This is the end (for now, at least) of my series of posts on Easter Island (sorry it has gotten so long; I got really interested). Having covered the remoteness of moai makers, the meaning of moai, moai manufacture, moai moving, moai mania, moai mysteries, and moai myths, it is now time to give my Rapa Nui wrap-up.

In a nutshell, a culture in complete isolation on a marginal island in the south Pacific managed to create unexpectedly large statues (moai) on equally impressive platforms (ahu) with stone age technology and limited resources. The organization and innovation required (unless one goes with ancient aliens) implies an advanced and flourishing society. But, when Europeans arrived, the great construction projects had ceased and the Rapanui people were living in poverty on a nearly barren island. Within another 140 years, every moai had crashed to the ground and the once impressive ahu lay in total ruin, the sites of makeshift tombs.

Akivi
From Order . . . (re erected moai at Ahu Akivi; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Repeating the question of my previous post: What happened; and why should we care? In other words, what caused the cultural collapse on Rapa Nui, and is it a warning to greater modern society? Is Easter Island a post-apocalyptic preview?

Akahanga
. . . to Chaos (Broken moai head among ruins at Akahanga; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The first question (what happened?) is the most difficult to answer, but the history of interpretation provides some instruction in itself. Archaeologists and historians inevitably tend to view data through the lens of their own times and experience, and this can be seen in theories about Easter Island. My admittedly over-simplified review of academic reconstructions follows.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure and book, organized and led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955. He theorized that the “Long Ears” were the original settlers of the island from South America and responsible for the monumental building, but were nearly eradicated by a rebellion of later settlers of Polynesian origin, the “Short Ears.”1 There is an implied ethnic/racial bias in Heyerdahl’s view, especially since he preferred to think of the South American settlers as ultimately hailing from Europe. It was a theory of the times; now definitively disproven by genetic and other data which show Easter Island was settled only by Polynesians. Nevertheless, how can ethnic bias and violence—seemingly on the rise in our times—not be a warning to us all?

New data emerged in the 1980s-90s demonstrating that the treeless Easter Island found by 18th century Europeans was once heavily forested with tall palm trees, akin to Wine Palms found in Chile. Further, the palms’ decline and extinction occurred during the time span of human occupation and seems to have preceded the end of moai erection. Significant data supports ecological disaster, with deforestation as a major component, as the cause for societal collapse and starvation.2 

Anakena
Palms at Anakena today are not native; indeed, the average temperature of Easter Island would not have permitted coconut palms like these, if transplanted by the settling Polynesians, to fruit; today however, because of global warming, they do bear coconuts! The palms that once heavily forested Easter Island were similar to Wine Palms of Chile (the largest of all palms) but are now extinct through deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One view is that deforestation was caused by cutting trees for moai transport and erection and that depletion of the trees brought that activity to an end.3  More likely, the forests were cut to create farmland for an increasing population and to provide cooking fuel. In any case, deforestation occasioned many other problems, such as soil erosion, loss of groundwater retention and thus habitat for taro and other crops, depletion of building material and fuel, and a lack of wood to make boats for deep-water fishing. The loss of deep-water protein and other food sources would precipitate a spiraling shortage and result in social chaos.

Papa Vaka: Tuna and Shark petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Papa Vaka of tuna and shark, deep-water species reachable only with large canoes, which were unavailable after deforestation on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Things apparently got very bad.

Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum
A kavakava statue, the emaciatied depictions of which support the starvation and desperation recounted in ethnological memory; from the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are even claims of cannibalism in the ethnological record, although unconfirmed by archaeology (see caption of pic below). As a further consequence, destruction of Rapa Nui’s environment by deforestation also trapped the inhabitants on the island, as boats sufficient for escape could no longer be built! Easter Island, with a population unable to leave their isolated home and resources depleted by their own overuse, seems a microcosm for the Earth itself and a warning for its inhabitants wantonly exploiting its bounty.

Ana Kai Tangata
Ana Kai Tangata, often translated “Eat Man Cave” and thus cited as evidence for cannibalism; however the name can also as easily render “Man Eat Cave” (meaning a cave where man eats)—ironically, this very cave was used for a scene in the 1994 film Rapa Nui in which the protagonists escape the island in a boat after the last tree was felled and chaos erupted (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Not everyone is comfortable with the notion that Easter Islanders caused an ecological disaster of their home; and, perhaps more to the point, many resist the idea that we all may be doing the same. Consequently, there has been some push back and presentation of mitigating evidence. As we have seen in this series, the moai were demonstrably transported without extensive timber requirements, so deforestation cannot be blamed on monumental moai mania. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Polynesian Rats feasted on the small nuts of the Easter Island Palm and prevented regrowth of trees, so man was not the only agent of deforestation. And, it is rightly pointed out, the Rapanui were marvelously innovative in the face of environmental change, evidenced by their resourceful use of lithic mulch to salvage marginal crop areas and development of sheltered crop enclosures to conserve moisture.5 

Ahu Te Peu
The northwest coast of Rapa Nui from the area of Ahu Te Peu, showing the treeless landscape strewn with stones used as lithic mulch, an ingenious method of preserving some soil productivity after deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Still, evidence is irrefutable that islanders cut down the old growth (and slow regrowth) forests. If Polynesian Rats prevented regrowth, it is only because they were brought there by the Polynesian settlers themselves! In effect, the rats turned a theoretically renewable resource into a non-renewable one. They also helped the settlers in irradiating the once-extensive bird population of Easter Island. It is a clear case in the microcosm of catastrophic introduction of an invasive species—like so many examples in the larger world. There is no cultural condemnation here. The Rapanui did not intentionally overpopulate, overfish, introduce invasive species, and deforest with bad intention. But they did do those things and the unforeseen consequences ruined their world.

Surely we are smarter than Easter Islanders that lived a stone-age existence, and surely we can overcome the problems we create with our superior technology. Really? Recall that the famous “mysteries” of Easter Island involved how they manged to build the fantastic monuments—such that we still do not know definitively, and many are willing to chalk it up to aliens! No; these were amazing and innovative people who attempted and accomplished great things . . . and who still ruined their environment beyond repair. We all should take heed. 

Perhaps you, the reader, are not convinced that ecological disaster even occurred on Easter Island or, more likely, that it is relevant to the rest of us. Fair enough. There is something here for everyone. Above I recounted theories that attribute collapse of the microcosm to racial or ethnic conflict and social class rebellion. To these must be added others not discussed for lack of space: tribal warfare, failure of the religious system, epidemic disease introduced by visitors, materialistic culture, disruptive foreign influence, and innate human nature. None of these are lacking in our wider world, but the last one frightens me the most.

One Makhi
Contemplating collapse; Ahu One Makhi (photo by Felicia J Browning; © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Proponents of deforestation as the key to ecological collapse like to speculate on the thoughts of the Easter Islander(s) that cut down the last remaining tree. Jared Diamond wonders, “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 . . .’.”6 While this speculative monologue has rhetorical value for Diamond’s points (with which I agree), I rather think the real thoughts were more disturbing for humanity. If not “acting under orders,” I suspect the last hewer was thinking, “I’m going to get this wood before someone else does!”

Thanks for looking—and hopefully thinking! cropped-adicon_square.png


1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
2The data is stated most definitively in John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).
3A violent class struggle between the poor workers and the well-fed elite is easily imagined;as in the historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.
4The view of Easter Island as a microcosm of the future of human society in the face of resource destruction is taken up by Jared Diamond in his excellent (and sobering) book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), chapter 2 and throughout the later discussion.
5See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).
6Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 114.

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