In Search of… Easter Island (revisited)

It’s funny how things sometimes come back around full circle. Back in 1977, I was 12 years old and enamored with the TV show “In Search Of…”. Hosted by Leonard Nimoy (Spock), the show presented a range of stories about the natural world that evoked (certainly to a 12 year old) a sense of wonder. Although sensationalist (though tame by today’s standards), Nimoy’s “Spock-cred” gave one the sense that amazing things happened in the past (and present) that are not fully understood. Out of all the various episodes I remember (such as Atlantis, Dracula, Amelia Earhart, Bigfoot), the one that had the greatest impact on me was the show that covered the remarkable prehistory of Easter Island (now Rapa Nui). (Note: Through the magic of youtube, you can watch it here: I have to say that as a 12-year old, this show floored me: a tiny desolate island in the middle of the Pacific home to hundreds of massive and enigmatic statues? My mind was blown. I thought back then: “What a mystery! Why would people have chosen to spend so much time making such massive statues on a place so small and so remote?” If it wasn’t for the TV footage, I don’t think I would have believed it. But there it was on TV: a real place with real people walking around these incredible stone figures! I was mesmerized.

Those images led me to often wonder about the rationale behind lots of interesting and (to me) mysterious things that various groups of people accomplished throughout human history: earthen mounds, effigy mounds (my high school days were spent in Madison, Wisconsin – the location for a remarkable concentration of Late Woodland effigy mounds), pyramids, henges, stone cairns, tumuli, barrow, and so forth. These features – that seemed so extraordinary to me — must have at one point in time somehow made sense to the folks that made them. But how so?

By happenstance, when I was a sophomore in college, I took an archaeology class and learned that there was a entire discipline dedicated to solving just this mystery: archaeology. Wow! So though what was not an entirely-well-conceived decision, I opted to pursue archaeology as a major in college. I had found a way — I hoped — to figuring out answers to these questions!

As a result, in many ways I can trace my current self all the way back to Leonard Nimoy and that Easter Island episode. Ironically, I ended up making Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as one of my research foci after (again, fortuitously) taking a class with my now-colleague Terry Hunt. That happenstance has led to two decades of field research centered specifically on asking “what conditions led the past people of the Rapa Nui to have accomplished such extraordinary things?”

Given all this, I was particular tickled to be asked by Jeb Card and Blake Smith to be part of an episode of “InResearchOf…“, a podcast in which they systematically review old episodes of “In Search Of” in the context of contemporary research. Asking me to revisit the original Easter Island episode 43 years (gulp!) after I first watched it as a 12-year old and now a professor who has spent his career studying such phenomena with an emphasis on Rapa Nui was… well … full circle.

We recorded this back in October, I believe. The episode is finally airing. You can listen to it here: I believe patreon asks for some contribution to listen to it early but it will become “open” for everyone beginning this Monday (2/10/2020). I really enjoyed doing this and thank Jeb and Blake for their kind invitation.

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