CSU Long Beach -- October 10, 2003

Faculty, Students from Cal State Long Beach Explore Mysterious Easter Island

California State University, Long Beach planted its flag in one of the Earth's most mysterious places in the summer of 2003 when Carl Lipo, an assistant professor in Anthropology Department, led six CSULB students to Easter Island.

Lipo and his six students arrived on Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, where they joined 15 University of Hawaii students, four teaching assistants and faculty member Terry Hunt. There, they worked with Rapa Nui's ex-governor and archaeologist Sergio Rapu to explore the spectacular beach Anakena.

"It was a spectacular trip with great results. I can't wait to go back," Lipo said. "We did a variety of work on the island including foot survey for new archaeological features on the south and northwest coast, excavation and geophysical explorations to study buried deposits using CSULB's cutting-edge technology."

The students also used satellite imagery to map ancient road features where prehistoric people moved the statues across the landscape.

Rapa Nui is about 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and as small as it is remote, a mere 171 square kilometers, or about the size of Catalina Island. What makes the distant speck interesting is that about 1,000 statues weighing up to 30 tons each were moved distances up to 15 kilometers to reach it.

Besides the spectacular white sand beach called Anakena, Lipo and his party also searched Aka Hanga on the south side of the island where students performed geophysical and pedestrian surveys, which translates to walking in 10-meter transects across the landscapes to note architecture, houses and caves. "We did geophysical surveys that attached magnetic signatures to specific houses," said Lipo. "The idea was to identify stones that may have been taken away from one structure and put someplace else."

The party also worked on the northwest coast where relatively little work had been done. "This area is rich in archaeological sites: houses, fire hearths, platforms, etc.," said Lipo, a resident of Long Beach.

The expedition received a grant from CSULB's College of Liberal Arts to pay for satellite imagery of Easter Island. The images were programmed into computers and used as maps and charts. "We saw the entire island in 60-centimeter resolution," he explained. "This gave us incredible information as to where the prehistoric roads were located. These roads had been noted by early explorers but never really mapped. This satellite imagery gave us an ability to map these roads. This was a very exciting part of our research."

Technology played a big role in the research. Students used CSULB "remote sensing" equipment to look beneath the ground and explore the subsurface without excavation. "The use of this equipment gives us a lot of information without damaging the fragile and finite archaeological record," Lipo said.

One of the project's conclusions argued against the long-held belief that the statues were the downfall of Easter Island. "We think that the statues were not the cause," explains Lipo. "Sure, populations increased and resources like trees became fewer but this was not a catastrophe as some have written. In fact, our model supports the idea that the activity associated with the statues helped the populations survive for as long as they did, and as well as they did. Effort involved in statue construction helped to keep populations lower and that was a benefit for everyone."

Lipo hopes to return CSULB to Rapa Nui again someday. "The students certainly want to go," he said. "They gained a new appreciation for the archaeology there, how we can do it in a way that is conservation minded and really make a difference to what we know about the archaeology of the island. We can actually solve mysteries. In addition, the people of Rapa Nui were extremely friendly and supportive of our work. They were interested in working with us to find out about their past heritage."

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