Easter Island: Learning from the Past

Easter Island

Learning from the Past

Easter Island has long mystified archaeologists. When the tiny, remote island, 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the nearest continent, was “discovered” on Easter day in 1722, some 200 mammoth stone statues (moai) stood on the island like sentries. But there was no obvious means by which the islanders could have hauled and erected the statues—some more than 30 feet (9 m) tall and weighing over 80 tons (73 tonnes).

The island was a biological wasteland. Except for introduced rats and chickens, there were no animal species higher than insects and only a few dozen plant species—mostly grasses and ferns—and nothing over ten feet in height. There was no obvious way that the island’s 2,000 or so inhabitants could have built boats or made long-burning fires, let alone transported and hoisted the huge statues.

Over the years, various people tried to explain the mysteries of Easter Island. In the 1950s Thor Heyerdahl built and sailed

Kon-Tiki across the Pacific in an attempt to demonstrate that Islanders could have used grass boats. In the 1960s Erich von Däniken postulated that extraterrestrial beings assisted the islanders in their incredible feats.

Now scientists believe they know what happened on Easter Island—and the emerging picture should be a grim warning for our own civilization. Based on analysis of ancient pollen, researchers have established that Easter Island was a very different place when the Polynesians first arrived around A.D. 400. In fact, it was a subtropical paradise, rich in biodiversity. The most common tree, the Easter Island Palm, grew more than 80 feet tall and would have been ideal for carving into large canoes and equipment for erecting the statues. The toromiro tree provided a dense, mesquite-like wood that is ideal as a fuel. The hauhau tree produced a strong fiber that rope could be made from. In addition to the rich plant life, there were at least 25 species of nesting birds—mostly seabirds, but also owls, herons, parrots, and rails.

We now know that Easter Islanders exploited their resources to an extreme, exterminating all species of higher animals and many species of plants. Researchers theorize that the island’s ecosystem may have been destroyed in a cascading fashion—as certain birds were eliminated, for example, trees dependent on those birds for pollination could no longer reproduce. Denuded of forests, the land eroded, carrying nutrients out to sea.

As natural resources disappeared, so too did social structure. Researchers believe that the island population may have grown to a peak of about 20,000 that lived in a highly organized structure, as evidenced by the sculpture carving. But as food (or the ability to get it) became scarce, this structure broke down. Warring tribal factions replaced the centralized social structure. Cannibalism became rampant. In the late 1700s, rival clans began to topple their enemies’ statues.

So why didn’t the Easter Islanders see what was happening? Jared Diamond, in the August 1995

Discover Magazine, suggests that the collapse happened “not with a bang but with a whimper.” Their means of making boats and rope and log rollers disappeared over decades or even generations and either they didn’t see what was happening or couldn’t do anything about it.

What can we learn from this experience? The history of Easter Island provides us with a timely warning. Our island—the Earth—is larger and can withstand more damage before we see the effects of our actions, but it is really no different. What is different is our ability to learn from our mistakes. We have photographs and a written history that provide a more durable memory. We can travel and learn from the mistakes of others. We can scientifically probe the past.

Many politicians and talk show hosts today claim that there are no limits to growth—that all the environmental doomsayers are wrong. But Easter Island shows us that limits are real. Let’s not wait until it’s too late to come to grips with these limits.

Published September 1, 1995

(1995, September 1). Easter Island: Learning from the Past. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/easter-island-learning-past

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