I first learned about the history of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui in high school. It remains a curiously strong memory: Someone had left behind a poorly photocopied and blurry article on the ground underneath a computer desk. Before that moment, I knew very little about Easter Island. I knew that it was very remote, that it was populated with large distinctive statues, and that aliens were somehow involved – all standard fare. But the article conveyed a far more interesting tale than extraterrestrial shenanigans; it spoke of an ingenious society that eventually collapsed because it had overexploited its surroundings. I kept that worn and wrinkled article with me throughout my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science. Every so often I would pull it out, smooth out its pages and creased folds, and imagine the lives of the islanders during the decline of their society.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, came out after I finished my degree. Within its pages is a chapter titled “Twilight at Easter”. Diamond provides a comprehensive and compelling overview of Rapa Nui’s history, much more so than my original and now lost article. His narrative serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of environmental exploitation. What happened on that island can happen on a much larger scale, and we ignore the lessons of history at our own peril.’s book,
The History of Easter
“No other site that I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved (Plate 5). To begin with, the island is the most remote habitable scrap of land in the world. The nearest lands are the coast of Chile 2,300 miles to the east and Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands 1,300 miles to the east (map, pp. 84-85). When I arrived in 2002 by jet plane from Chile, my flight took more than five hours, all spent over the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly between the horizons, with nothing to see below us except water. By the time, towards sunset, that the small low speck that was Easter Island finally did become dimly visible ahead in the twilight, I had become concerned whether our plane had enough fuel to return to Chile if we overshot and missed Easter. It is hardly an island that one would expect to have been discovered and settled by any humans before the large swift European sailing ships of recent centuries.”
– Collapse, p. 79
Perhaps one of the most astonishing feats of preindustrial civilization was the discovery of Easter Island by ancient Polynesian explorers. Unmatched in their navigational prowess, they had found a way to this remotest of islands, a speck of land in the vast Pacific. Once there, they not only survived, but also flourished; an estimated 6,000 to 30,000 people lived at the height of the Easter Island civilization (Collapse, p. 90). When Polynesian colonists first came upon Rapa Nui sometime before 900 A.D., it was an island with abundant food resources and dense subtropical forests.
On the edge of the world. Photo from enjoyyourholiday.
Diamond pointed out that the Polynesians could not have known that Easter Island was in reality a fragile environment. Compared to other Pacific islands, it was drier, cooler, less fertile, and less resilient. As people exploited more and more of their surroundings, the environment was unable to cope. As a result, the complex society that was sustained by the environment collapsed. Even today, centuries removed from the height of Easter Island civilization, Rapa Nui remains incapable of supporting a large population, and is devoid of trees or bushes of any significant height.
Culture’s reliance on the environment
The works of man and of nature. Photo by Louis Vest.
Diamond’s examination of Easter Island once again demonstrates that culture cannot survive without nature. He notes the devastating blows inflicted on the tribes as they experienced the loss of raw materials, wild-caught foods, and the decrease in crop yields as soil fertility declines. Deforestation was the root cause of all three problems. No large trees meant a shortage of dependable firewood and a lack of bark for making clothing, rope, and sails. The lack of suitable wood for the construction of deep ocean canoes crippled the civilization’s ability to catch porpoises, an important source of protein for Easter Islanders. This led to increased and unsustainable pressures on land and sea-bird populations; colonies were either wiped out or severely reduced in numbers. The lack of trees led to topsoil erosion by wind and rain, and people had to resort to lithic (stone) mulches to grow food. Without sufficient food, Diamond wrote that “the further consequences spiraled with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism.” (P. 109). I could scarcely imagine the despair and the hopelessness felt by the survivors of the shattered society. They adapted the best they could, but it was not an easy life by any means.
The Pinnacle of Human Ingenuity
That they were an ingenious and creative people there can be no doubt. Photo by Elizabeth Crapo.
No one can think about Easter Island without thinking also of the moai’s. These giant figures, hewn from compressed volcanic ash and ranged anywhere from a dozen to over eighty tons, were constructed to show off the prowess and prestige of each tribe. As I came to be captivated by the history of the island, these statues become a constant source of speculation for me. What inspiration shaped the creation of these figures? What did these silent monoliths witness as civilization around them crumbled?
The sheer scale and size of these monuments never cease to amaze me. Here were a people with no draft animals; they did not have access to cranes, metal tools, electricity, or plastics. All they did they achieved through muscle power and ingenuity. They received no help from anyone beyond their own shores (sorry alien conspiracy theorists). Despite these limitations, they were able to mobilize, organize, and sustain their entire society around this single task. In order to undertake these massive projects, the Easter Islanders had to achieve something even greater: The construction of an integrated and relatively stable society that endured for centuries.
Can modern society do better given similar circumstances? If we had the resources the Easter Islanders had access to – stone, bones, lumber, rope, muscle – would we be able to carve, transport, and erect these monolithic statues? Perhaps. Perhaps not. To me, the statues of Easter Island represent human triumph and ingenuity, displayed in full, as awe-inspiring as any feat of architecture from the ancient and modern world.
Yet I wonder if in their obsession to trump one another they forgot to look around at the changes they wrought in their surroundings. In their unending desire for prestige to show up the other tribes with taller and heavier statues, did they ever notice the gradual thinning of their forests or the annual diminishment of their crops? Surely people would have observed that there were fewer and fewer trees with each passing year. To steal a phrase from Dr. Seuss, did no one speak for the trees? Diamond asks the very same question:
I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees?!” Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering?”
– Collapse, p.114
Self-inflicted environmental damage is always difficult to understand. Diamond believes that the collapse of Easter Island was not because people were “unusually bad or improvident.” (p. 118). The Easter Islanders did not understand that the land they inhabited was fragile. They did not see or did not wish to see the connections between their actions and the environmental consequences. In that sense, they resemble many of us. As Wade Davis, explorer in residence at the National Geographic society, wrote in his book The Wayfinders, “Polynesians were fully capable of overexploiting the natural world, and when their populations exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, they had no choice but to move on.” Unfortunately on Rapa Nui, people had nowhere to go. Their society outstripped their environment, to the detriment of both.
Comparisons of Easter Island to Earth
“The Easter Islanders’ isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. These are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island as a metaphor, a worst case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
– Collapse, p. 119
Comparisons between Easter Island and Earth are inevitable. There’s no doubt that we inhabit in a much more robust and resilient system than the ancient Polynesians. Anyone who has an aquarium knows that a larger aquarium is much easier to take care of than a small one. Parameters are easier to stabilize and harder to disrupt in a larger tank; there is more margin for error and more buffer against shocks. Earth is a tremendously dynamic system, complete with huge nutrient and mineral cycles that operate on a greater scale than on a relatively isolated landmass like Easter Island. But modern civilization’s ability for change is orders of magnitudes beyond those of the Easter Islanders. As the following video depicts, humanity’s abilities to alter the world are now on the geologic level:
How we choose to exercise our powers is more important now than ever before. Diamond’s terse but vivid descriptions of Rapa Nui reminds me of the post-apocalyptic Earth depicted in one of my favourite novels, The Dispossessed:
“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot… There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do – they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species.”
– The Dispossessed, p. 348
As I have written previously on this blog, our actions are not always negative; our force for positive change is as great as our propensity for destruction. The desolate wind-swept landscape of modern Easter Island reminds me of the landscape in The Man who Planted Trees. What if the one or two of the dozen tribes on Easter Island had the foresight to replant the land with palms before it was too late? Perhaps that could have saved their civilization and altered the course of history.
We who have the advantage of hindsight, of history, of cultural knowledge, and of science, must look to Easter Island and learn from the mistakes. We must be careful not to admire our accomplishments too much, lest we ignore the environment that sustains us. We cannot afford to do so. Like the Easter Islanders, we have nowhere else to go.
Twilight at Easter – Could it happen to us? Photo by Elizabeth Crapo.
- Do you think of nature as something that is resilient or fragile? What about humanity?
Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom matters in the Modern World. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: PenguinGroup , 2005.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, 1974.
Priest, Christopher. The Islanders. London: Gollancz, 2012.
Featured image: A gorgeous shot of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) by fellow WordPress blogger Murray Foote.