I just returned from a trip to Easter Island. Also known as Rapa Nui, Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited areas of the planet, a tiny speck of land in size surrounded in all directions by thousands of miles of empty Pacific Ocean. The nearest inhabited land, Pitcairn Island, has only 50 residents and is 1,289 miles away.
The flight from Santiago, Chile, to Easter Island takes over four hours and covers over 2,200 miles, roughly the equivalent of crossing the continental United States but instead of flying over midwestern croplands and the Rocky Mountains, the flight to Easter Island crosses endless expanses of deep blue ocean. The island is serviced by one flight per day from Santiago on a LATAM Airlines widebody 787, which is able to access the island thanks to a project completed by NASA in 1987 to extend (to 10,885 feet) and widen the runway at Easter Island’s Mataveri International Airport to serve as an abort site for the U.S. Space Shuttle.
When one hears “Easter Island,” the first thing that comes to mind are the giant stone statues, known as “moai” and perched on large, cermonial rock platforms known as “ahu.” The statues are indeed giant, with an average height of 13 feet tall and weighing 14 tons, though many are much bigger than that. The largest moai found is over 70 feet tall, weighing 150 tons. The statues were carved out of volcanic rock by Rapa Nui islanders between AD 1400 and 1600 using only obsidian stone tools. Rapa Nui islanders carved at least 887 of these status, chiseling them by hand out of a volcanic cone at the center of the island then raising and transporting the statues many miles across the island to place them on their platforms, usually next to the sea with the statues facing inland (though there is one ahu with seven moai that faces the sea).
The moai take human form but with somewhat strange features, with large eyes, big heads, small hands, and no apparent feet. The moai were believed to have been created to signify reverence for the dead, with each moai resembling a member of the tribe who passed away and whom the islanders wanted to honor. Despite their strange features, the moai are surprisingly lifelike and one is able to discern different features from one to the other, such as tattoos.
None of the moai today has its original eyes, made of white and red coral, though archaeologists have recreated this on one statue based on materials found that are believed to be the original eyes from a moai (all the rest of the eyes have disappeared). The addition of the eyes seems to render the statue almost alive.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the moai concerns what archaeologists refer to as “transport,” which refers to how the islanders were able to move these giant stone statues from the quarry at the center of the island to locations around the island, then stand them up on the ahu platforms and, in some cases, place a one-ton pukao (a red stone hat made of volcanic rock from a different quarry) on top of the statue. Rapa Nui oral tradition states that the statues “walked” from the quarry to the ahu.
Modern archaeologists have offered numerous hypotheses concerning transport, ranging from the use of wood from trees on the island to create sleds and rollers (thus possibly contributing to deforestation, resulting in population decline and wars, as per Jared Diamond’s book Collapse) to multiple ropes attached to the heads of the moai that would allow islanders to rock the statues back and forth and move them along trails, just as if the statues were walking.
The moai are magnificent in terms of their size, detail, positioning, and spiritual aspects. Upon seeing any of the statues, one wants to pause and contemplate what the islanders were thinking when they went to the effort of designing, carving, transporting, and placing these giants. One can sense the reverence of these people for their fallen ancestors, and one must appreciate how islanders equipped with only obsidian rock tools were able to accomplish these impressive feats, and that nearly 500 years later we can still stand and admire their work.
The moai are also stunning because they are so unlike anything else on the planet. Although stone carvings appear on every continent, the distortions of the human form of the moai are unique and have an effect on the viewer that is difficult to describe. I came away from my time at Easter Island with a great appreciation for the moai and a Rapa Nui people who created them.
As I left the island and returned to Chile, I began to think about the moai from an innovation standpoint. Indeed, the statues were innovative from the standpoint of being unique and new. The islanders obviously felt a need to honor their ancestors and were exceedingly clever in their use of local materials to produce the moai.
The volcanic rock that forms the base of the moai is relatively soft and easy to carve with harder rock. Obsidian rock appears throughout the island as a result of volcanic activity (indeed, one sees the shiny black obsidian rock all over the island), so building tools to carve the rock required some creative thinking about how to leverage a ubiquitous material.
In the quarry today, one can see a moai in the process of being carved (it was apparently left incomplete in the middle of production), so one can see how the craftsmen carved out the stone in a way that allowed them to extract the moai from the ground and transport it to the ahu platforms. The transportation question is a gold mine of innovation, no matter what the actual method was used by the Rapa Nui people to move the Moai statues all over the island. Either way, they accomplished a feat using only their own brainpower and muscles to move enormous stone objects weighing many tons great distances on uneven, rocky terrain.
One can see “transportation” in amazing detail today on the road of the fallen moai, when one leaves the quarry and walks along a path and sees numerous moai that fell down during transportation (usually face-first) and, for some reason, were left in that spot and not recovered.
From an innovation standpoint, any innovator would be glad to find out that one’s creation continued to amaze future generations for hundreds of years. Yet I was struck by another analogy for innovation and the moai that could be relevant for modern practitioners.
I thought about the work involved in preparing the moai and contrasted it with the immense constructions of the Inca in Peru. I specifically thought about the Inca agricultural research station of Moray, near Cusco, Peru, as well as the famous Machu Picchu hilltop citadel, which some argue was also used by the Inca as a research location perched on the border between the lands they knew well (the high Andes) and the beginnings of the jungle terrain of the Amazon. Both Inca edifices were from roughly the same era as the moai on Easter Island (the 1500s), and both continue to marvel modern visitors today.
However, the end purpose of the massive human effort for these different creations are quite distinct. Archaeologists believe that each moai required over 10 months of human effort in the quarry to carve and extract the statue, followed by a similarly long time to transport the statue to its platform, depending on how far each moai had to travel (sometimes several miles). Multiply 10 months times 887 moai and one gets a sense of how much labor was directed towards these endeavors.
In addition to the labor to carve and transport the statues, the Rapa Nui islanders also had to cut down trees to use for transportation, as well as other vines for ropes and banana plants to lubricate the wooden sleds. Diamond’s research for Collapse suggests that overpopulation, a Polynesian rat infestation from abroad (with no natural predators), along with an escalating contest among the Rapa Nui tribes to build bigger and more ostentatious moai contributed to the collapse of their civilization to the point where humans nearly vanished from the island.
The deforestation was particularly important because of the prevalence of windy conditions on the island, which I witnessed firsthand while hiking around various sites. Heavy winds from the South Pacific rake the island on a regular basis, making it hard for crops to take root and grow without some sort of shelter. Rows of trees, such as the millions of tall palm trees, could shelter crops and protect the topsoil from wind-driven erosion, but as the trees were cut down to feed into the moai construction processes, this agricultural benefit disappeared.
All of this work, while targeted at the noble purpose of venerating one’s ancestors and, according to the archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, serving as a conduit between the people and their gods, sits in contrast to the more scientifically-oriented structures of the Incas. At the agricultural terraces at Moray, for instance, the Incas could grow crops and simulate different micro-climatic conditions, with temperatures varying by as much as 27 degrees Fahrenheit from the top of the terraces to the bottom.
Presumably data gathered from this research center would be used throughout the empire to find new and better ways to grow crops at different elevations, which one sees in the form of terracing throughout the Inca empire. Machu Picchu, likewise, allowed the Incas to grow crops in terraces near the climate of the Amazon region in a protected manner to ensure their ability to survive in that climate as their empire expanded.
The Innovation Moai Test
From an innovation standpoint, I would offer what could be called the innovation moai test. This applies to any innovation project in which one is investing a great deal of time or resources. No matter how noble or impactful the end result of an innovation project may be, it is always worthwhile to step back and ask the question if one’s efforts are truly aligned with the potential marketplace benefits that may accrue from the innovation. What the innovator is working on may be truly revolutionary and may continue to astound people for hundreds of years (though this is unlikely), yet we have to remember that we also have an obligation to our companies to ensure that our efforts address a pressing marketplace need, even if that need is situated in the future.
Similar to a phase-gate process that is part of any innovation project, I would challenge innovators to periodically ask themselves if they are creating a Moai or a Moray?
A moai may be amazing and stunning, but its purpose may not be aligned with the marketplace needs of one’s company. It may absorb a ton of resources, but those resources could be put to better use solving a more immediate marketplace need. A Moray is more scientific and targeted to addressing a specific need. Both result in transformational and innovative outcomes, but only one has a tie to the marketplace.
An interesting thing happened when I was visiting the platform known as Ahu Tangoriki, which is the largest and most famous platform on the island, containing 15 standing moai statues. I was using my iPhone to frame a photo of the statues head-on, trying to get all 15 statues in a single shot, when I noticed that the yellow frames that indicate the camera has identified a human face in the photo started popping up. This suggested that the face-finder algorithm of the iPhone had recognized features in the moai faces that met the requirements for a human face. I captured a screenshot of this fleeting moment where the 16th century statues met the latest 21st century technology and shook virtual hands across the centuries.
Photographs provided by the author
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Books, 2011)
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden