What Easter Island can tell us about our ecological crisis

Moai

When Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen sailed the Pacific Ocean on Easter Sunday in 1722, he probably never would’ve thought he would encounter the most peculiar island in the world. Although Roggeveen hardly paid notice to the piece of land he sailed by that afternoon, which he simply called Easter Island because it was Easter that day, this strange island still manages to confound contemporary scientists up to this day.

As is commonly known, Easter Island is home to some of the most magnificent statues in the world, which were build by Polynesian settlers who discovered the island around 800 A.D. (almost a thousand years before Roggeveen found it). These gigantic “Moai”, which seem to represent human faces, can be up to 10 metres tall and weigh 82 tons. Although the manufacturing of these statues should be considered a superb achievement for a civilization who isn’t able to use modern equipment, the nature of this accomplishment starts to become more doubtful if we consider another strange characteristic of Easter Island. Namely the fact that, when Roggeveen encountered the island, it didn’t have trees. Having been a topic of fierce scientific discussions in the twentieth century, it seems that the Moai statues are the last remnants of a once glorious civilization which went into decline because it exhausted its natural resources. In particular the Easter Islanders destroyed their trees, which were not only used to build the statues but to manufacture trading boats as well. Archaeologists discovered that in its heyday, Easter Island had a population of 30,000 people as opposed to the approximately 2000 people the island was home to when European missionaries started to count it after Roggeveen encountered it.

When we look  at the archaeological evidence  and oral accounts of the remaining survivors we get an eerie picture of what happened to the civilization of Easter Island. The island seems to have been home to a number of hierarchically ordered tribes who competed in a relatively peaceful manner with each other, mainly by building the big Moai statues to honour their own particular ancestors. Evidence showed that these statues started to become even bigger once it had to be clear to everyone that the ecological environment couldn’t sustain this kind of competition. What’s furthermore distressing is that when the soil of Easter Island couldn’t produce enough food for everybody because the cutting of trees started to cause erosion, the culture shifted towards a warrior culture. Strong men started to kill the chieftains and their priests, thereby destroying  the traditional bonds of Easter Island society and allowing behaviour which would have seemed immoral up to that point, such as cannibalism.

The fate of Easter Island provides an insightful view into the nature of ecological catastrophes. These disasters will not manifest themselves as some kind of sudden apocalypse. It’s perfectly possible as a society to be fully aware that you’re on a sinking ship and yet don’t show any sign of changing the behaviour which is causing the ship to sink. In his book ‘Collapse’, which is the main source of this essay, Jared Diamond wonders what the person who cut the last tree on Easter Island thought while doing this: “It’s my right to cut this tree! Otherwise my leader will fire me as the village lumberjack!” or “We’re not sure if this is actually the last tree of Easter Island, our priest is still doing scientific research whether there is not another tree 100 metres down the road!” or “We can easily cut this tree, technology will save us in the future!”

2 gedachtes over “What Easter Island can tell us about our ecological crisis

  1. Interesting article and a great metaphore, of course, to our current situation (on a very, very much bigger scale of course), however, the post would be even stronger if you annotated the articles that you mentioned, so readers can read the findings of the archaelogists (concerning the lack of trees and the decline in population) themselves. Keep writing!

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    • Ha thanks!

      My own source is Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. It has an extensive literature list. For archeological findings he mostly uses the work of Claudio Christino and Jo Anne Van Tilburg.

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