The Collapse of Easter Island

Easter Island is the nearest island to Chile, 2300 miles east, and is 1300 miles from its nearest neighboring island to the west. It is one of the most remote scraps of habitable land on the planet. How is it that a Dutch explorer found humans there on Easter day in 1722? Polynesians were actually gifted explorers and, within a couple thousand years, had spread out to virtually every island in the Pacific. Imagine setting out in a canoe and hitting on an island only 66 square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (To be fair, they had no idea how vast the Pacific was, on the other hand they had no idea how vast it wasn’t, either!) They accomplished this by watching birds flying out to sea and back to a presumed land source. This expanded their target by a couple hundred miles on either side. Still, one can imagine how many of these voyages must have ended in disaster when a couple weeks’ food rations ran out before land was found.

Stone statues of human faces and torsos covered the island, raised onto platforms of rock. These achievements were a mystery to European explorers. A Swiss writer theorized that aliens must have gotten stranded on the island and later rescued, and that was before the days of wild internet theories. What really happened has to be among the saddest tales in human history.

The island was settled somewhere slightly before 900 A.D. A population estimated as large as 15,000 was divided into pie slices of eleven or twelve territories, each with its own chief, either overseen by one ruler or otherwise cooperative with each other, based on shared resources and evidence of transportation among the territories. Hundreds of these statues existed, some placed on platforms on the coast, facing inland, some of the largest still in the process of being carved out of mountain rock. They averaged a height of 13 feet and a weight of 10 tons, growing larger and becoming more elaborate through the generations. A friendly competition among the territories probably resulted in the kind of one-upmanship similar to modern day skyscraper height boasts of rival cities. Attempts to duplicate the achievements of the isolated islanders, even with equipment like cranes have been challenging. Statues weighed as much as 87 tons. Compounding the enigma was that the Easter Island found by European explorers was the most barren of all the Pacific Islands. But that wasn’t always the case. The Easter Island originally settled by humans was a diverse forest, containing sixteen species of trees, but humans completely deforested the island. The statues were carved out of rock on one side of the island and transported by canoe across the island in trenched out roads, by vines. All of this required trees.

With the trees gone, soon were all of the animals and, due to erosion, the land’s ability to produce enough food through agriculture. The islanders food source became each other. A popular insult of the time translated to “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” The population was dwindled to 3,000 by the time Europeans arrived in boats. The islanders asked, through gestures, in what has to be one of the most tragic and pathetic moments in the span of human history, if the explorers had, with them, any trees.

The statues they made had no value except the value they gave them, which was a tremendous amount. Estimates are that 30% of their food source went to feeding workers on the construction and transportation of the statues. And the generations left with no trees, no food source, sought vengeance against their ancestors’ legacy, destroying the statues. Every single statue on the island was deliberately toppled, most broken.

The collapse might have been brief compared to the hundreds of years of relatively peaceful society, fulfilled through statue creation, but imagine being among the generations born into and spending their lives on that hellish, barren island. A metaphor for the community of people who populated the island might be an old man spending his lifetime painting and then, in his final years, senile, burning his life’s work in a fit of rage. But the metaphor can be taken further. Perhaps the old painter (or writer) struggled with what his art gave him and what it made him give up, and though he spent most of his life feeling as if the sacrifices were worth it reflected back that they hadn’t been and lashed out. (Yikes, that’s a scary thought!)

In Collapse by Jared Diamond, the author doesn’t really speculate on the progression of thinking among the people that must have occurred leading up to someone, at some point in the history of time, literally bringing down the only tree, as far as was known, in existence. Bringing down the final one seems particularly tragic but really was inevitable. What happened before that? It’s morbidly fascinating to wonder. Someone first noticed what was happening, perhaps told a friend. The friend might have laughed, might have thought about it. Slowly, as the depletion progressed so must have the discussion about it. One of the territories must have been first to get together and recognize the need to make a change. Later, perhaps too late, the rest of the territories came to agree. Then there would likely have been poachers ignoring any established rules about tree use, more than could be policed. Finally collapse was obviously inevitable and, by the time the last tree came down, the islanders were in an each man for himself situation.

There were other Polynesian islands where statue building was common, though Easter had some of the most elaborate. Easter Island scored high on nearly every measure of susceptibility to deforestation. Statues or no, the islanders may have been faced with eventual deforestation due to the fragility of their environment, which may have proved incapable of handling a sudden influx of human occupants. The islanders lacked any historical perspective that might have spurred them to put sustainability as the highest priority. We, presently, sitting on an even more remote scrap of habitable planet we call earth are luckier, having their example. Over the next several generations, or less, it will come to pass how well we’ve applied that lesson.

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2 thoughts on “The Collapse of Easter Island

  1. Pingback: Not A Discussion Starter, Simply A Plea | Greg Metcalf

  2. Pingback: The Capitalist’s Dilemma | Greg Metcalf

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