Many people are confused about what to read about Easter Island, so here are a few notes about books that I have found useful
The indispensable guidebook to the islands is a short book A Companion to Easter Island by Scottish enthusiast James Grant Peterkin. It is subtitled ‘A Concise Guide to the history culture and individual archaeological sites of Rapa Nui’ and it is I think self-published, but it is available on the English Amazon and also on the island. No one should go to Easter Island without first acquiring this book: keep it with you at all times. It is not just a guide book, it also gives all the background, the ‘gossip’ if you like about the Island and what you will find there.
The basic archaeological book is Easter Island, Earth Island, by Paul Bahn and John Flenley, originally published by Thames and Hudson, though a new edition will be appearing shortly. It is subtitled “A message from our past for the future of our planet’ and it does in places become a little evangelical about the ecological disaster that that overtook the island when they cut down all the trees. But John Flenley is the New Zealand botanical archaeologist who first carried out the pollen analysis on which the history of the destruction of the trees on the islands depends. The book was first published in 1992, but a new edition will be appearing shortly. The dating has now been challenged but it is particularly good in its critique of Heyerdahl. If you are tempted to believe in Heyerdahl’s theories, this is the place to go for the refutation of them.
This led to a very influential account by the popular author Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, where a chapter is given over to Easter Island. It is only a short part of the book, but the book itself is fascinating. The author is a distinguished botanist, and even if one may feel that some of his conclusions are a little over the top, it is nevertheless a fascinating read.
However the key Bahn/Flenley vision has now been challenged by a new book, The Statues that Walked that challenges both their dating and indeed the whole reasons for the collapse of the statues. I have written a separate account of the controversies here.
And then of course there are Thor Heyerdahl’s books, all alluringly written and still in print. The first huge bestseller was the Kon Tiki Expedition, an account of how in 1947 he set out on a balsawood raft from Peru, and drifted for 101 days until he eventually arrived in the Tuhamotu islands, near Tahiti, having passed more than a thousand miles north of Easter Island. The book was published in 1950: it is a beautifully written adventure story and became a huge bestseller — indeed I have read an account by the publisher of how he was overwhelmed by the huge success of the book and indeed became for a year very rich. It is still in print and very well worth reading as an adventure story – even if it is quite wrong about Easter Island.
Following the success of this book he was able to hire an Icelandic trawler for a year and set off through the Panama Canal to sail around the South Pacific and spent eight months on Easter Island itself carrying out numerous excavation which are still a foundation of much of the archaeology of the Island He wrote up an account of his adventures in his book Aku Aku, again beautifully written in a very chatty adventure style. But he was very uncritical in his enthusiasms and so many if not most of these explanations must be discounted.
He subsequently made a further expedition in 1984 and 1986 which he published as Easter Island: The Mystery Solved. This is beautifully illustrated with superb colour photos, and has some interesting historical background, but by this time he had become rather too much the revered guru spreading enlightenment.
But perhaps the crucial piece of work on the island was the vital information retrieved by Mrs Katherine Routledge who went to Easter Island in 1914/15 and spent over a year there, befriending the islanders and retrieving from them the story of the birdman cult. She wrote a popular account of work of her expedition, The Mystery of Easter Island, essentially the story of her travels and explorations, but this has now thankfully been reprinted by Cosimo classics and is well worth acquiring.
Finally the foremost American scholar on Easter Island, Jo Anne van Tilburg, has written a biography of Katherine Routledge entitled Among Stone Giants, published in America by Simon and Schuster. This is superb, both as a biography of someone brought up as a Quaker, who went up to Oxford as a pioneering feminist, than carried out the pioneering expedition to Easter island, but then sadly suffered from mental ill health and spent the last years of her life in an asylum.