Techno Time Travel

It was going to be a simple write-up on Nova’s special series “Secrets of Lost Empires.” Why, then, am I up at 6 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday to drive down to Long Beach and paddle a canoe?

Inspired by a successful earlier episode on pyramid building, “Secrets,” which runs through the month of February, brings scholars, craftspeople and artists together in acts of “experimental archaeology.” Teams specially assembled for the series design and build everything from a Roman bath to a medieval trebuchet -- a mechanized catapult that can send a 300-pound boulder through a castle wall -- the way the ancients might have done it. (Accompanying text at www.pbs.orgwgbhnova lostempires.)

“We think the kids should try this at home,” Nova executive producer Paula Apsell stated happily. I thought Paula was joking until I arrived in Long Beach to speak to Ted Ralston. Ralston, whose day job is in technology transfer at Boeing, is an expert on Polynesian outrigger canoes, the secret behind those statues on Easter Island (known in Polynesian as Rapa Nui). Of course, if you really want to understand canoes, you have to paddle one. Which is why I‘m standing on a chilly, rainy beach having just missed Ralston and his companions embarking on their ocean paddle. (Somebody really should mark the split between the 405 and the 710 a little better.)

Outrigger canoes (remember the credits in Magnum, P.I.?) are longer, slenderer versions of the standard type, with two arched arms extending from the hull to a small pontoon. The configuration gives the canoe the stability to travel for weeks, even months, across hundreds of miles of open ocean. Large canoes, according to Ralston, were the Calistoga wagons of the Pacific. These canoes were enormous (up to 100 feet in length, and 3 feet wide) double-hulled vessels. They were the engine of the great migration that settled the South Pacific from 1600 B.C. to A.D. 1000. As an island’s population outgrew its resources, or even split along clan lines, entire families with their chickens and pigs would take to the ocean, following currents and migratory birds to the next island. “On voyages over 50 miles, the canoes would have sails, because the caloric intake required to paddle would have meant all available cargo space would have to be given over to food and water to sustain the crew,” explained Ralston.

The fiberglass replicas used in Long Beach are racing canoes, cigarette boats to the outrigger canoes‘ ocean liners. There is no room for passengers -- you had better be prepared to paddle your own weight. This may explain why in our fitness-crazed state there are Polynesian canoe clubs up and down the coast; Ralston’s was one of the first (see

Ralston is one of those people with the gift of being joyously obsessive about his passion. Over breakfast, he spoke knowledgeably about everything from Easter Island‘s past to canoe craft to how the surfboard manufacturer who created a fiberglass mold for the Nova special was asked to design airplane wings for Boeing.

Unfortunately, the only way you’ll get to see Ralston is to drive down to Long Beach for a weekend canoe outing. His ideas and work were vital to the Easter Island Nova, but you won‘t see his name or face. It was a tough call made by the show’s producer, Liesl Clark, whose resume includes the IMAX film of Everest. The main voice in the series is UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, one of the world‘s leading experts on Rapa Nui culture. She and Ralston met at a local conference comparing Easter Island technology to space technology -- no, not the How-did-space-aliens-deliver-the-statues? nonsense, but a more profound questions about how a local economy is taxed when a major part of its population leaves on a voyage.

The question in the Nova Easter Island episode is how did the Easter Island statues, called moai, which averaged 14 tons apiece, make it from an inland quarry to sites as far as 15 miles away -- without cranes, trucks or even union grips? Van Tilburg postulated that the islanders must have relied on a technology already in their culture. The obvious antecedent is the canoe, whose craftsmanship reached an apex among the Rapa Nui islanders. Captain Cook wrote that Rapa Nui woodwork exceeded the finest European cabinetry of the time, and that European explorers preferred handwoven island lashings to their own, Ralston said.

The episode tests the hypothesis that the statues were transported on a V-shaped sled made from locally cut tree lengths; the sled resembles what you would get by angling one end of a double-hulled canoe against another canoe tip. According to UCLA engineering professor Zvi Shiller, who worked with Van Tilburg to produce a computer model of Easter Island’s terrain, the sled in theory should work on rollers and sliders, but on the show, sliders were the clear winner. (See Shiller‘s Web site, .html, for further details.)

The value of the experiment lies beyond merely determining an ancient technology. The statues were not moved by slaves but rather family members and workers paid in food. The number of people needed to move a statue suggests the natural resources and the relative wealth and power of the ancient families behind the technological feat.

But even before the moving started, the team had to make a replica moai. And here, the Nova show turned into something like The Real World as directed by Oliver Stone. “At least,” sighs a disheartened Clark, “on Everest you could blame people’s behavior on hypoxia.” Clark‘s benevolent conclusion is that any group of people with strong opinions stuck on an island that’s only 7 miles across (heck, ever wonder why the Professor didn‘t just blow up Gilligan and the Skipper and keep Ginger and Mary Ann for himself?) will get into fights.

Clark has kept some of the disagreements in the final film as a “morality play” on how difficult it must have been for the islanders themselves to agree on the best methods to transport and erect the statues.

Van Tilburg offers her own profound perspective on what went wrong: Even a replica moai is not merely a hunk of stone to be hauled about, a spiritual distinction Van Tilburg feels the TV producers failed to grasp. The moai’s creation represented years of her work and personal relationships on the island. “This was an obligation of honor, not a prop,” Van Tilburg says.

Clark, trying to sum up the difference between her Everest and Easter Island experiences, mused, “Maybe it‘s because we didn’t have the physical hardships that bring people together on Everest. On Easter Island, it‘s a mild climate, and a tight space with too many people -- maybe that’s what it‘s like in L.A.?”

Bull’s-eye. And I think I‘ll take the islanders’ cure. When life crowds in, take to the open ocean in a canoe. Thomas Guide in hand, I‘m going back to Long Beach next Sunday.

The Easter Island episode of the Nova series airs February 15 on PBS. Check local listings for time.

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