But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.
An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested), a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.
As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”
At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.
I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:
I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.
The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .
Continuing and concluding my series on the Winter Solstice, we now turn to the question of its relation to the date for Christmas.
The moment of the Winter Solstice generally occurs on 20-21 December in our current Gregorian Calendar. With Christmas set at 25 December, the relation between the two would appear merely coincidental. But there is a bit of history and controversy about the matter, obliquely referenced by today’s “Doonesbury” comic. This brief look cannot explore the full and complicated story; so, for the nerds I have supplied endnotes with clues to further information.
The date of Jesus’ birth is not given by the Bible and
cannot be known with any certainty. Many commentators have noted that late
December is quite unlikely, given details in the gospels’ nativity accounts—but
I will not go into that here. The earliest Christian writers give various speculative
dates for the event, but none on 25 December.
The second-century church father Origen even decried birthday celebrations in
general as a pagan practice (Origen, Homilies
on Leviticus 8)!
It was in the AD 330s that 25 December was first promoted as
a feast day to celebrate Christ’s birth, but only in Rome. By the 380s the date
as accepted in Asia Minor, and by the 540s in Egypt. Other churches, especially
in the East, continued to observe 6 January, Epiphany, as the Nativity (even to
But why focus on 25 December and why did that date generally
prevail? Conventional scholarly treatments argue that the choice was dictated
by pagan practice, initiated by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. In that year,
the argument goes, Aurelian decreed 25 December as the birthday and festival of
Sol Invictus, “the unconquerable Sun,”
and dedicated a new temple to the god with monotheistic overtones. What does
all this have to do with the Winter Solstice? In the Julian calendar in use at
the time, the solstice fell on 25 December. Christians then, it is argued, either:
1) began to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December under the cover of the
pagan solstice holiday to avoid persecution; or 2) later declared Sol’s birthday
to be that of Christ in order to usurp it and suppress pagan practice. The
argument makes sense but is not as solid as usually assumed.
No text, for example, explicitly says Aurelian named 25 December as the nativity of Sol. Evidence that the date was in honor of Sol Invictus is extracted from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar codex prepared for a wealthy Christian in that year. The original is now lost, but several manuscript copies have survived. In the calendar section, the day equivalent to 25 December indicates the birthday of Invictus (but without “Sol”) and that games (30 chariot races) were ordered/decreed. Elsewhere in the document, under a Chronicle of Rome, the entry for Aurelian includes (without dates), “He dedicated the Temple of Sol,” and “instituted the games of Sol.”
The assumption that Aurelian established a major cult
festival for Sol Invictus on 25 December is based on combining the difference
references with the Christian date in mind. While the connection is possible,
perhaps probable, it is far from proven.
Indeed, scholarly arguments construct a “Christian versus pagan” atmosphere
that may not have existed at all. The posited cultural struggle continues to
play out today, as seen in several websites dedicated to “proving” that Jesus
was really born on 25 December—one way to defeat the pagans.
I see a continuation of the manufactured conflict in contemporary debate about correct salutations of this time of year—thus the relevance of the “Doonesbury” cartoon cited above. The divisiveness present in American politics these days encourages me (rightly) to avoid dogmatic political statements. But for holiday greetings, I am at a loss. I tend to use “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” interchangeably without thought, as I did in the 1960s and 70s. But even that has become (in my opinion) unnecessarily burdened. I resent that if I say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” I am liable to the charge of paganism, or if I say “Merry Christmas,” I am accused of some attempt to impose my beliefs on others. <Sigh>.
Debates like this generally go nowhere when ideology directs
argument, especially in religious matters. For the Winter Solstice and Christmas
question, I suggest a practical, “real-life” examination. In popular religion—as
distinct from “official” tenets and practice—much borrowing of ideas and
imagery occur. Such borrowing does not imply doctrinal syncretism or usurpage
as much as cultural trends or symbols of comfort. The depiction of angels in
Christian art as winged children, for example, does not mean that the artists
or admirers of the work were secret pagans with a thing for Eros!
Sol Invictus, the Greek Helios, is depicted in a fiery chariot with rays emanating from his head. Oddly, his image appears at the center of zodiac scenes on mosaic floors of several Jewish synagogues in Israel. Did the aniconic Jews suddenly become pagan idolaters? Certainly not. So, what’s with those mosaics in so many different synagogues? Maybe . . . they just liked it that way. Popular culture trends are often counter-intuitive and hard to explain. One view holds that the Helios/Sol image simply represents the sun as a symbol of order and not a deity;  much like smiling sun faces on grandfather clocks.
Perhaps the most interesting
Helios/Sol image is found in a tomb in the necropolis under St. Peter’s
Basilica in the Vatican. Mausoleum M contains an image, clearly of Helios/Sol,
interpreted as representing Christ. Other details of the tomb are interpreted as
Christian by Vatican scholars, obviously motivated to find Christianity in the
necropolis containing the apparent tomb of St. Peter. They understand, however,
that a Christian tomb depicting Christ in the manner of Sol Invictus does not threaten
their theology nor invalidate the tomb owner’s faith.
So, could early Christians have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ—an actual date unknown to them—at the season when the gloom of winter begins to reverse and the sun’s warmth begins to make a comeback? I think they could; whether or not a Roman Emperor decided to mark the birth of Sol in the same season. I also hope they could use the situation to explain their own views in an inviting way, taking advantage of the halcyon days a holiday can bring.
And, I have decided that I can
hear (or say!) “Seasons Greetings” and know why the season itself is special. And if I hear or say “Merry Christmas,” I
will also think of why Jesus’ birth is celebrated in this season.
Thanks for looking!
*If you get this reference, you are either pretty old or pretty cool (or both).
 I have read “Doonesbury” daily since my matriculation at Georgia Tech in September 1974, where the then-weekly student newspaper, Technique, published the week’s strips. I should add, in the spirit of this post, that I do not read “Doonesbury” out of a dedication to its evident political bias, but for its exploration of various elements of our popular culture. My other daily reads are: “Dilbert,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Calvin and Hobbs” (now in perpetual rerun).
by the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.21. For a fuller discussion, see Steven Hijmans, “Sol
Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion (Series III) 3 (2003): 377, n.
2-3; this is an excellent article (full
version here) for a deeper view of things discussed here.
Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” 378ff
(and be sure to read the footnotes).
So today (still, barely, as I write this), 21 December 2018, is the Winter Solstice, making it first day of winter; and tomorrow is a full moon. Though we refer to them in terms of full days, both the solstice and full moons are momentary events: when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky and when the moon is 180° from (opposite of) the sun, respectively. Those moments occur this year within a 24-hour period. Thus they effectively coincide, as we cannot discern the difference visually. For example, the moon appears “full” tonight, but will not technically be so until tomorrow (December 22) at 11:49 CST (17:49 UTC). And, the sun’s rays penetrate to the burial chambers of the tombs described in my previous post (here) not only on the solstices, but on the few surrounding days as well.
While researching how accurately the ancients could discern these phenomena, I stumbled upon an interesting (to me, anyway) bit of cultural information. It turns out that “halcyon days,” a term now used for a period of calm or peace (frequently nostalgically), originally referred to the few days surrounding the Winter Solstice. For this, we turn to Classical mythology.
A relatively little-known myth referenced by several ancient writers holds that Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (guardian of the winds), married Ceyx, son of the morning star (Lucifer!), and together they ruled the city of Trachis in Thessaly. Some sources report that they loving referred to each other as Hera and Zeus, which offended the real gods. Ceyx embarked on a journey to consult the oracle at Claros, across the Aegean, and the offended gods allowed a thunderstorm to capsize the ship, drowning Ceyx.
In her sorrow, Alcyone hurled herself off a breakwater to certain death, but was transformed by some merciful unnamed deity into a Kingfisher; halcyon in Latin, from the Greek αλκυών. With dead Ceyx also thus transformed, the pair nested and Alcyone laid eggs which were sheltered from winter winds by Aeolus for seven days (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 410-748) preceding and after the Winter Solstice (Plutarch, Moralia. Whether Land or Sea Animals Are Cleverer 35). These calm days were called “halcyon days” by ancient sailors (Hyginus, Fabula 65), who greatly revered Alcyone on account of their safe passage at that time.
My own experience of getting out an about in the days around the Winter Solstice have not evoked the phrase “halcyon days” —especially today, as I navigated among hordes of crazed shoppers to and through various local businesses. It seems we have created the very opposite of halcyon days in this season. And as Winter Solstice 2018 heralds the heaviest travel day for Christmas 2018, air, land, and sea-farers in the eastern U.S. are facing treacherous weather. May we fare better than Ceyx and find mercy from a known God.
My comparison of Christmas Chaos to the Halcyon Days of yore brings up the question of the relation of yuletide to the Winter Solstice. Is there a connection? Could be . . .
Today (21 December 2018) the Winter Solstice will occur at 16:23 (4:23pm) CST (22:23 UTC). It is the moment at which the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, its most southerly point in Earth’s sky for the year. The Winter Solstice marks the official beginning of winter and is the origin of much tradition and practice in human culture—perhaps to include when we celebrate Christmas (we’ll get to that in a subsequent post). There are plenty of sites that explain the solstices; earthsky.org has perhaps the coolest visual representation here. As usual, Ancient Dan focuses on the ancient and weird connections; and a three-part series is anticipated.
Our modern lives are too indoor, too climate-controlled, and too well-lit for a constant awareness of celestial phenomena. The ancients, however, were keenly aware of such things. Hence our calendar months; though adjusted for the solar year, they have origin in the ever-visible cycles of the moon. The struggle to reconcile lunar cycles with the solar year dominate the history of the calendar and its religious ties. Which heavenly body should dictate human ritual? The moon has a rhythmic influence but the sun rules the sky as the “greater light” (Gen 1: 16).* More importantly, for our purposes, the sun clearly determines the seasons.
The influence of the sun on daylight time and seasons is more pronounced at higher latitudes (meaning more northerly for the Near East and Classical worlds). So, it is not surprising that alignments to solar phenomena are more obvious in megalithic monuments in northern Europe. Stonehenge is the most famous example, but there are others.
The most interesting are tombs, such as Newgrange in Ireland (see a good overview site here). Newgrange is a Neolithic “passage tomb,” in which a narrow passageway of megalithic stones leads to a built chamber under a tumulus mound of stones or earth. At Newgrange, the sun penetrates into the tomb chamber at sunrise on a few mornings immediately around the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon is facilitated by a “roof box” opening above the entrance that permits light to stream directly down the 60 ft. passageway.
Sadly, photos are impossible in the chamber at Newgrange (crowds and rules). Happily, there is another site that is more remote and less controlled with similar features.
A number of passage tombs on isolated hills can be seen at Carrowkeel, in County Sligo. These are considerably smaller than Newgrange, but with better ambiance than the crowded tourist site. One of them, Cairn G, has a roof-box, as seen in the previous pic. The passage is short (in length and height!) and can be entered by those able to negotiate the large entrance stone. The size makes it difficult to photograph, but I offer the following views:
From an engineering point of view, it is tempting to ascribe a stress-relieving function to the roof-box (i.e., to take pressure off the entrance lintel). But, roof-boxes are not a consistent design feature of passage tombs. For example, the adjacent Cairns at Carrowkeel (Cairn H, pic below, and K) have no roof-boxes, despite an apparently greater mass of tumulus stones above the entrance.
As at Newgrange, the alignment of the rare roof-box at Carrowkeel Cairn G seems significant. The sun shines directly through it to the back of the tomb chamber at sunsets on days surrounding the Summer Solstice. As there are no written sources in the Neolithic period (these things date to about 3200 BC), scholars must extrapolate the intended significance. It usually goes something like this: the sun was seen as in decline or even dying during its annual reduced time overhead and recession to the south; the Winter Solstice marked the end of the sun’s decline and beginning of its growth; the Summer Solstice, then, marked the beginning of the sun’s decline; and this cycle was celebrated in solar worship and as a form of hope for the deceased.
While I don’t want to recommend Pagan religion, it is interesting to speculate that they may have found some comfort and hope in a generally depressing part of the year. Maybe that aspect is part of why we celebrate Christmas when we do (but, again, more about that later). Certainly Christmas is a promise of redemption in a tough season.
Meanwhile, back to Newgrange. The interpretation usually assumed (as above) holds that the Newgrange tomb is oriented to mark the end of a downturn (death of those buried within?) and the hope of increasing light, warmth, and life with the sun’s reversal. Perhaps ironically, our visit there was 10 days after life as I knew it suffered a sudden and unexpected “death.” But it was at Newgrange that my wife and I met new friends that continue to bring joy to our life as we now know it.
It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.
Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).
A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.
The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).
That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.
Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.
We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.
The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series).
The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.
Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.”
A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.
Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.
In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:
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.
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?
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
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.3More 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.4
Things apparently got very bad.
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.
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
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.
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!
1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku(Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
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.