer suspect that these guys were funded by Heartland types. I still think that they either had an answer they wanted or convinced themselves of an answer somebody wanted.

    It still seems a very long shot to me. I would like to hear from them what they have to say about the physical evidence for disappearance of deep sea fish and sea birds from the diet a century before the European contact.

  100. Lipo's email, reprinted with permission:

    Terry and I truly did go to the island believing that the archaeology there was quite well known and that we would be able to focus our attention on some of the early aspects of subsistence (which is why we began with excavations at the Anakena dune). Given the amount of survey that was reported to have been previously completed we thought we could build on that work and contribute some details.

    Looking back, there were excellent reasons for assuming that the archaeological record was very well known and documented. As John Flenley pointed out in his review of our work Jo Anne Van Tilburg claims to have exhaustively documented statues across the island as part of her 30+ years of work on the island. However, we discovered that her work has not (yet?) resulted in a public database of statues that can be used to address questions of prehistory. Thus, we were forced to do our own survey generate information that allowed us to examine our questions about variability of statue shape. Ultimately this was a fortunate event as we learned a lot about statues simply by looking at hundreds of them -- in a way that wouldn't have been possible with just a pre-made database of measurements.

    In the same way, Claudio Christino and Patricia Vargas have conducted many years of field survey -- building on the work begun by William Mulloy in the 1960s and Patrick McCoy in the 1970s. While they surveyed much of the island, the results of these surveys are not publicly available (either in the form of a publication or at a the Sebastian Englert Museum, the data repository for the island). It is true, however, that they published an Atlas of the record, but this is only a set of maps with dots and numbers showing the locations of archaeological remains without any key as to what the dots/numbers represent. The Atlas is like having a phonebook with just lists of phone numbers and no names.

    As a result, we had to start our own surveys to record the archaeology of the island. And we are glad we did. As we did our own work we realized that the locations of the dots on the Atlas were not reliable for a number of reasons (1) lack of precision in their mapping (this was pre-GPS so error terms were on the order of 100s of meters -- very difficult in places with an incredibly dense and a nearly continuous archaeological record and (2) the classification used to identify features was tied to ethnographic names and masked potentially important variability in aggregate-scale artifacts.

    The lack of openly available data (and I'd guess that the authors have their reasons for not simply publishing everything or making it openly available) means that many claims about the archaeology of the record cannot be easily evaluated -- one has to trust that what is said to exist actually does. This is all stuff we learned as we worked on the island over a series of years -- for us, each year was like peeling an onion -- learning that what we thought was empirically certain had nothing to back it up. Or that the evidence points to a very different conclusion that what is normally stated.

    An excellent example is the often copied "population growth" curve for the prehistory of the island. This curve (Im not sure who did it first, but it shows up in many publications) shows a long slow growth curve that begins ca. 700 AD (or 900 or 250 AD) then begins to grow to a peak at 1680AD -- followed by a collapse and a rebound until 1722AD (with #s ca. 3000 or so at that time consistent with European observations). Peak populations are identified at 10,000 or more. Pretty convincing graph about what happened on Easter Island, eh?

    Like all empirical claims, one should ask oneself "where are the data that were used to provide the #s for this graph"? It turns out that there are no data for prehistoric populations over time . Even the date of colonization is based largely on lore (a different discussion about). The archaeological record doesn't equate to "numbers of people" -- and while artifact counts can be used, there is no simple equation that translates to #s (due to the fact that the amount of the archaeological record can vary for many reasons at any point in time, only one of which is related to increases in the #s of people). It turns out the "peak" at 1680 is little more than post-hoc rationalization about the population peak the "must have been there" prior to Europeans on the assumption of a pre-contact collapse. The population curve cannot be treated as data -- it the outcome of the assumptions built into the story.

    I should also mention that we are not alone in the claims we are making about the Easter Island prehistory. For example, Chris Stevenson, Thegn Ladefoged, and Mara Mulrooney and colleagues published a paper in Antiquity about the lack of a pre-contact collapse (independently and about the same time we published ours.) Stevenson has a long history working on the island and has long done so in the context of the traditional story -- but as they describe -- he eventually came to concluded that a "collapse" that occurs at 1680AD is a myth. As Terry and I describe in the book (and in a paper that was published in Asian Perspectives) 1680AD is a date that was chosen (by Heyerdahl) from many dates since it matched what people *already thought had happened* (I.e., the war between the two clans). The logic behind it is entirely circular.

    Other work that Stevenson and Ladefoged (and Peter Vitusek - a top-notch bio-geochemist) are doing also is consistent with our discussion about the role of lithic mulch gardening as a productive and stable source of food in the context of pretty terrible soils (that have always been terrible). What we report is part of the emerging consensus among archaeologists working on the island that happens to not fit in with the traditional story. Meith and Bork (German ecologists) are also in agreement of much of what we say. Lots of recent, published work by a variety of folks (though John Flenley isn't among them) is consistent with our conclusions -- we just attempted to put the entire story together in a cohesive way for the book.

    A lot has been made on the blog about critiques of our work by John Flenley (and Paul Bahn). In fact, quotes were taken from their reviews and cited in some of the discussion. What is not obvious to many people is that Flenley and Bahn have their own book to promote (new edition out soon, we understand)-- as they keep pointing out in their reviews. From this perspective, they are not necessarily the most objective of evaluators of our work since they have a substantial stake in promoting their own competing, work. Ordinarily in situations like this reviewers ask to be recused due to conflicts of interest. Thus, one has to take their claims with at least a small dash of salt since there are clear reasons as to why they are predisposed to disagree with our conclusions.

    In addition, while Flenley can speak as a palynologist, he is not an archaeologist. His experience comes from studying on sediment cores and vegetation change documented within. I wouldn't say that this background precludes him making useful statements about prehistory. But in many of his arguments, one needs to closely evaluate what he asserts. For example, he claims that obsidian mata'a (which are stemmed but crudely made flakes of obsidian) are weapons and thus evidence of widespread warfare. This assertion is not new -- even the early Europeans noted the "black glass" pointy bits on sticks. However, a close look at the shape variability demonstrates that mata'a are not in anyway designed for killing - they simply are not pointy (compare to any lithic biface known to have been used for killing -- such as North American Folsom points). Studies of wear on the blade edges shows damage consistent with scraping and cutting plants (not impact fractures from stabbing).

    Of course, such evaluation is important (obviously) for any empirical claim. You might say "I can't evaluate these claims as I am not a specialist." However, like climate research or other kinds of science (especially where the results matter), one must always be willing to learn enough to evaluate claims. In archaeology, this is especially important since much of what "archaeological experts" often falls short of the expectations of scientific explanations (I.e., theory derived statements that can be falsified).

    I am certainly glad you read the book and I hope you were able to glean from the book some sense about how archaeologists come to their conclusions. For the most part, we wrote it to share what we learned with an audience greater than the usual set of academics. Our journey to understand the prehistory of Easter Island turned out to be a great example of how one can reason out the differences between what one is told and what one can observe in the archaeological record. Given the evidence (and the lack of evidence supporting other notions) we made our best explanation -- as consistent and falsifiable as we could. Ultimately, that's the best anyone can hope to do.

  101. Heard from Hunt, who also allayed concerns re funding:

    "Our field research is funded by student tuition [and] field fees students pay...and we try to budget things to break even. Part of my job, like most university professors is "research"...So research, including writing for publication in journals or books, is simply part of our salary. A lot of my writing on the book was done during a regular sabbatical..."

    On Nat Geog funding and moving the statues:
    "Carl and I have a National Geographic grant that funded experiments "walking" a moai.... is part of a Nova-NatGeo TV documentary that will air in the spring....[didn't cover] salary or other compensation for us...[and] came after publication of our book. ...can't wait for skeptics to see the film!"

    Not contributing here since "too many things to try to explain and so little time"; noted that "highly positive reviews of our book from Brian Fagan, Charles Mann, and Roger Atwood.... all well known and respected researchers and writers. Our negative reviews have come only from Paul Bahn and John Flenley, who [have a book around the other story]... most of their work is not peer reviewed (Rapa Nui Journal is only partially peer reviewed, and only recently.... and Flenley is on the editorial board)."

    (ok, this thread is now drowning in text. Structure, we need structure. An outliner?)

  102. Thanks again for your efforts, Anna. And thanks to Dr. Lipo. I take back this criticism further up the page: "If researchers aren’t willing to educate and explain, they really shouldn’t engage in an online discussion. Playing the ad hominem/impolite card and ‘just read the book’ is a sign of major weakness."

  103. A few links and comments:

    Re soils "that have always been poor," the point of slash and burn (for which the evidence seems to be clear) is to make them temporarily not so poor, although in a situation like Easter Island that will tend to hit a wall fairly soon. It seems clear enough that uses of the wood, rollers/skids/canoes or no, probably couldn't have added up to sufficient activity to denude the island, but eating the palm hearts while slashing and burning could easily have done the job, and relatively quickly if nothing kept population in check. Together with the disappearance of indications of major seafood/sea bird consumption (I've also seen that claim made widely and will try to track down the source), this would seem to paint a picture of a big drop in both the quality and quantity of food.

    I have to say that the rock gardens and lithic mulching sounds like an awfully desperate adaptation (to keep the soil from blowing away after the major vegetation was gone). Even the paper cited by Lipo above doesn't dispute this, apparently based on the idea that rock enclosures and lithic mulching were sufficient to prevent erosions, although instead it proposes nutrient depletion as an alternative to erosion. The upshot would seem to be the same. Why not both? The authors say they can't actually exclude erosion as a major factor, although they argue that the evidence for it isn't sufficently widespread, but Diamond is noted to have suggested both mechanisms(!). (Need to find the detailed discussion of the erosion claim.) A 2010 follow-up paper by some of the same authors directly states in the abstract that erosion control must have been one of the purposes of the rock gardens and lithic mulching. Taken together, these papers don't seem able to take the weight Lipo wants to put on them.

    Flenley may be a palynologist rather than an archeologist, but Bahn seems to have a very impressive record/a in the latter field.

    I read another paper a few days ago (I'll have to find the link) showing hardened root casts (related to stumps being burned after the palms had been cut down) root casts that to my inexpert eyes look awfully longitudinal to not be from something with a trunk. I'll email the botanist I mentioned above and ask him about that.

    Finally, this appears to be the only focused climatological study done for Easter Island. The authors don't claim a definitive result, but they seem to think that the climate remained equable throughout. I'm not sure how this squares with evidence for the early drought. In any case the climate-killed-the-trees argument would seem to fare poorly, noting that the drought was over with before the trees went.

    More later.

  104. I've reserved TSTW at my library and will probably be able to read it in about 2 weeks. My local library doesn't have any edition of the Bahn and Flenley book, so short of going over to UCB and sitting for an added extended period I won't be able to see it (recalling I already will be going over there for an extended look at the Rapa Nui Journal material). Anyone else?

    The B+F third edition appears to still not be available, although the 2nd edition (2003) can be had used for cheap. The latter probably wouldn't be entirely useful for our purposes, though.

  105. Don't forget interlibrary loan.
    (she says, having done exactly that...)

    FWIW, I'm working on collating claims & counterclaims, unanswered Qs, articles & reviews we do & don't have access to, etc.
    (and if there is a good tool for structuring this, that doesn't require one to have had the sense to buy a Mac, please let me know.)

  106. A tool comment: MT has kindly offered to set up a wiki for this, but for now at least I want outlining (i.e., collapsing & expanding nodes; is there wiki software that can do this?) Currently I'm just using the OPML editor (from, since it's free & does outlining.

  107. It seems there've been three Collapse exorcisms - in Energy & Environment, 7-8 pieces (including Peiser's) in one issue (July 2005); from Cambridge University Press, a compilation of conference papers (including one from H&L) titled Questioning Collapse; and now TSTW.

  108. Hmmm. It seems L&H have provided a shifting, but still incorrect, rationale for dismissing Mieth and Bork's results indicating rats weren't instrumental in the palms' decline:

    In 2009, according to Vergano, Hunt "rejects the notion that a lack of rat-eaten palm nuts in charcoal layers proves anything, saying, 'rats are unlikely to eat charcoal.'" ( )

    But it turns out Mieth & Bork (2009? 2010?) say that it's also (i.e., the nuts' un-gnawed condition) true in non-charred areas as well: "This finding is supported by Vogt (2009, p.16) who recovered numerous palm nuts that were un-charred and had been conserved exceptionally well under clayey sediments. Only a few had traces of gnawing."

    Onward to 2011, where Lipo & Hunt, at Lynas, now dismiss Mieth & Bork saying M&B 'based their claim on nut fragments, not whole nuts. ... the problem [with] using Mieth and Bork ...[is that their] estimate of 10% rat gnawed fragments implies that most nuts (if they were counted whole) were actually gnawed by rats.'

    I asked Mieth whether L&H are correct that M&B based their claim on nut fragments; he said L&H were NOT correct: "The phrase in our paper (Mieth and Bork 2010, Journal of Archaeological Science, page 423) is very clear: 'Among more than 200 COMPLETELY preserved and charred nutshells .... less than 10 % had the teeth marks of rats.'
    It is NOT less than 10 % of nut fragments. It is less than 10 % counted for whole nuts!"

  109. fyi, I've emailed L&H asking for comment on Mieth's "L&H misinterpret M&B re nutshells" assertion, and also asking MT's q about whether L&H's book addressed the islanders' shift in diet over time (from largely big fish & dolphins/porpoises, to not; I don't recall the book mentioning it) & whether this shift is something they have an explanation for. (They do argue (H&L 2007, RNJ) that catching dolphins need not entail seagoing, but that doesn't address why the shift over time.)

    p.s. MT, that wiki might be a good thing to have after all.

  110. Nice catch, Anna! I had spotted the same issue but not followed it up. Just so we're clear, were the 200 different from the ones Vogt noted?

    As with Owsley, it's interesting what one can find out by the simple expedient of just emailing authors.

    Another question for Mieth and/or Bork, since you're already corresponding:

    Do the root casts they found say anything about the type of palm? I think I mentioned above that those seem a little too vertical to be associated with a spreading (i.e. non-trunked) variety of palm. How do they compare to Chilean Jubaya roots?

    Notwithstanding the doubts of the Kew botanist I also referenced above, I have the impression that some other researchers don't have much question but that the two are very closely related if not the same species. Again as noted, there's also the rongorongo palm glyph, which seems pretty persuasive on its own.

    Could you also ask for pointers to research on erosion other than their own. It looks as if most of their work was limited to a peninsula, albeit a large one, so what about work elsewhere?

    Finally, please ask for whether my (what seems like obvious) supposition that slash and burn would have led to a food surplus followed (once the trees were gone and the nutrients depleted) by a shortage (compounded with a nutritional deficit).

    Maybe that's too much at once, but any answers you can get would be great.

  111. I think I recall seeing something somewhere to the effect that the EI coast is poorly suited to fishing since depths drop off quickly and seas tend to be pretty rough. Also, would cetaceans learn to avoid the place after a while?

    The dietary shift business must be in a paper somewhere? Mieth and Bork again?

    Apropos of nothing in particular, I saw Bain described somewhere as the world's leading expert on rock art.

    The wiki sounds fine. Thanks, Michael.

    Also, this seems like a good time to ask if there's anyone besides the three of us interested in working on this.

  112. Many Qs, Steve. Today.

    Re the dietary shift stuff, it looks (from cites in ) like it comes from David Steadman's research; I've emailed to ask about this.
    (fyi this (pro-rat-culprit) LSE paper is quite helpful, for citations)

    Interesting info (via teh Google) re Jubaea chilensis, IF correct - that the sap is a sweetener like a sugar maple but "collecting the palm sap requires cutting down the tree". Also that the *younger* palms have thicker trunks, that then slim down with age. So if you want to make a canoe to get far-out marine life, or get syrup for your porpoise steak, you cut the tree down before it reproduces.
    (I don't recall if these were mentioned in Collapse)

  113. Re Steadman, this would seem to be the key paper. From a quick read it seems to confirm the general picture of a sharp change in diet pinned to a loss of sea-going capabilities. Interestingly, even from the beginning there were way less fish in the diet than elsewhere in Polynesia.

    The paper mentions plans to go back for more work, but I can't find any indication of that having happened. I looked through all of the cites to the paper and found nothing promising along those lines.

    So Steadman is certainly worth contacting. The CV linked at his site doesn't include most of his early work, but it doesn't look as if he's done anything Easter Island-specific in the last ten years.

    How does TSTW treat this work, and does it mention anything more recent?

  114. My opinion on the Lipo/Hunt hypothesis is not significantly altered by the conversation to date, I'm afraid, though I have made attempts to convince myself. Really, I've been gearing up to apologize as is my mealy self-critical nature, but I haven't been able to bring myself to do it. I think that not only are H&L wrong, but they are wrong-headed. I have no idea, really, whether they are nice guys, good family men, and so on, but I am still deeply unimpressed by their approach.

    There are those who dislike my tendency to argue by analogy, but I'm afraid I have no choice. That's rather my intellectual strength if anything. And the best analogy to the Lipo/Hunt hypothesis is that of the second skeptic in the controversial matter of the unidentified floating beast.

    I do appreciate the conversation and I am thrilled that I have launched a few readers into an actual research program. I'm a bit tired of this article having the majority of all comments, after all.

    Stay tuned. I'll see if I can come up with a quick and dirty solution.

    If I was hopelessly wrong, I still promise I will apologize, but I'll leave it to Anna and Steve and anyone else who wants to pitch in to make the case to me. Having been so public about it (which I argue the case merits) I will try to remain open to new evidence, but I have to say I've seen quite enough to affirm my original impression that this is a peculiar sort of thought, rather more like rationalization than like reason.

    Far from being apologetic, I find myself hoping I can pull off a stunt like this one again. Maybe Keith will fan the flames again.

  115. "The lack of openly available data (and I’d guess that the authors have their reasons for not simply publishing everything or making it openly available) means that many claims about the archaeology of the record cannot be easily evaluated — one has to trust that what is said to exist actually does. "


  116. As usual, you have the beginnings of a point, but it seems to leave you betting on the wrong horse once again, Steve.

    Mostly, though, you seem to have an expectation of people using techniques in the 80s and 90s that have only become practicable in the last couple of years, and of people somehow predicting in advance that an aura of public controversy would arise.

    If you give it a rest regarding well-intentioned work in the past, we may be able to work together to improve transparency and replicability in the future. But as long as you try to apply the standards of what seems to both of us as reasonable practice going forward as a weapon to attack people's bona fides in the past, you will continue to give openness a bad name. If the only consequences scientists see of openness is people reading individual sentences context-free and wrapping them up in wild conspiracy theories that scientists have to defend against in the press and even in congresses and parliaments, they won't be disposed to consider proposals of openness.

    In my opinion, the viciousness of the attacks on climate science have already done damage to the practice of science as a whole, and in particular, the prospects for increased access. You guys with your over-the-top pissing and moaning about climate data are playing right into the hands of the journal oligopoly.

    Opening the process and reorganizing it to account for the new technical possibilities and the increased demands for access at a wide range of skill levels will be a painful and lengthy process no matter what. I wish you could perceive how much harder you are making it.

  117. Oh, I think he very much does perceive that, Michael. People who are just concerned with verifying the veracity of the science would be spending most of their time on other things.

    Call it irony, but when contemplating the apparently loads of publically-funded yet unpublished research (to say nothing of Hunt and Lipo's emails, them both being public employees) it didn't once occur to me to FOIA any of it. Apparently I lack the proper cast of mind. (I'm not even slightly short on FOIA knowledge, BTW, having in its early days interned in a Congressionsl office where I suppose I must have filled out in excess of a hundred of them, plus at least one other I can recall over the years.)

  118. Interesting. Didn't cross my mind either.

    Of course, I've never thought of science as a branch of government.

    We respond to calls for proposals (in America, even at the national labs), so we should be considered independent contractors. Only the funding agencies should be subject to FOIA, and I would consider that use of FOIA entirely reasonable.

    Anyway, if the practice of science is going to be a miserable gauntlet of hostile legal actions, it ought to pay better. But I think everybody would be better off if things just didn't go that way.

    I take Mosher pretty much at face value, myself. He has tricked himself into thinking he is helping. But he's contributing materially not just to the direct decline of our global prospects, but also to a decline in the capacities of publicly funded science.

    Let's move this to the open thread, please.

  119. At the risk of entering this discussion again..... there have been questions about the diet. I would refer you to our peer-reviewed paper published in Pacific Science (2009) available free online:

    along with several other publications. There are graphs in the paper showing the frequency of faunal remains from the two main excavations at Anakena. These are the "raw" data for claims about dietary change. Judge for yourselves.

    Out of time.... I am at an invited palaeo-ecology conference (UC Berkeley-France sponsored) in Tahiti.

    Terry Hunt

  120. Thanks, Dr. Hunt. One thing we want to make absolutely sure of is to keep the competing claims straight, which as I'm sure you will know is a little hard to do starting from scratch. At some point (it sounds like Anna may be producing such a thing even now), we will have a summary of claims and counter-claims, which hopefully you and Dr. Lipo will be able to review for accuracy.

  121. Thank you Dr. Hunt. If you return, could you please address a) Mieth's assertion that you and Lipo misunderstood (in your post at Lynas's) his&Bork's methodology, & thus the ramifications of their results; and b) Diamond's assertion that - re timing of the islanders' arrival - your Anakena beach data comes from (adjacent to?) an unconformity & thus its apparent "first arrival" status isn't reliable. (fwiw, my internal jury is out on the latter, I don't know enough to hold an informed opinion.)

    Re (no) dietary loss of marine mammals over time, that is interesting, & worth our looking at. From the H&L 2009 PacSci paper:
    "It is also noteworthy that sea mammals do not disappear from the faunal record. Sea-mammal bones are present, even abundant, from multiple excavations in later prehistoric deposits at Anakena (see Figure 1), showing they were not depleted by overexploitation nor did people loose access to sea mammals as a result of deforestation." (says mode was "driving them into shallow waters or on shore
    where they are killed (e.g., Bloch et al. 1990,
    Takegawa 1996, Porcasi and Fujita 2000).")

    Re SB's mention of the summary of claims and counter-claims, I've started a SourceWatch page for the E.I. narrative, and IMO we can talk further on (and use as scratchpad) its "discussion" tab. ( Both pages are rudimentary so far; in part because unfortunately it seems the OPML editor (in which I was working on the claim-counterclaim outline) doesn't export into other formats, & neither Firefox nor MSIE will open the opml file. (there's a cliched moral here, involving the word "assume"))

  122. A quick progress report - I'm in the middle of Flenley&Bahn's "Enigmas of Easter Island" (2nd ed; 3rd is imminent) and find it's a very different book from "Statues that Walked" - L&H start with a thesis and marshal and envision evidence in support, where F&B share the evidence, conflicting though it may be. One difference is how the 2 books cover Heyerdahl (which someone asked about, above) - as I recall H&L dismissed him fairly quickly, noting that his theories aren't taken seriously, where F&B go into some detail on how Heyerdahl worked, showing how he was extremely selective in the evidence he chose to attend to, such that he ended up defending "a tottering edifice precariously based on preconceptions, extreme subjectivity, distortions, and very little hard evidence".

  123. I haven't been over to the local library (what a quaint notion since I usually buy my books) but intend to do so. You are doing yeoman work investigating the competing claims though and I appreciate what you are doing.

    As far as the difference in argumentation styles of F&B v. H&L? Well that's just a difference in styles. They both seem to reach the same conclusion re: Heyerdahl; his work is not worth much.

    BTW, is the book you (were) reading "Easter Island, Earth Island" or another one?

  124. Why the argument over stone statues from a long extinct group of islanders? Why is this being hashed over by a group that normally concerns itself with what to do about anthropogenic global warming?

    My answer is that they (Lynas, Kloor and Curry) don't want to accept that we humans are able to affect our world, our climate, our ecology in ways that present us with making choices about what to do. They'd rather let God take care of this stuff, i.e. we should do like the Easter Islanders did. We shouldn't try to cut fewer trees, we shouldn't implement population controls, we shouldn't introduce more soil sustaining farming practices, because in the end it won't make a difference to our fate.. I'm arguing that theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to Diamond's work because of their underlying philosophy of life.

    To believe that humans are part of nature, and therefore everything we do is part of nature.

    This leaves us with a conundrum. Should we then try to deflect our development in a way that may provide us with an easier world to live in and one that is more beautiful and populated with other creatures; or should we assume that anything we try to do to change the face of the world is best left to God and that we shouldn't try any abrupt turns?

    In the end is the argument over global warming and Easter Island society simply an argument over interpretations of God's instructions? Stuff like this tells me it is. I think we should make the hard choice of controlling our emissions and changing our lifestyle and politics to accomodate what has been a pretty damn nice place to live. Why? Maybe just because its the harder of the choices and I was raised to believe these were usually the right ones to choose. That and all that science stuff says so.

  125. That's a bit too glib. While there's no sensible accounting for Curry, I am pretty sure Keith does not want to stand back and let "Jesus take the wheel", and before this, if anything I would have counted Lynas as perhaps a bit excessively alarmist on climate change.

    No, that part of the answer has to go deeper into the journalistic mindset. But to me, I agree that it is really interesting that this has become an issue.

  126. 2nd ed. is called “Enigmas of Easter Island”, but Flenley said in email that the 3rd ed. title reverts to "Easter Island, Earth Island".

    I've also re-emailed L&H requesting a comment about (or acknowledgment of) Mieth's statement that L&H had misunderstood his&Bork's research.

  127. "No, that part of the answer has to go deeper into the journalistic mindset."

    I'd venture to say that it isn't God they feel powerless against, it is the nature of human development, international politics and neo-liberal economics. While there is nothing wrong from starting a complex argument for continuing BAU, from that standpoint, it is maddening to hear that there should be a positive spin put on this and we should accept the inevitable with smiles. This type of thinking is endemic in Western culture and , to me, is utterly deluded. There really is nothing positive about the disempowerment of humanity to another class or sovereign.

  128. It seems that folks have come down pretty strongly pro-Diamond here; IMO we need to keep in mind that the cannibalism part, at least, of Diamond's Easter Island nar^H^H^Hallegory doesn't seem well supported by the evidence, according to Paul Bahn in Enigmas of Easter Island (Flenley & Bahn, p. 156-7)

  129. It's not so much a matter of whether every one of Diamond's speculations was correct. I don't think Diamond himself claims excessive confidence. Rather he is quite circumspect in drawing the picture - the reader has to fill in quite a few gaps. But the picture that emerges responds to the fundamental mystery.

    The mystery is not "what happened at Easter Island" or "how upright and commendable were the original inhabitants". These are, I am sorry, severely secondary questions.

    The question posed by Easter Island is plain and obvious. It is how and why a small, apparently impoverished population managed to create so many giant statues, and how why that program accelerated to an absurd crescendo such that the majority of statues ever attempted were in progress at the time the tradition abruptly ended.

    Hunt and Lipo seem to do everything in their power to avoid looking at the central question. The stench of academic denialism was, to me, unavoidable even before the entry of Pieser and E&E.

    Let's talk endlessly about climate change without mentioning the greenhouse effect, while we're at it.

    Oh, and the walking statues? Really. If that doesn't remind you of the sky dragon squad I don't know what will.


    - No need to account for the greenhouse effect because there isn't one. Rather, all of physics since Fourier is wrong.

    - No need to worry about how the statues were rolled down the hill because they MIGHT have been dragged down the hill upright using ropes (as if the workers wouldn't have been hungry and stressed already).

    These are not theories. They have no explanatory value. These are ways to tell stories that avoid discussing relevant general knowledge altogether. They are not consequences of evidence. They are shabby excuses to avoid the evidence.

    Now, admittedly, the walking statues thing is just ludicrous, not, like the sky dragon stuff, flatly impossible. And I have trouble adding up the statue transport issue to a dominant factor in tree loss. Diamond's story may be wrong here too.

    But Diamond gets us thinking about the real issue. I'll have more to say about that soon. I think he only roughly drew the outlines. Somebody needs to explicitly spell out why the Easter Island story is so terrifying for the existing economic paradigm.

  130. To chime in.

    Residing as I do, at some remove from the core itinerary of “speakers”, I’m thankful for having heard a talk by Diamond about 4-5 years ago. Collapse, of course, extends the ideas he covered then.

    For those who haven’t read it, the book isn’t all about societal failures, or solely focused on the environmental considerations linked to their collapse.

    He discuses successful coping with sever resource limitations by the Polynesians of minuscule Tikopia Island in the South Pacific, some 600 mi to the southwest of the Guadalcanal; the long time densely populated highlands of central New Guinea, unknown to the world before WW 2; Tokugawa-era forest management by the Japanese.

    To illustrate his title theme: the Maya, Norse Greenlanders, Anasazi, Easter and Pitcairn Islanders, Rwandans, Haitans visa vie the Dominican Republicens, as well as problems in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley where he has a spread, plus others

    This recent focus on Rapa Nui (while fascinating to me, many thanks Anna and all, having read Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Aku-Aku, and The Ra Expeditions in my teens and 20s) is just another attack by “The Auditors” on “The Icons” in lieu of substance. It's making things personal.

  131. I read the Hunt&Lipo "Statues" book, then read Flenley & Bahn's 2002 "Enigmas of Easter Island". The two books are quite different in focus - F&B is evidence-based, H&L is argument-driven.

    IMO Lipo's invitation above to "examine the evidence we present [in the book] and see if you can find a better explanation" misses the mark, since the evidence presented in the book is evidence that's been marshalled around the book's "Diamond was wrong" thesis.

    (Prime example: the part of H&L which argues that rats prevented the palms from regenerating doesn't address the work of Mieth&Bork 2009 (who found a site showing evidence of palm regeneration after initial clearing, and also reported un-rat-gnawed palm nuts from [non-cave] sites). H&L justify the omission of M&B (in their "response to Diamond" post at Mark Lynas's blog) based on a (false, as it turned out) interpretation of M&B's research.)

    But the point is, if you start with your thesis and clothe it in data, that's bad since you'll leave out data that readers would need to make an informed judgment.

    (...which brings up the implications-or-not for climate communication - since an uncritical application of this point could be used to justify "balanced" he-said-she-said reporting, which'd be undesirable. The ideal is to include data in the context of other data - i.e. not to over-represent the cherries & outliers, instead to provide an accurate "big picture" of the data.)

  132. "IIRC Hunt & Lipo also made a claim that the palm trunks would have made for poor rollers. One word: skids (involving a couple of trunks lashed to the back of a statue to make a sled-like arrangement), perhaps with palm fronds as a lubricant."

    yes they *could* have, but where is the evidence for that? I could have been anything but there is no coherent evidence for such.

    one the the biggest problems with Rapa Nui research is a tendency for people to devise a narrative and then find evidence to support that narrative like Diamond. I believe we call that cherrypicking the evidence and it makes for incredibly bad science.

  133. Pingback: Incredibilism | Planet3.0

  134. Pingback: Easter Island: Object Lesson — but in What? | All In One Boat

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