Easter Island serves as a very good example of the very fragile relationship that existed between early humans and their environment. The society that developed in the island not only reached very high levels of complexity and cultural achievements, but also collapsed so that when the first Europeans reached it in 1722, they found an island totally deforested and a people torn by famine, war and even resorting to cannibalism. Many have argued that the Easter Island example serves as a warning to contemporary humans; this still remains a topic of wide debate. Yet, more than focusing on the implications of the Easter Island case for humanity today, this short essay will attempt to demonstrate that Easter Islanders had a much closer relationship with their environment than we do nowadays. This fact, combined with other factors such as the fragility of the Easter Island ecosystem and the highly destructive practices of the islanders, are what led to their society’s collapse.
Easter Island is well known for its gigantic stone-carved statues known as moai, which serve as evidence that a complex and advanced society once flourished there. Yet the moais and their massive stone platforms (ahus) rank amongst the main factors that led to the society’s falling. The elaboration, transportation and erection of the statues demanded great amounts of wood, which the islanders obtained by logging a huge palm tree native to the island. The construction of statues, however, was not the only activity that demanded wood. Burial rituals that involved cremation also required large amounts of lumber for burning bodies, and so did the construction of houses and canoes (which were essential for offshore fishing, an important component of the islanders’ diet). These cultural activities all contributed to the complete deforestation of Rapa Nui – the Dutch captain who first reached the island found no such palms; in fact, he “saw no trees over 10 feet tall” (Diamond, 107). Still, the cultural practices of the islanders alone were not responsible for the mass deforestation that affected Easter Islands. Bad luck also played a huge role, for the palm tree took very long to re-grow and rats that had been introduced to the island – it has not yet been determined if deliberately or by accident - ate the palms’ seeds, thus severely jeopardizing any chance of natural reforestation. What followed is an account of the close relationship of early humans and their environment and of the fragility of ecosystems.
Deforestation had tragic effects on the people of Rapa Nui. They lost their main raw material (which was not only crucial for the erection of moais, but also for housing), lost a large portion of their fish diet which depended on wooden canoes for offshore fishing, and their crop yields were highly reduced due to higher soil exposure, erosion and subsequent nutrient runoff (Diamond, 107). The ill-fated consequences were war, famine and an astonishing decline in the population.
The example of Easter Island holds many similarities to the theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus believed that increases in world population size would outpace resource availability and food production, which would in turn lead to higher competition over resources, resulting in war, starvation and a massive population reduction. We can see this model reflected in Easter Island: population increase led to higher levels of wood extraction, which in turn led to deforestation and eventually starvation, wars and a massive decrease in population. Thus, many scientists have attempted to use the example of Easter Island as evidence that Malthus’ theory could apply to the whole planet. In doing so, however, they overlook the particularities of the Easter Island catastrophe.
It has been pointed out that the collapse of the society that flourished in Rapa Nui was mainly caused by deforestation, which was in turn caused by very specific cultural practices and also by factors that were outside the islanders’ control: palm trees would take a long time to grow and, above this, rats impeded the germination of their seeds by eating them. But deforestation was not the only factor in the disaster; the people of Easter Island had the bad luck of living in one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Sources of freshwater were limited, the climate was not the best for agriculture, and above all, the island met all nine of the physical variables that make deforestation on Pacific Islands more severe (Diamond, 116). Thus, Malthus predictions came to realization, but largely because of characteristics of the Easter Island environment that were unique to it. Deforestation was not the only cause of the society’s collapse and, furthermore, the islanders alone cannot be blamed for it.
Nonetheless, the collapse does show that the islanders of Rapa Nui had very limited control over their environment, and as such were extremely dependent on it. One of the strongest claims against the theory that deforestation was caused by humans is that “Easter Islanders surely wouldn’t have been so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them.” (Diamond, 114). Yet, other theories that could explain the deforesting of the island, including that it was caused by climate change or by earlier outside human contact, sound unreasonable. Therefore, one can only wonder at the fact that, indeed, the islanders cut down all the trees themselves. Yet it is possible that once the islanders realized that a total deforestation could be imminent (demanding a halt in logging) they had passed the point of no return. Nutrient loss, soil erosion and rats could have made reforestation impossible long before the last tree was down. The alternate explanation, however, is much more frightening. Mark Bush proposes that “humans lack an environmental failsafe switch in their brain” (Bush, 461), meaning that the islanders never realized the dreadful consequences of deforestation until it was too late, perhaps even until they cut down the last tree. As Clive Ponting suggests, the fact that many statues were left unfinished in the rock quarry, from where they had to be transported using palm logs, shows that “no account was taken of how few trees were left on the island” (Ponting, 7).
Thus, not having the means or the technology to manipulate it to the degree that we can today, the Easter Islanders were much more heavily dependent on their natural environment than we are nowadays. This also means that damage that they did to their environment was, to a large degree, irreversible. They depended on the environment providing them a single raw material for housing and for a large part of their diet, yet they exhausted this one material without being able to find any suitable replacement The story of the islanders would have been different had they had chemical fertilizers and the technology to increase crop yields or control rats. The particularities and the fragility of the environment of Eastern Island did nothing more than to exacerbate this heavy dependency and the tragic consequences that resulted from it.
The name for Easter Island in the native Polynesian language.
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