Concrete Donkey Kong

A review of The Statues That Walked.

An artist’s drawing from the 1800s of the moai of Rapa Nui. Not shown: a bunch of islanders probably dying of the flu right now.

I just finished reading The Statues That Walked, which is about the island and people of Rapa Nui — the island you probably know better as “Easter Island”. It’s hard to summarize a multi-hundred page book that unravels every single Rapa Nui mystery — what happened to the natives (now known as the Rapanui people), the moai statues, why they were built, and how we know all of this. But here I go.

The theory posited here is that the moai served as a form of costly signaling — that the islanders spending time building and erecting them helped to serve as population control on an island with a very limited amount of resources. Keeping the natives from overpopulating the island worked well in the long-term to bring the community together, and also to cause the descendants of those building the moai to be the most successful — and thus having even more descendants.

As far as what happened to the natives — stop me if you’ve heard this one — they were wiped out by disease brought by visiting Europeans, and later slaving raids and imperialism. Companies were given control of the island and allowed to, literally, enslave and imprison the native population.

But also, the theory goes, that the arrival of the Europeans with goods like metal scissors, hats, and their big wooden ships, provided prestige items to some of the natives, raising their status and thus them no longer needing to participate in the building or maintenance of the moai. They quickly, in a matter of years, fell into disrepair and then literally fell over.

In fact, it’s documented that this happened almost immediately upon arrival of European visitors. 4 years after the first documented ship landed on Rapa Nui, the first moai had been toppled. The book has more detail and a better timeline.

But that brings us to my thesis. Or my idea. The idea that even one single foreign ship of visitors with some trinkets destroyed this entire native religion is crazy to me — how delicate the balance within their society of prestige and evolutionary pressure was that we ruined it with a guy’s hat. Literally a guy with a fancy hat landed on the island and totally ruined this 500+ year old culture of building and moving 30 ton sculptures on a tiny island.

So then I had a flash of an alien civilization somehow decoding a transmission from Earth. Maybe they’re sort of primitive, but they have certain advanced technology because they understood early how to harness electricity. So they live in like grass huts, but they also decode an errant transmission from us and it’s their first signs of life in other solar systems. But it happens to somehow be a clip of somebody playing Donkey Kong.

It really could be anything. It could be a clip of The Jeffersons. The rainbow pattern of dead air. It could be that weird Cosby Show moment where Bill flung that kid around on his knee, by the kid’s underwear. Yeah, remember that? Time destroys everything.

The most important photo in history

But the image in my head is these aliens seeing Donkey Kong and the message “HOW HIGH CAN YOU GET?” and it turning their civilization around because suddenly the most prestigious thing they have is this video game gorilla with the plus sign teeth and the intro jingle, and I’m laughing my head off.

So it turns them completely around. They get crazier and crazier technology and expectantly spend generations improving their society, in leaps and bounds, but they never forget where it came from — they build an enormous, 60 story tall concrete Donkey Kong in commemoration of the thing that changed the course of their history. Generations lie in wonder at night at what, or who, could be out there (here).

Nephews will try to get laid being all like, hey, did you know my uncle helped build Concrete Donkey Kong? And the thing is, what we’ve learned from ourselves, is that it will totally work.

And then, eventually, humanity advances enough to visit other solar systems, we make contact, and the first astronaut steps foot on this alien planet, and what do they see?

I mean, probably the landing pad. Greeting party. Then maybe Donkey Kong. But what I know for sure, for an absolute fact, is that either they or us are going to die from a hell of a lot of alien smallpox.

tags: reviews