Aku-Aku, the secret of Easter Island.

by Thor Heyerdahl

Book, 1958



Call number

F3169 .H413


Publisher Unknown

User reviews

LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
Until the expedition of Thor Heyerdahl, no archaologist had excavated Easter Island – the home of hundreds of enigmatic stone people (moai) waying many tens of tons and stretching tens of feet into the air. The giant statues were well known for their striking appearance, but the truth behind many
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of the ancient myths surrounding the island's peoples over the years remained to be corroborated by actual archaological discovery, and much remained unknown of the culture that pre-dated or post-dated the giant statues.
Heyerdahl recounts the events of his expedition to Easter Island in this popular account aimed at the general reader. This has most of the ingredients of an action adventure story – an isolated island thousands of miles from anywhere else, secretive natives, ancient superstitions including the Aku-Aku, hidden caves, mysteries to be solved, an extinct volcano, and discoveries that no one was expecting. All that is missing is the odd murder, which is supplemented by the brutal history of legendary massacre on the island for which the archaologists seek evidence. Heyerdahl gets to know the people well, and forms close bonds with many of the colourful characters that could have come straight from a film or novel.
Do they solve the mysteries of how the statues were transported across the island and raised? What secrets do the caves contain? Why did the Islanders eventually topple all the statues? And is there any truth in the ancient origin stories of the peopling of the island?
The historical, cultural, and anthropological interest in the discoveries made during this expedition are of high importance, not only because the many of the old customs were on the verge of being lost when the expedition was made (and many more had been lost), but because Easter Island is in many ways a culturally-distinct outlier.
As a highly readable and exciting account of the findings made by Heyerdahl on Easter Island, I would recommend this to both the general reader and also those with an interest in history, culture, and exploration. I have not yet read Heyerdahl's more well known book about his voyage across the ocean on a replica ancient South American balsa raft (the Kon-Tiki), but I will be looking this up on the strength of Aku Aku.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
I know nothing about how Heyerdahl is viewed by anthropologists, but I do know he writes a compelling story, has interesting theories and does more than sit in his armchair to talk about them. I really enjoyed his descriptions of Easter Island and the things they discovered there.
LibraryThing member gbill
While not all of Thor Heyerdahl’s theories have stood the test of time, he was a true pioneer, and this account of his journey to Rapanui (Easter Island) in 1955-56 conveys his spirit as an explorer into its mysteries. He gives us the island’s unique history, its culture, and most of all, a
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sense of its majesty. The 1st edition I found has a large number of color photos interspersed in the text, as well a few excellent maps, which heightened my enjoyment.

Among other things, Heyerdahl learned by getting his hands dirty, and early on I was taken with his description of sleeping in the depression formed from one of the completed giant statues (moai) in the rock quarry on the island:

“I have slept in the queerest places - on the altar stone in Stonehenge, in a snowdrift on the top of Norway’s highest mountain, in adobe chambers in the deserted cave villages of New Mexico, by the ruins of the first Inca’s birthplace on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca: and now I wanted to sleep in the old stone quarry in Rano Raraku.”

What a fascinating life he had! But my admiration soon turned to revulsion when he says a large number of cockroaches began crawling on top of him in the night. Also riveting is his description of a journey to the ‘cave of the virgins’, so-called because in the past virgins had been kept there to be out of the sun, allowing their skin to lighten. He traverses a sheer cliff face, and then down into crevices so narrow that he literally feared getting his head stuck. As he was trailed by a native, breathing stale air, through muddy passages with no maneuverability, and took the wrong turn twice, it’s all quite scary. The cave itself has a horrifying history, as the young girls relied on food being brought down to them which was interrupted by warfare, and a great many starved to death. Later on he does another treacherous walk along a cliff, forced to strip first according to custom, and with the ocean raging below and him clinging tight to a cliff face, the line "Never again will I climb on a lava cliff in my underwear" brought a smile.

The island is of course home to several mysteries, starting with the massive moai. Heyerdahl makes a number of observations about the statues, including those which were still in the process of being carved when work abruptly halted. He had a team of natives attempt to carve one in the same quarry to determine how long it must have taken (the answer upwards of a year, quite a lot longer than previously estimated), but can only listen to the natives’ accounts from their oral history that transportation to sites all over the island was accomplished by them walking. This was three decades before he attempted to recreate this feat with mixed results, his technique causing excessive grinding in the moai’s base. It was only in the last decade that researchers made some important observations about the bases of the moai in transport and successfully accomplished the feat, as shown on a fantastic episode of the PBS show Nova. In the end, despite criticism of the natives’ account and of Heyerdahl lending credence to it, it was correct.

Heyerdahl in his team were also mystified about how the massive statues were raised from a horizontal position to standing. As he notes, between the time of the Europeans first visit to the island under Roggeveen in 1722, when many statues were still erect on platforms and sporting their massive red topknots, and his own day, they had all been pulled down following a civil war. Heyerdahl and team scoffed at the leader (‘The Mayor’) of the natives who says he’s been told the secret, which has been passed down over 11 generations, the time when the moai were still being produced. They are then blown away by the natives actually doing it over the course of a few weeks, using an ingenious technique of incrementally slipping small stones beneath the statue which has been raised just a sliver.

Another mystery surrounding the island were the people themselves. Heyerdhal, like Europeans before him, observed that there were light-skinned and red-haired people among the natives. He had read the accounts of Spanish conquistadors who had also met pale redheads among the Incas. He was also aware of their oral history describing the ‘long ears’ (those who had their ear lobes elongated) perishing in a fire at the hands of the ‘short ears’ in a massive defense structure (12 feet deep, 40 feet wide, nearly 2 miles long) of their own making. He searches for evidence for this fire and believes he finds it, and carbon dates it to the late 17th century. He concludes that the ‘long ears’ were from South America, bringing with them the ability to build the moai, the ‘short ears’ were Polynesian, and that the account of their warfare is true.

All of that is in dispute today, but the jury is still out, and it’s hard to conceive that the Incans had not made it to Rapanui. Heyerdahl and his team also uncovered evidence of them in the expert stone masonry at Vinapu, statue types different from the moai, and in determining that a structure was a solar ‘observatory’. He also points out the use of reed boats, similar to those he had seen on Lake Titicaca, and reliance on the sweet potato. I like how he maintained a strict adherence to science while trying to thread a needle between native lore, his own observations, and his understanding of the region. Even when he makes his conjecture in the last chapter, he makes it clear he is speculating in an imaginary conversation with his ghostly spirit, or aku-aku.

I have no issue with Heyerdahl possibly being off-base in a few areas, as science is always about revision and advancement. Where I do find fault is in what I suppose is a sense of superiority to the native people. It’s hard to read the lengthy portions of the book devoted to essentially tricking them into first giving him their 'family stones', precious and unique carvings that had been in their families for generations, and then letting him into the secret caves which they were stored in. In part, it's just too long and should have been pared down, but more significantly, one sees the moral paradox. Heyerdahl means well and makes it clear that all his actions were sanctioned by the Chilean government, believing that the carvings would be better off safely preserved in European museums, but in the end the act of removing them seems like a violation, even when they’re given as gifts by the natives.

The book picks up in its final two chapters, as Heyerdahl and crew make it westward from Rapanui (Big Rapa) to Rapaiti (Little Rapa), and once there, excavate the site of Morongo Uta. His description of the work balance between native women and men is fascinating (the men were quite lazy!), as are his frustrations when the men decide to go on strike. Along the way he also visits Pitcairn Island and direct descendants of mutineer Fletcher Christian. Heyerdahl’s account may be superseded by more modern research, but it’s still highly relevant today. It wasn’t until 50 years later, for example, that Morongo Uta was explored again. Heyerdahl’s account is a bit long, but well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
The account by an archeologist of a 1955 expedition to Easter Island and other Polynesian idslands. Presents a series of mysteries: Where were the stone statues made? Who did it? How?

Heyerdahl relentlessly solves this issues. He also explores the hidden caves with native guides. He also conducts a
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dig on Rapa Iti and other islands.

Moving the 10-ton megalithic moai.
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LibraryThing member bigbazza
Hardcopy, 367 pp, Collectors First Edition published by The Book Society Ltd. English Edition 1958.

A great read, with lots of photos.
LibraryThing member FuficiusFango
I haven't read this one for at least 30 years. I bought it (hardback) recently for its evocative ancient colour photos.
10 years ago I read the Ra expedition, which was very boring, and the Kontiki one, which was more interesting but just a description of months at sea. As a scientist, Heyerdahl is
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OK, but flawed. He proves that something can be done, not that it was done that way. But one problem is that what can be done (from his point of view) demands a huge amount of received knowledge which the ancients didn't have and possibly his pride in his Viking ancestry, which means his motivations are not what ancient motivations would have been.
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LibraryThing member questbird
A very interesting account of an archaological expedition to Easter Island, told by an adventurerer who also sailed a raft across the Pacific. The book at its best evokes the environment of Easter Island, both above and below ground, and the social structures of the natives. But from the chapter
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'Superstition against superstition' the book started to lose this reader. The author displays a marked European sense of superiority to the native beliefs, and spends a lot of time trying to hoodwink the locals into handing over their old 'family stones' to him so that they can be put 'safely' in a museum. I was convinced by his theory that Easter Island had been settled by two different peoples (Polynesians and pre-Columbian Peruvians) in its pre-European days; but not his more general ideas about Polynesian and Inca origins.
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LibraryThing member untraveller
A very, very good book that is both well-written and a great adventure story. Much of his writings have been disproven, but it sill makes for a great story. Sadly, I have a problem with T.H. bartering with something that does not have a high value to him (cigs, etc.) for island artifacts that were
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held in high esteem by the local culture until westernization. Tis the Dutch and Manhattan Island all over again.
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