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Easter Island the 'Ultimate Playground' for Researcher from Chicago Area

 Dale Simpson, who was a Regenstein Intern at the Field Museum of Natural History, is one of five Americans to live most of the year on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), which is famous for its 887 statues called moai. The island, off the western coast of South America, has a population of about 5,700 people.
Dale Simpson
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CHICAGO — Dale Simpson takes great delight in living in one of the world's most isolated places.

The anthropologist also relishes being the only person from the Chicago area to inhabit Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui to locals.

"It's very slow here. I don't have Internet 24/7, and I love that," Simpson said of the pace of life on Rapa Nui, an island famous for its 887 moai statues, giant stone figures that are centuries old. The island lies 2,700 miles off the coast of Santiago, Chile, and is more than 1,000 miles from the nearest inhabited island.

"I don't have that phone-control culture here where I have to check my phone every minute," Simpson said during a Skype interview, during which he wore a blue Chicago Cubs sweatshirt. "It's [slower] and it's more personable, and there [are] 26,000 archeological sites. This is the ultimate playground."

 Dale Simpson sports a Cubs sweatshirt during a Skype interview from Easter Island, one of the world's most isolated places.
Dale Simpson sports a Cubs sweatshirt during a Skype interview from Easter Island, one of the world's most isolated places.
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DNAinfo/Justin Breen

Justin Breen introduces listeners to the only person from the Chicago area living on Easter Island, and explains how seclusion fits him quite well:

Simpson's great-grandparents and grandparents lived in Pilsen, and he grew up in suburban Warrenville. He also was a Regenstein intern at the Field Museum after first visiting Rapa Nui in 2001. On the island, Simpson is working on his Ph.D. while teaching online anthropology courses for the College of DuPage.

His Ph.D. project is focused on the island's prehistoric interaction from AD 1200-1722. To better understand the movement of people, materials and ideas, Simpson is analyzing the geochemical properties of stone sources (lava flows and quarries) and tools (adzes, fishhooks and knives).

"If you could imagine that every volcano is like a finger, with its own rock DNA, each tool made from that quarry can be identified from its unique geochemical signature," Simpson explained in an email. "From here we can trace the movement of material and see if certain social groups were using certain stone, controlling certain quarries, and/or using specific material for specific tools. With this information, we can talk about ideas of social organization, territoriality and ideas of the island's proposed collapse."

Simpson is one of five Americans to live full-time on Rapa Nui, which has a population of about 5,700, according to Marcus Edensky of Easter Island Traveling. Edensky said Simpson, unlike many of the scientists on the island, shares his discoveries and data with the local population.

"Many archeologists that study in the field keep their knowledge to themselves. Dale is not one of them," Edensky said. "He shares his finds with us here at Rapa Nui, where it belongs more than anywhere in the world. For this he truly deserves recognition."

Simpson said he's following the late William Mulloy, who earned his master's degree from the University of Chicago and made more than 20 trips to Rapa Nui from 1955-78.

"I'm continuing his investigation and his passion for the island," Simpson said. "He's a great example."

Simpson said he never gets tired of looking at the moai, which weigh an average of 14 tons. They are believed to have been carved, transported, and erected between AD 1400 and 1600. The reason for their existence remains unclear, but they were most likely associated with Polynesian ancestor worship, Simpson said.

"I get to look at them at different times of the day, and you see those silhouettes, and you can still see that power," Simpson said.