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Ask the guy who carved them

Easter Island sits in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Known to its natives as Rapa Nui and governed by Chile, this tiny volcanic outcropping is famous for its enigmatic moai statues, monolithic human figures carved from rock.

Nobody knows who carved the huge stone figures, or why. There are 1000 of them, ranging from 6 feet to more than 30 feet in height. The biggest weighs about 270 tons. All have the same appearance: a long shaped head with an upper torso, a chin and long ears, with arms along the body or arms that rest on the stomach. Some of the statues contain eyes, made in white and red stone and coral. Some of them even sport stone hats that the natives call ”pukao.”

Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived on the island between the 4th and 7th century A.D., probably from Polynesia, and almost immediately began work on platforms for the famous statues. About 300 years later, the platforms were complete and they started building the big stone figures using rock from the inner core of the Rano Rarku volcano.

During the next 500 years, about two statues per year were completed and moved to their final resting place on the edge of the island. The natives apparently cut down all of the trees on the island to use the logs to move the statues. It must have taken longer to move them than to carve them, because almost 400 of the statues are still sitting in the volcanic quarry.

Suddenly, around 1680, the chiseling and moving stopped. Nobody knows why. Sociologists speculate that war or disease may have caused a catastrophic collapse of the island society (they do not believe the current inhabitants of Rapa Nui are descendants of the people who built the statues).

Perhaps the statue-builders ran out of chisels. Or maybe the movers unionized and demanded a higher wage for shlepping the big stone figures from the quarry. Or maybe the natives elected a new king who said ”Enough with the statues, already!” and ordered them to use the last of the trees to build a big boat so they could all leave.

There is one other theory, however, and it is quite plausible. We’ll get to that later.

Anyway, the spooky stone figures have stood on Easter Island—so named by a Dutch explorer who ”discovered” it on Easter Sunday in 1772—for the past 300 years without anybody bothering them. Until now.

The expanding reach of international tourism finally has enveloped the most remote and exotic locations on Earth. ”Eco-tourists,” looking very much like the family from Dubuque in our favorite Far Side cartoons, have descended on the Galapagos Islands, where they are now threatening to trample Darwin’s famous turtles into extinction. Tour boats are cruising up the heart of the Amazon.

On Easter Island, which officially is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, the current residents are scrambling to accommodate a growing number of visitors who are creating a strain on the Rapa Nui infrastructure and its delicate environment. The Rapa Nuians need to build roads and hotels, but they don’t want to disturb the big stone heads.

Enter Autodesk (the 3D modeling experts), METCO Services (provider of surveying and scanning services), and Leica Geosystems (maker of GPS and laser scanning instruments and something known as point-cloud processing software). For the past 18 months, high-tech engineers from the three companies have been mapping the big statues. They’ve also been training Rapa Nui officials to use the sophisticated technology and Autodesk digital modeling software, so local developers can evaluate the impact of their plans on the ancient statues and make sustainable development decisions.

”We are at a pivotal time in our history,” says Pedro Pablo Edmunds Paoa, mayor of Rapa Nui. ”Sustainable development, protection of our historical artifacts and natural resources, and ongoing education about our resources are the key challenges we face today. Autodesk design technology and engineering expertise supports our need to make better, more informed decisions about the future of our Island. We appreciate our partners who are helping us modernize without destroying our rich cultural history.”

According to Lisa Campbell, vice president, Autodesk Geospatial Solutions, Autodesk design software is helping Rapa Nui officials digitally visualize and analyze how their development plans ”could impact roads, buildings and infrastructure, as well as historical artifacts throughout the island.”

”This unique opportunity to work directly with Rapa Nui officials and archeologists to bring state-of-the-art 3D prototyping technology and visual models to tackle their development challenges is especially rewarding for us,” she adds.

Local developers and engineers on Rapa Nui are working their way up from existing AutoCAD software to advanced 3D modeling and visualization technologies from Autodesk, including AutoCAD Civil 3D, Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise, and Revit Architecture design software.

So 21st century technology is being deployed to enable sustainable development next to a bunch of stone figures that have been standing around for almost a millennium, hundreds of years after the people who carved them suddenly disappeared without a trace.

Maybe we’ve seen too many science fiction movies, but isn’t this the part where the super-confident modern technoids, having awakened an ancient power far greater than their nifty gadgets, suddenly have to run for their lives?

Which brings us back to that other theory about why the original Rapa Nui natives disappeared. Here it is:

Even though many of the stone figures on the island are standing next to the ocean, all of them are facing inward, staring up at the crest of the volcano that rises above the island.

The first natives created the big figures to protect themselves against the evil volcano spirit. The statues are “guarding” the volcano. Unfortunately for the natives, the volcano spirit was not impressed, and eventually let them know it with a huge belch of fire. The stone figures are still here, but the natives are gone.

In the last scene in our movie, a handful of ash-covered Autodesk engineers and Mayor Paoa are paddling a handmade boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, trying to find the nearest island with the only GPS device that survived the wrath of Rano Rarku.

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