Nature vs. Nurture: Did the Rapanui or Evolution Destroy Easter Island?

Jen Crick

Commonly considered a microcosm of humanity’s potential to destroy itself, Easter Island also represents a long chain of feedback loops inherent in humanity’s evolution. Despite the new controversy over how the Rapanui brought about their own destruction, they still exemplify the evolutionary steps that all societies take to adapt the environment to their needs [1]. Fable-esque in its moral warnings against rampant environmental destruction, the old story of Easter Island depicts a society that experiences a glut of free time which the people transform into a competition to build moai, the now famous stone heads. Moai fever causes the people to sacrifice their trees to transporting stone, which sets in motion the cycle of desertification. A lack of resources spirals downwards into warfare and cannibalism, which ends with enslavement and deportation from the unsalvageable island [1].

Logic, however, dictates that the Rapanui did not reach the tipping point suddenly or by unfortunate coincidence. Living in a modern world plagued by deforestation, a loss of biodiversity, and quickly depleting resources, one must hope that the saw the destruction of their home coming, but refused to alter the way of life that was causing the deforestation. Consequently, there must have been several systems or factors already in place that made reversing the unsustainable lifestyle exceedingly difficult. These self-perpetuating feedback mechanisms, like farming and animal husbandry, had come into being because they benefited the Rapanui, but eventually made their way of life too complex and ingrained to change when disaster loomed.

From what archeologists can glean from the physical records left on the island, we know that the people of Easter Island thrived on agriculture, domesticated animals, built ocean worthy vessels, and carved magnificent art out of stone [2]. Had they not done any one of these things, they would have not only survived, but thrived up until European contact. Linguists have established that the Rapanui descended from Polynesian ancestors who could explore for thousands of miles in their boats [1]. Hawaii, a chain of islands colonized by Polynesians, managed to outlive their culturally and technologically similar relatives by hundreds of years, and would have continued to do so had Europeans not done some “exploring” of their own [3]. Rapa Nui’s undoing was a series of technological advancements and the resulting feedback loops rather than deforestation or an invasive species alone.

Agriculture obviously was a very expedient tool for the Polynesian people. It allowed them to contravene the whims of nature that dictated the lives of hunter gatherers, because they could control their food supply, and even create a surplus. The first unintended consequence of agriculture became evident as people stopped moving around and became tied to one place for their survival. People became less willing to leave their homeland, and developed a heretofore unseen inability to move even at the worst of times. Creating unnatural plant growth patterns, the basic theory of farming, erodes and depletes the soil. By chopping down the forests of Rapa Nui, the people opened the door for extensive erosion, which made farming difficult and unprofitable [1]. After having so thoroughly entrenched farming into their culture, the Rapanui found themselves unable to return to hunting or gathering, because they had chosen their home without considering the amount of wild forage available to them.

The domestication of animals also proved to have repercussions for the beleaguered Rapanui. While having a constantly available source of fresh meat is appealing to nearly any culture, animal husbandry requires animal feed which can only be obtained in sufficient qualities by farming. Worst for the Rapanui, the rats that they brought with them added to the deforestation by eating the native trees seeds in true invasive species style [2]. The Rapanui chose their location believing that they would always be able to supplement their diet with chicken or another domesticated species, but could not afford to spare food for chickens when the farms failed due to soil erosion. Thus they became doubly incapable of meeting their nutritional needs, for they had once again, not considered the low wild food population of the island.

Building ships capable of transporting people and significant amounts of goods thousands of miles was, perhaps, the most useful and disastrous of the feedback loops in Rapanui evolution. Painfully obvious is the fact that the Rapanui would never have been able to reach such a desolate island had they not developed such excellent boats. However, the skill and ease with which the Polynesians knew they could travel probably factored heavily into the decision to settle, rather than just visit Easter Island. Despite the warning signs: a chillier than tropical climate, low levels of fish nearby and no large terrestrial mammals, the Rapanui felt comfortable choosing Easter Island because they knew they could always abandon ship should the need arise [1]. They did not consider that, as a farming society, they would become chained to the land which they had settled; or that, as a creative culture, they would sacrifice trees to the process of beautifying their new home over keeping the art of shipbuilding fresh in the people’s minds.

The Rapanui reached new cultural heights with the moai, but their construction, like most of the other technologically and evolutionary advances, led to the deforestation of Easter Island. Because they picked such a deserted island, there were no large work animals already inhabiting the area, and the distance from civilization probably made the import of any large animals a hassle rather than a benefit. This left the backbreaking labor of moving stones across the island to humans, who, being ingenious creatures, used tree trunks as rollers to ease the burden [1]. For whatever reason, whether a burgeoning population due to overly successful farming or increased tribal rivalry, the numbers of moai continued to grow, which meant that the trees on the island continued to dwindle. By the time that the Rapanui realized that they had reached the eleventh hour, they could not or would not build a seaworthy boat and return to Polynesia.

The complex series of feedback mechanisms continued to grind away at the islands resources, and left the rest of the planet with a somber warning. While at first the story seems like perfect, if harsh karma, it still remains to be said whether it was the Rapanui’s individual choices or their inevitable evolution as human beings that led to their ultimate downfall. Had they avoided domesticating animals, or even just creating art, they would have survived. There was no way for them to know that these actions would eventual demise, as other remote Polynesian colonies like Hawaii had thrived [3]. Yet individuals did decide to settle Rapa Nui, to destroy forests for the sake of art, and to continue life as usual when their demise loomed on the horizon. While a moot point now, the story of the Rapanui must have a touch of the painfully familiar for modern denizens of a rather larger, but still inescapable case of feedback loops gone wrong and looming environmental crisis.


1. Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991, pp. 1-7.

2. Hunt, Terry. Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island. American Scientist. Sep- Oct 2006. pp. 1-9.

3. Hawaiian History.

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last updated 2/18/08