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2022 Murrow Awards, Excellence in DEI: The So-called Mystery of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Moai at Ahu Tongariki
Carlos Reusser Monsálvez
Moai at Ahu Tongariki

It’s been 300 years since Europeans first arrived on the Pacific Island of Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday, 1722, calling it “Easter Island.” At the time, the indigenous population was tiny. But across the island were nearly one-thousand massive monolithic statues dotting the landscape. Ever since then the island has been the subject of speculation and debate. How were these immensely heavy stone statues moved? Who moved them? And what happened to the once robust native population there?

The West has made the island into a parable of human failure and ecological collapse. According to a theory widely popularized by Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, this remote civilization destroyed itself by cutting down trees needed to move the giant statues.

In “The So-called Mystery of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)”, producer Felix Poon debunks the racist “collapse” narrative and exposes the true tragedy that befell the people of this Pacific Island: decimation brought by European diseases and slave-raiders.

We also answer the question: who did move the giant monolithic statues of Rapa Nui, and how did they do it? As it turns out, the Indigenous Rapanui people’s oral history was right all along: the statues walked. We reflect on how it came to be that two white archeologists are widely credited for the “statue walking theory” as opposed to the Rapanui archeologist, Sergio Rapu Haoa, who discovered much of the evidence decades beforehand.

The above excerpt starts about halfway through the story. To listen to the full documentary, click here.

Featuring: Sergio Rapu Haoa, Carl Lipo, Terry Hunt, Sergio Mata’u Rapu, and Gina Pakarati

Engraving of French explorer La Pérouse and his crew on their 1786 visit to Rapa Nui. His was the fourth major European visit to the island. La Pérouse wrote of the Rapanui: “these people were indebted to the imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation of the island.”
Duché de Vancy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Engraving of French explorer La Pérouse and his crew on their 1786 visit to Rapa Nui. His was the fourth major European visit to the island. La Pérouse wrote of the Rapanui: “these people were indebted to the imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation of the island.”
Map of Rapa Nui
Eric Gaba
Map of Rapa Nui

Felix Poon first came to NHPR in 2020 as an intern, producing episodes for Outside/In, Civics 101, and The Second Greatest Show on Earth. He went to work for Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet before returning in 2021 as a producer for Outside/In. Felix’s Outside/In episode Ginkgo Love was featured on Spotify's Best Podcasts of 2020.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.

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