“The person who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree. But they still felled it” – Bahn & Fenley (1992)
By AD 900, Easter Island, the most remote piece of land in the world, was first inhabited by Polynesian settlers. Around 500-600 years later, their society collapsed. The following article will discuss this civilisation, the potential reasons for its demise, and why it may be relevant to modern-day life.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, was found by Dutch explorers on Easter Day, April 5th, AD 1722. The most striking and well-known remnant of the ancient Islanders before this time is the Moai statues: these huge stone torsos stand up to 32ft high, representing high-ranking ancestors and leaders of the past – some of which wear Pukao, large slabs of red stone placed on top of the Moai to represent the crown of the clan leader. Remnants of these statues document the work of an advanced civilisation, capable of creating and raising such structures, believed to be a physical manifestation of social competition between clans.
The Easter Islanders were an organised society: upon transferring livestock and crop species to the island from Polynesia, agriculture intensified – archaeological findings indicate stone chicken houses with extra stones used as windbreaks to protect crops. Rocks were also used to make the soil more amenable for crop growth, by altering its moisture balance. Areas across the island were divided based on the valuable resources of each area; on the North coast, Anakena was known for its beaches, good for launching canoes, whilst other areas presented better fishing opportunity. The division of resources resulted in the division of people, with territorial clans initially remaining largely independent of each other. There was also social division between commoners and chiefs, inferred from archaeological findings of the size and structures of residences – commoners lived in smaller houses in more inland locations, when chiefs lived by the coasts where there was a more reliable source of food. However, when resources started to deplete, rival clans as well as members of the same clans became unified by their reliance on resources from elsewhere.
Similarities between this culture and that of the modern day are prevalent: a dependence on the surrounding environment, whether it be for forestry (for construction and industry), for food (fishing and agriculture) or for general life and well-being (e.g. resources to construct large, culturally important statues). Potentially then the fate of the Easter Islanders presents a warning to Western civilisations especially, where overpopulation, over consumption and poor environmental protection legislation is already leading to the widespread manipulation and degradation of our natural resources.
Why did the civilisation collapse?
“Easter Island suffered almost the most extreme deforestation and consequent social and population collapse of any Pacific island, even though the Polynesians who colonized Easter colonized hundreds of other islands without wreaking such extreme impacts.” – Rollett & Diamond (2004)
The collapse of the Easter Island population occurred mysteriously between AD 1400-1680. Several causes have been implicated from a number of academics, without any definitive conclusion – however, each one leaves an important message for our modern-day society.
The first potential cause of the demise of the civilisation is climate. During the late Pleistocene (the geological epoch spanning from the Younger Dryas cold period at 2.6 million years ago, until around 11,700 years ago), the climate was dry and cool, with palm forest and grassland dominating the island landscape. The native palm forest was rapidly deforested, but not necessarily as a result of anthropogenic disturbance – the island was uniquely dry compared to other Polynesian islands, with low rainfall and subsequently poor soil nutrient restoration from volcanic dust, making the woodland regeneration difficult. It has therefore been suggested that these landscape shifts meant that the environment could no longer support the civilisation, leading to its collapse.
The second idea is that of self-inflicted environmental degradation – that as the island population multiplied, reliance on organised agriculture and fire led to poor land management and reduced forest cover. For example, has been proposed that the loss of the native palm tree on the island by 1400 AD could have been because of incessant logging to use timber as rollers for transporting Moai statues, and with increasing social competition and inter-clan rivalry, the production of these statues became evermore important. Alongside this is the introduction of rats to the island with the islanders – these may have prevented regrowth of forests by physically damaging seedlings and eating seeds. Hunter-Anderson (1998) contested these ideas, instead arguing that rats could have instead encouraged woodland regeneration, and that the infrequent use of wood to move the statues was not enough to justify the mass deforestation on the island.
A third potential explanation for the loss of indigenous Rapa Nui people would be the introduction of European settlers, their animals and their diseases. How could the Easter Islanders, after surviving without intervention from other peoples, adapt to the huge changes and lifestyle disruption associated with the introduction of European discoverers? Archaeological findings and reports from the initial Dutch explorers suggest mass social upheaval, conflict and disease after the colonisation of the island, with the population being reduced from many thousand to several hundred after the forced removal of islanders for slave labour.
These ideas provide explanations for the many aspects of Rapa Nui culture, and the discovery of this culture by Western powers, which may have led to the wiping out of native Easter Island population. It is important to recognise the assemblage of social and environmental impacts on this collapse, often referred to as an “ecodisaster”, to be able to apply these ideas to modern day civilisation – the collapse of Rapa Nui culture is a microcosm for the potential destruction of our planet, through changing climate, unsustainable resource use and conflict.
The delicate balance between the abundance of natural forests and our dependence on them is something which has been somewhat forgotten in modern day society: 18 million acres of forest are lost each year, being converted to agriculture for growing crops, a lot of which is not even consumed by humans but fattens cattle or is burned for biofuel. Half of the worlds tropical rainforests, where over 120 natural remedies can be found and used in traditional and modern medicines, have already been cleared to feed our ever-growing need of land. And conflict, such as the that between local people and illegal logging companies in Indonesia, threatens natural woodlands worldwide.
It is vital that the management of our global forest stocks now prioritises sustainable consumption of all forest resources. In recent years, this concept has been promoted by bodies such as the UN, which defines sustainable forest management as “a dynamic and evolving concept aims to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental value of all types of forests, for the benefit of present and future generations”. In order to avoid a self-induced ecodisaster like that which may have led to the demise of the Easter Islanders hundreds of years ago, it is crucial that the management of our natural resources is done in a sustainable way which benefits all.
Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Publishing: United States.
Flenley, J & King, S.M. (1984) Late Quaternary pollen records from Easter Island. Nature 307, pp. 47-50
Rainbird, P (2002) A Message for Our Future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Ecodisaster and Pacific Island. World Archaeology 33, pp. 436-451
Rolett, B. & Diamond, J. (2004) Environmental predictors of pre-European deforestation on Pacific islands. Nature 431, pp. 443-446
Kaplan, J.O. (2011) Holocene carbon emissions as a result of anthropogenic land cover change. The Holocene 21, pp. 775-791