Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: Aku-Aku

One evening I finished working on the computer and I started reading this book to help my eyes reset after looking at the computer screen for so long.[1] While reading, I came across a word I didn't recognize: vahine.[2] So I picked up the computer, again, so I could look up the meaning. Several hours later I woke up to this screen:

I figured that I'd fallen asleep in the middle of my Google search, so I hit the back button. To my surprise, I encountered this screen:

Apparently I fell asleep with my hands on the keyboard and when my hands went limp they pressed some keys. And then I woke up enough to do it again, but not enough to remember it.

Now don't let this little incident fool you into thinking that this book is in any way boring. For a nonfiction account it was actually quite engaging. Heyerdahl definitely had a knack for telling a good story. However, this book wasn't without flaws. For one thing, he often backtracks and starts telling of events that started in the middle of the last chapter. If he had stuck to a more linear format I think the result would've been a tighter story and a more gripping one.[3]

Also, his science was shoddy. The way Heyerdahl presented his narrative, you would believe that the evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of his view that Easter Island was settled by the Incas and that South American stonework was the inspiration for the Easter Island moia (giant heads). However, the opposite is true. The evidence strongly suggests that Easter Island was settled by Polynesians who set out from the Marquesas or Mangareva, both of which also have moia-like ancestor sculptures.[4] Rather than acknowledge evidence contrary to his hypotheses, he presented only the information that he wanted you, the reader, to have and buried the rest. There is also some question as to whether all the artifacts he recovered were genuine.[5]

My verdict: This book is definitely an entertaining read (as was his previous book, Kon-tiki). But it should only be trusted for its narrative of his visit to Easter Island. Don't consult it for a true history of Easter Island and its peoples. The title (Aku-Aku) refers to the tutelary deities of the Easter Islanders. They were supposed to protect the family caves and had to be appeased before anyone could enter the cave. If they were displeased, they would punish the offender with disease or misfortune.[6] In a bizarre turn, the last chapter of the book is an imaginary conversation Heyerdahl has with "his own aku-aku" which convinces him to interpret his data in way that isn't well supported by the evidence.


[1] The light emitted by computers, PDAs, cell phones, etc., can disrupt circadian rhythms, causing sleep deprivation. In particular, blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, a neurotransmitter which induces the sleep portion of the wake–sleep cycle. See

[2] In case you don't know, either, vahine (more often spelled wahine and pronounced wah-HEE-nee, mouseover for IPA) is a Polynesian term for "woman" or "wife", especially in New Zealand and Hawai'i.

[3] If this was first published serially in a magazine, then it would make more sense that it follows this format. But I am unaware that he did so.

[4] Currently it is suspected that the Polynesian migration across the Pacific was caused by ciguatera, a disease caused by eating fish which are full of toxins (ciguatoxin, maitotoxin—shown above, scaritoxin, and palytoxin) that they get from the dinoflagellates they consume.

[5] The book of rongorongo Heyerdahl was given turned out to be copies of existing texts and the translations provided by 'Juan the Wizard' were completely spurious. As for the stones he so assiduously recovered from so many family caves, often by subterfuge, I cannot ascertain whether they were authentic or not. Since I can't find any claims that they aren't genuine, I'll assume that they are. What makes this intriguing is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of lost caves on Easter Island and these could be filled with similar stone carvings—if someone can just find the.

[6] It was this very superstition that Heyerdahl played upon to trick the Islanders into giving away many of their historical artifacts.

Image attributions:

Chemical structure of maitotoxin is by Azulene, available at

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