The Fall of Easter Island: eco-lesson or modern myth?

The following post is by Rick Thomas. To contribute articles or blog posts to this site, contact us at info@normansustainability.org.

In presenting their opinions that the societal collapse that occurred on Easter Island was due to the effects of European contact and not self-induced, Terry Hunt and Benny Peiser focus on Jared Diamond’s 1995 Discover article “Easter’s End” and his subsequent depiction of the fall of Easter Island in his 2005 book Collapse.

Paul Rainbird focuses on the work of Paul Bahn and John Flenley, who authored Easter Island, Earth Island, if only because in their characterization of the societal collapse on Easter Island being a result of self-induced environmental degradation they present evidence that helps Rainbird demonstrate that it was not. Rainbird also provides us with a very interesting explanation for some of the anthropogenic modifications that did occur on the island.

Photo by Flickr user vtveen used under a Creative Commons license.

Most of us are familiar with the story of the fall of Easter Island, which has been popularized by various authors and even portrayed on film. It supposedly occurred in the late 17th century as a result of rampant deforestation by the long time inhabitants of the island. The famous giant stone statues on Easter island are believed to be the principal reason for this deforestation, as it is assumed that armies of slaves on the island built the statues in the image of their rulers, transported the statues around the island and raised them up with wood from palm trees, until the last palm tree on the island was felled and a chain of events eventually led to societal collapse.

But is this the real story, or just a modern myth? According to Peiser, Hunt, and Rainbird the tragedy that befell the Easter Islanders was genocide at the hands of European explorers, whalers, colonists and slave raiders. The genocide has been well documented, and severe oppression of Easter Islanders actually continued into modern times. So how did the genocide of these people become a cautionary tale about the horrific results of environmental degradation?

Contradictory Reports

Diamond’s Easter’s End begins with a description by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who was the first westerner to discover the island. Roggeveen’s initial impressions of Easter Island were that it was a wasteland. His captain concurred, noting that he saw few trees and crops and no thick timber or strong ropes, which would be necessary in order to erect the giant statues spread throughout the island.

These were not the only descriptions of Easter Island however. Diamond left out an account by an officer in Roggeveen’s crew, Carl Friedrich Behrens, who said that the natives presented palm branches as peace offerings and used palm leaves to cover their homes. Behrens described extensive cultivation on the island, and whole tracts of woodland in the distance. Roggeveen himself eventually changed his mind and said that the island could be turned into an “earthly paradise” if properly worked.

French explorer M. de la Perouse made an expedition to Easter Island in 1786. Rollin, a major on this expedition, described the population of the island as having “more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island.” Perouse’s gardener declared that the soil was so fertile that three days work in a year would support the entire population.

Peiser emphasizes however that many of these early descriptions were contradictory and did not paint a clear picture of life on the island. There is no way to know what the motivations of each particular visitor to the island may have been when they gave their descriptions of the island. The point that Peiser makes is that Diamond’s view is one-sided despite much evidence to contrary.

Easter’s palm

According to Diamond in Easter’s End, “The fifteenth century marked the end not only for Easter’s palm but for the forest itself”. But Orliac and Orliac (1998) wonder- If the trees had disappeared by then, how could the statues be transported until the end of the 17th century? So, in his more recent book Collapse Diamond extends the date of forest cover 200 years.

The palm on Easter Island did in fact go extinct, what is unclear is exactly when. According to Behrens, the islanders presented palm branches as peace offerings, and their houses were covered in palm leaves. J.L. Palmer, a visitor to the island in the second half of the 19th century claims to have seen “boles of large palm trees.” Flenley himself concludes that it may have been sheep and goats introduced to the island in the 19th and 20th centuries that led to the extinction of the palm.

Additionally, even if the palm did go extinct, the toromiro was a suitable replacement. The toromiro was present on the island up until 20th century, was suitable for rollers 20 in. in diameter, and could be used for housing, the building of small canoes, tools, weapons, and fuel wood.

Rosalind Hunter-Anderson provides some common sense thought. The common image of Easter Island is of armies of slaves hauling statues around the island while being spurred on by over-ambitious chiefs. The statue building cult was a competition so feverish that the surrounding forest was considered secondary. But Hunter-Anderson puts forward that palm logs could have been stored, and the number of moai (another name for the giant statues) transported was likely only two per year.

Cannibals

Also central to the EI collapse myth is the idea that the islanders, once their resources had been depleted due to deforestation and the subsequent ecodisaster, resorted to cannibalism. Peiser finds Diamond’s cannibalism accusation “absurd.” He cites the work of William Arens, which exposed cannibalism as largely a myth. Peiser emphasizes that there is no evidence for starvation occurring on the island historically, and points to the work of Flenley and Bahn, who demonstrate that there is no evidence of cannibalism “anywhere, at any period”.

So we see that the loss of the palm likely did not constitute an ecodisaster, and that rather than being a “wasteland” the island’s resources were quite extensive. So rather than being an “ecodisaster” were the colonization of the Polynesian islands instead…

An Ecotriumph?

Dramatic environmental changes accompanied the first arrival of people in Remote Oceania. Atholl Anderson calls the loss of avifaunas a biological catastrophe- not an ecodisaster for immigrants- and the success of human colonization was a kind of “ecotriumph.” According Matthew Spriggs, Easter Island was not a “paradise” before human settlement. There were few edible plants, and few non-marine fauna. Rainbird posits that the deforestation of the island was intentional. It had nothing to do with building statues; it was merely the removal of native, unproductive trees which led to alluvial soils that created a highly fertile environment for cultivation.

Georgia Lee uses a bit of Polynesian history to drive this point home. According to Lee, the Ahu (shrines) and moai (statues) of Easter Island were outgrowths of the Polynesian marae, and Polynesians had a long history of island modification.

Some previously colonized Polynesian Islands were Mangaia, where, according to Patrick Kirch, the positive repercussions of erosion and intensive agriculture cannot be overly stressed. And at Leluh, Nan Madol, and Kosrae, spectacular monumental archaeological remains can be found, and evidence indicates that settlement was built on large amounts of purposefully constructed landfill.

To quote Anderson directly “In short, without significant anthropogenic environmental modification Remote Oceania could hardly have been inhabited successfully at all”.

The Real Story

Upon first contact, Roggeveen’s crew killed 10-12 islanders who made “threatening gestures.” 53 European vessels then visited the island between 1722 and 1862. Why? Islanders were sources of labor and sexual satisfaction. Warlike conflicts broke out between Europeans and natives, and sexually transmitted diseases became a “chronic peril on the island” according to whalers.

The worst came with the Spanish and Peruvian slave-raids of 1862-1863. Upwards of 1,000 natives were captured. Upon international protests, 100 were repatriated, but only fifteen survived and returned to the island, only to introduce smallpox to the remaining inhabitants. Renewed slave raids in the 1870s culminated in atrocities committed by two European traders who agreed to move the entire population to Tahiti. According to Thor Heyerdahl , who we will talk more about in a moment, and Edwin Ferndon, after burning the natives’ huts, the traders had all their sweet potatoes pulled out of the ground three times to ensure their continued misery. Chile annexed the island in 1888, and surviving Easter Islanders were kept at Hangaro, a detention center, for nearly 100 years.

Thor!

If there is one person who is chiefly responsible for the ecocide theory gaining credence as the accepted account of the fate of the easter islanders, it is probably Thor Hyerdahl. Diamond admits that his interest in Easter Island began when he was reading Heyerdahl’s “fabulous” accounts of his Kon-Tiki expedition.

Heyerdahl’s theory was that it was a white, “non-semitic” race of Middle Eastern origin that first settled Easter Island. At the time Heyerdahl was formulating his theory it was accepted that the people on Easter Island were of Polynesian origin. However Heyerdahl, noticing their fair skin and the fact that the winds on the Pacific blew from east to west, believed that Easter Island had been first settled by a group of American Indians who sailed from the coast of Peru, and only later settled by the darker-skinned Polynesians.

In order to prove this theory, Heyerdahl set sail from the coast of Peru in a primitive boat, which he called the Kon-Tiki, and made it to the island. His subsequent archaeological expedition to the island garnered enough evidence for him to conclude with certainty that he was correct. He was so sure if his theory in fact that he wrote a book entitled Easter Island: The Mystery Solved (which can be found in the children’s literature section of the library incidentally). Peter Bellwood has a different explanation for Heyerdahl’s success: “Even before going to Easter Island he was determined to demonstrate the existence of a superior Caucasoid group as a substratum in Polynesia, and to his own satisfaction he naturally did so.”

Diamond distances himself from Heyerdahl’s debunked “two-race” theory. Unfortunately, he does not distance himself from Heyerdahl’s 1680 civil war date. Heyerdahl Carbon-14 dates a large charcoal deposit to 1680, claiming this is evidence of a civil war. This is illogical, as fire does not necessarily equal war. Additionally, more recent information dates the deposit to the 11th century. Oral histories not obtained from missionaries indicate that heavy fighting was post contact, and Bahn and Flenley themselves point out that spear points proliferated in 18th and 19th centuries.

Concluding remarks

As Hunt points out, mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers that will hurt the cause of environmentalism.

It has become readily apparent among scientists in many fields that indigenous people were indeed thoughtful human actors who modified their environments, often with good results. Rather than being wrapped up in some kind of silly statue building cult, Easter Islanders were using the experience they had gained over millennia in order to build their civilization. A civilization that was ruthlessly destroyed by thoughtless, greedy Westerners and continues to be exploited by ambitious, self-serving Westerners. As Rainbird put it- it was the collision with the modern world system from the 18th century onwards that was directly responsible for the destruction of a fertile environment, and a rich and in part unique culture, to one depopulated and suited only to sheep grazing as received in the present day. Perhaps this should be the message for our future?

Further reading:

Terry Hunt: Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island
Benny Peiser: From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui
Paul Rainbird: A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments
Hunter-Anderson, Rosalind. 1998. Human vs. climatic impacts at Rapa Nui: Did the people really cut down all those trees? Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Easter Island and East Polynesia, C. M. Stevenson, G. Lee, and F. J. Morin, eds., Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos, CA. Pp. 85-99.

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