Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book review: "Aku-Aku" by Thor Heyerdahl

Near the end of "Aku-Aku," one of the archeologists working with Thor Heyerdahl admits to being astonished at yet another unexpected turn of events.

"I never knew archeology could produce so many surprises," he says.

Indeed, anyone who thinks that archeology is just about digging in the dirt will be surprised pleasantly by "Aku-Aku."

In this account of his 1955-56 expedition to Easter Island and other Polynesian islands, Heyerdahl presents a series of mysteries: Where did the great stone statues on Easter Island come from? Who made them? How did the makers move them? Where are the hidden caves of Easter Island and what secrets do they hold?

Heyerdahl is not a great writer, but he is usually good enough. His weakness lies in portraying people; even the most prominent character of the book Easter Island's mayor comes off as just a simplistic caricature. An odd quirk of the author is that he refers to some characters almost solely by their jobs "the photographer," "the skipper," "the doctor." After awhile you begin to wonder if these people have names.

But Heyerdahl is passionate about his work and his enthusiam shows as he presents and, mostly, solves mystery after mystery. He is relentless, for instance, in trying to get the natives to reveal their secret caves, even when it means he has to eat a chicken tail, strip to his underwear, and climb down a sheer cliff without a rope.

(The caves are a curious form of secure storage on this island that seems to lack locks. Note to self: Open self-storage franchise on Easter Island.)

A couple ethical issues occur to me, although I can't claim to have the whole picture from just one book. Did Heyerdahl adequately reward the islanders for the artifacts they gave him? He mentions some gifts but it's unclear whether all of them received something and how much. Also, he resorts to some trickery to get the natives to give him things is this fair? (I'm sure Heyerdahl would argue that he had to immerse himself in the natives' world of superstition and ghosts to communicate with them successfully.)

The bulk of the book is about Easter Island but the last two chapters discuss the expedition's visits to other islands. The story of the dig on Rapa Iti is particularly good, and I would have enjoyed a bit more on these other islands.


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