Easter Island experience turns researcher toward education—and hope

Britton Shepardson on Easter Island.

A casual look at Easter Island yields familiar and enduring images of stone statues scattered on a seemingly barren, wind-swept landscape—a place popularized as a symbol of catastrophic environmental collapse.

But what Britton Shepardson sees with archaeologist eyes is not a sterile monument to human futility, waiting to be excavated. Instead, his research visits have brought him closer to a people who know how to persevere, and he’s helping to build a bridge to their future.

Sustaining outreach

Ironically, sustainable development is becoming an issue for Easter Island, and for the one town on the island—Hanga Roa—that sits at the western edge of what is mostly national park land.

Britton Shepardson said that even among thousands of tourists, he is still recognized and welcomed by the local people. Yet he spends far less time in the city and much more in the field, especially as he guides Terevaka.net Archaeological Outreach.The two-week intensive program for island high school students recently completed its 10th year, and three graduates have gone on to earn university degrees in archaeology or conservation. The program also maintains a publicly accessible database of information collected through its research projects.

Ultimately, Shepardson hopes to establish a strong commitment to sustainability on the island, making it a symbol of success rather than self-destruction.

“I think the island is one of those great stories of resilience rather than collapse,” Shepardson said. “But as long as people are mischaracterizing prehistoric cultures like Easter Island, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that resilience has always been part of the answer.”

Such is the paradox of this remote Pacific outpost and its Polynesian descendants, the Rapanui. The moai they carved and transported over centuries are at once resilient and fragile, and they are at the heart of the lesson Shepardson wants to offer a world seeking a sustainable path forward.

“I think one of the amazing things about studying a place like Easter Island is that it can help us realize that our current situation, when it comes to sustainable development on a global scale, isn’t hopeless,” said Shepardson, a lecturer in the Anthropology Department at Northern Arizona University. “We’ve got a lot to learn from a culture that survived for 800 years before Europeans ever got there.”

That interpretation stands in stark contrast to more well-known depictions of Easter Island as a civilization that collapsed by exhausting its own natural resources. Today, about 5,000 people live on the island—some as direct descendants of the original inhabitants—and nearly 80,000 tourists annually visit what Shepardson calls “the Jurassic Park of archaeology.”

A world traveler from the age of 4, with talent and training in mathematics and a doctorate in archaeology, Shepardson brought an open mind to his initial research on the island. What began as an academic quest to analyze stylistic variations among the statues through algorithms and software evolved into an educational outreach program through which Shepardson helps to connect island high school students with their own culture and artifacts.

That personal journey, which took place during 13 visits over 14 years, is depicted in Shepardson’s recently published book, Moai: A New Look at Old Faces. Through heartfelt journal entries and high-tech excerpts from his research, Shepardson informs, engages and explains how he turned from hard science to human outreach.

“For me, education is the only reasonable long-term solution for the problems we’re bound to face,” Shepardson said. “One of the goals of the educational program is to get these high school students, the next generation of decision-makers on the island, to become acquainted with both the cultural resources and natural resources on the island and help them develop an understanding of the history of the place and how fragile it is.”

Shepardson describes his extensive journeys across the island in search of artifacts, yet also notes that some of the students who live there are far less familiar with the landscape.

“It’s amazing that you get these kids who have never been to the other side of the island to see sites that hundreds or thousands of tourists are visiting every day,” he said. “I just want to raise awareness with the students about what’s out there, what’s at stake and what needs protection.”