Easter Island's stony-faced moai have endured tourists, archeologists, and wild-eyed space alien enthusiasts. Still, no one has come up with a good explanation for how Stone Age people could have lugged the statues--some of which weigh more than 50 tons--from the quarry where they were carved across miles of rough terrain. Hauling the statues on a sledge or "walking" them in accord with tribal legends would have either required more manpower than the island could have supported or damaged the moai.
This spring, UCLA archeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg announced that she had the answer: The expert boatmen of Easter Island could have moved the statues the same way they transported their canoes.
Van Tilburg got her idea when she watched how islanders hauled their canoes from the water onto land. Working with native artisans, she created a cement replica of an average statue that was 13 feet tall and weighed 12 tons. Then 40 people lashed it to a canoe-shaped rig and dragged it easily over a ladder of eucalyptus logs greased with a mixture of water and ground-up banana trees. "We just sailed across the land," says Van Tilburg. Twenty men then raised the statue using ropes, stones, and wooden levers.
Van Tilburg thinks that a community of 300 to 400 could have carved and transported a moai in about a year. "This is probably not the only way to move a moai," says Van Tilburg, "but it's certainly viable."