Effect of people on the environment at Easter Island

Chris Trucksess

The progression of human development has come with its costs. The environment provides an array of resources available for use or appreciation. However, changing elements of this structure such as by removing trees can bring about unintended consequences. These alterations also can cause problems that cannot be fixed by the human population and as a result the population must cope with the loss if possible. The case study here shows how a remote system can be overwhelmed and be unable to support its inhabitants where it once was able to do so. This undesirable outcome more importantly can be avoided if measures are taken to avoid overuse of resources.

Ponting describes the historical background of Easter Island, which is a small island far off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean. Despite its desolate nature it is inhabited and the lives of this population show how resource use is important to survival both of the people living there and the ecosystem itself. The uses for the island varied over time but one period had evidence of a modern society despite the surrounding periods of primitive behavior. More than 600 stone statues were dispersed over the island. These sculptures had to been created by a society other than the more barbarous clans. However despite the advanced level of skill this society had it died out, showing that their skills were not sufficient to ensure their continued survival (Ponting, 1991).

Part of the difficultly in living on Easter Island was the initial scarcity of resources before humans began inhabiting the island. High temperatures and humidity coupled with bad drainage and no permanent streams made the island not well suited for farming. The isolated nature of the island did not encourage plant and animal species to exist there. Few crops other than the non-intensive sweet potato gave much free time to the residents. This ample time allowed for monument building. With the extended family as the social unit, this organization and competition helped advance the society but also brought about its collapse. The stone statues, some which were aligned to astronomical positions, consumed much of the peasant labor. Without workhorse animals, the stone blocks for the statues needed to be carried by people. When the society collapsed at its peak, only half of the stone statues were completed, showing that some sudden event occurred that effected much of the population. The statue construction stopped since tree trunks were used to move the stones from the quarry to the monument sites. The once heavily forested island was quickly cleared by the construction and at that point stones could not be transported from the quarry (Ponting, 1991).

The lack of trees cascaded into causing problems for other areas. Timber houses could no longer be built so residents began to live in caves. Canoes capable of traveling long distances compared to reed boats also could not be constructed due to the deforestation. Ground erosion increased, which made crop production diminish to the point where chickens were the only food sustenance for the island. This single point of food could not support the 7,000 people on the island so the population began to decline (Ponting, 1991).

The living conditions continued to deteriorate for those remaining. The lack of canoes hindered transportation, which restricted residents to their own homes. The psychological toll of not being able to construct additional statues likely had a damaging effect on the social organization structure of the group. The lack of resources increased the conflict level, which soon developed into ongoing warfare. The opponent clans could not destroy the statues so they were knocked down (Ponting, 1991).

The case of Easter Island shows that humans depend on the environment and the environment can be permanently altered by human development. The two elements are interconnected. Also, the recreation and cultural pursuits of a society cannot overwhelm the survival components of it. Namely, food production should be of high priority, as without this element as well as clean water the inhabitants cannot continue to survive. Additionally, living on an island poses a particular challenge as if the current local area becomes unlivable it may be difficult or impossible for the entire population to leave and take residence elsewhere. With Easter Island its isolation also cut it off from many plant and animal species to begin with. Humans need to be conscious of how their actions effect their environment, even indirectly in order to maintain a usable living space.

For broader implications with the entire world, the Easter Island case may provide a warning sign of the devastating effects that overuse of the environment can cause. The characteristics of the island such as its remoteness are less true elsewhere in the world and many areas are still teaming with animal and plant life. However, deforestation worldwide does occur and a smaller portion of the population than in prior time now does farming. As a result what farmland is available is at greater risk of being made unusable for food due to soil erosion and the less prevalent farming is to society with fewer people involved in it. Since the Easter Island society collapse happened quickly and was irreversible, it is important to avoid that sort of scenario happening on a worldwide basis since in that case there would be no easy method of migrating to an undamaged area.



Ponting, Clive. (1991). A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2003-02-06