The myth of Easter Island’s ecocide

Few historical tales of ecological collapse have achieved the cultural resonance of that of Easter Island. In the conventional account, best popularised by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book ‘Collapse’, the islanders brought doom upon themselves by over-exploiting their limited environment, thereby providing a compelling analogy for modern times. Yet recent archaeological work suggests that the eco-collapse hypothesis is almost certainly wrong – and that the truth is far more shocking.

Diamond’s thesis is that the island’s original lush tree-cover was destroyed by the Polynesian colonists, whose cult of making massive statues (for which the island is now famous) required prodigious amounts of wood to transport these huge rock idols. He suggests that as the ecological crisis brought on by deforestation worsened, the islanders tried to appease their apparently angry gods by making and transporting yet more statues, creating a vicious circle of human stupidity.

Lest we fail to spot the parallel, he writes:

“I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”?

Diamond was not the first to draw this specific analogy: over a decade earlier, in a 1992 book entitled ‘Easter Island, Earth Island’, Paul Bahn and John Flenley (both palaeoecologists) wrote:

“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing population imbalance, population crash, and ultimately extinction.”

And just to show how nasty things can get in a collapsing society, Diamond makes sure to include tantalisingly unpleasant allegations that the islanders actually ate each other on a large scale:

“In place of their former sources of wild meat, islanders turned to the largest hitherto unused source available to them: humans, whose bones became common not only in proper burials but also (cracked to extract the marrow) in late Easter Island garbage heaps.”

Diamond rounds off the chapter with the kind of call to arms that will be familiar to any environmentalist:

“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalisation, international trade, jet planes, and the internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans… Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”

But what if almost none of this is actually true, in straightforward historical terms? More recent archaeological work has now challenged almost every aspect of this conventional ‘ecocide’ narrative, most completely and damningly in a new book by the archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo entitled ‘The Statues That Walked’. Hunt and Lipo did not set out to challenge the conventional story: their initial studies were intended merely to confirm it by providing some greater archaeological detail. However, as they dug and analysed, things turned out very differently.

Take the deforestation issue. Hunt and Lipo discovered that initial estimates of the date of first colonisation by migrating Polynesians were out by several hundred years. So whilst human arrival on the island did indeed lead to near-total deforestation, it was nothing to do with statue-building, which came later. Certainly people would have cut and used some of the trees, but the more likely explanation for the extinction of the island’s native palms was the proliferation of rats – brought by the human immigrants – which ate the seeds of the trees and prevented them regenerating. (The same thing happened on many other Pacific islands, including those in Hawaii.)

And instead of the statue-building cult being evidence of stupidity and ecocide, Hunt and Lipo suggest that it was actually an important contributor to the success of Easter Island society – which (again in contradiction to the assertions of Diamond) maintained a relatively peaceful nature over many centuries. Moreover, the statues were never transported by being dragged using wood rails – they were instead ‘walked’ along specially-constructed roads in a similar way to how you or I would walk a heavy refrigerator across the kitchen.

So deforestation happened at the beginning of Polynesian colonisation, and Easter Island’s new inhabitants then developed ingenious methods for eking out a sustainable existence in their infertile and climatically hostile new home. These included lithic mulching (using stones as mulch), erecting multiple wind-breaks (again out of stone) and making very effective string and rope out of plant fibres.

As the authors write:

“The truth of cultivation on the island was that only the ingenuity of the islanders made it possible to produce a reliable food crop.”

They continue,

“In light of this knowledge, we can readily see the unwarranted nature of claims for a prehistoric environmental catastrophe that turned a once-productive island into a barren landscape. If anything, the islanders contributed to an increase in the human carrying capacity of the island over time.”

This is a very different picture from the conventional one of ecocide and cannibalism. Regarding the latter charge, according to Hunt and Lipo, the first mention of this is a sensationalised hoax published in a French tabloid newspaper in 1845, which alleged that native cannibals had tried to eat a French ship captain. The suggestion of cannibalism was also an old ploy by Christian missionaries – and used in many other islands – both to convince the Polynesians that their own culture was abhorrent, and to convince outsiders that that the natives desperately needed conversion to Christianity.

Hunt and Lipo are not the first to point out the inadequacies of Diamond’s scholarship – and that of his intellectual antecedents. As Benny Peiser points out in this 2005 paper, fish supplies were abundant, and reports from early European explorers that the islanders were thin and miserable-looking are highly contradictory (others report that they lived in comparative luxury). Certainly Diamond’s reading of this seems highly partisan. As Peiser puts it:

“Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.”

Where Diamond’s ‘garbage heaps’ full of cracked human bones are located I have so far not been able to discover, for there does indeed seem to be no evidence for them reported in any of the academic literature I have found.

As Hunt and Lipo report:

“When we first arrived on Rapa Nui (the original name for ‘Easter Island’), we expected that the archaeological record would divulge plenty of evidence of conflict, but it didn’t. Instead our archaeological investigations have shown that Rapa Nui’s history is notable for its lack of violence.”

Falsely accusing the islanders of killing and eating each other is bad enough. But it gets worse. Whilst the conventional narrative blames the islanders for committing a kind of collective ecological and social suicide (hence the term ‘ecocide’) this reading of history is almost certainly perpetuating a monumental injustice. For the Easter Islanders were indeed subject to a genocide – but it did not come from within. Instead, visiting ships brought epidemics of new diseases which wiped out the majority of the population – with most of the remnants later carted off in slave raids.

It is grimly ironic that Jared Diamond, of all people, missed – or misread – this more realistic version of history, given that it forms the central thesis for his earlier and much more convincing book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. In this work, Diamond provides compelling evidence for how diseases unknown in the New World decimated whole populations, facilitating European invasion and setting the scene for appalling crimes committed against native populations from the silver mines of Potosi to Tenochtitlan.

So why could he not understand that the same thing happened at Easter Island? Hunt and Lipo again:

“For Rapa Nui, Fischer reports that of the approximately 1,500 Rapanui who were blackbirded to Peru, the vast majority died there. In the repatriation from South America to Polynesia, eighty-five of the survivors died at sea, leaving a mere dozen or so Rapanui who actually made it back home. Then in 1871, a majority of islanders left for Tahiti and Mangareva; and even in their neighboring islands of Polynesia, the Rapanui met with death in large numbers. By 1877, the native population on the island had reached its all-time recorded low of just 110. Through a series of disastrous encounters with foreign visitors, the Rapanui population had collapsed, rebounded, collapsed again, and then recovered to a degree, only to be ravished in slave raids.”

Nor was this the final insult. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the island was converted into a massive sheep ranch, with its surviving human population held in virtual captivity. The sheep converted it into a true ecological wasteland, eliminating the remaining smaller trees and causing large-scale soil erosion – for which the early Easter Islanders would once again later be blamed by latter-day environmentalists.

So the history is wrong. But what of the analogy? Hunt and Lipo end their book by drawing a much more positive parallel between Easter Island and the rest of the world.

“Thus, despite the long history of disease, population collapse, external rule, and enslavement, the Rapanui have held on and thrived. A swelling population spurred by a booming Chilean economy has brought prosperity to the island in the form of growing tourism.”

Like all of us, modern Easter Islanders are inter-dependent with the rest of the world. Perhaps the more recent studies of their history will help challenge the Hobbesian and pessimistic view that human nature necessarily tends towards destruction and violence. Resilience and sustainability are just as likely outcomes, even over the longer term. This, I think, is the true lesson of Easter Island.

I’ll give the last word to Benny Peiser, whose paper on the subject should be required reading for anyone convinced by the collapse story in Jared Diamond’s book.

“The real mystery of Easter Island, however, is not its collapse. It is why distinguished scientists feel compelled to concoct a story of ecological suicide when the actual perpetrators of the civilisation’s deliberate destruction are well known and were identified long ago…

As a final point, I would argue that Easter Island is a poor example for a morality tale about environmental degradation. Easter Island’s tragic experience is not a metaphor for the entire Earth. The extreme isolation of Rapa Nui is an exception even among islands, and does not constitute the ordinary problems of the human environment interface. Yet in spite of exceptionally challenging conditions, the indigenous population chose to survive – and they did…

What they could not endure, however, and what most of them did not survive, was something altogether different: the systematic destruction of their society, their people and their culture.”

Update, 22 September 2011: Jared Diamond has sent a robust response to the above piece (and the sources I based it on), which I have published in full. Please do read it, and join in the debate in the comments underneath.

26 comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Jared Diamond debunking is nothing new. Check out “Questioning Collapse – Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire” edited by Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee (Cambridge University Press 2010 ISNB 978-0-521-73366-3) This is an entire book devoted to the expert’s analysis of Diamond’s work. I read both books and found a lot of validity in both. However “Questioning Collapse” often presented Diamond’s work as a Straw Man and attributed concepts to the author that don’t appear in his work. In fact “Collapse” has become a legend in its own lunch hour – it is now instilled with the myths of what people think it says. I am not sure many have actually read it. Least not some of his critics. On balance Jared Diamond’s work is still quite credible and well researched. However he has chosen his conclusion and made the facts fit. Finding evidence for ecological overshoot in archeology is fraught with dangers. But the point remains valid. Certainly your own work (Mark Lynas) in “The God Species” points out humanity’s ability to engineer the environment such that we tinker our civilisation out of existence. It remains intuitively true. We are nothing but yeast in the petri dish. Even if it remains hard to find good examples in the history books there are plenty of other chapters in “Collapse” to consider. It is a VERY long book. But we should always question the manner of the collapse to see how we can avert it.

  2. Mark Lynas says:

    “We are nothing but yeast in the petri dish”

    Well, speak for yourself! Seriously, in actual fact this comparison is obviously flawed – yeast can only evolve (more quickly than us) but has no technology and no cultural evolution. The idea that we’ll proliferate (like yeast) until we consume all our resources and then die off also flies in the face of the facts – every country sees a ‘demographic transition’ where people voluntarily limit their population once a certain level of prosperity is reached.

    So my point in this essay is that eco-determinism is as flawed as any other kind of determinism – life is much more complicated, and interesting, than that.

    • Mark Brown says:

      Fair dinkum – I only wished to point out the feasability of self-destruction, not that is is always inevitable. So many Polynesian culture survived around Easter Island in the same period of time without self-destruction. As Diamond’s response has shown this remains a vastly complicated topic to be debated over and over (much as with Climate Change). Thanks Mark for raising this.

  3. Benny Peiser? That’ll be the same Benny Peiser who runs the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the sceptical think tank frequented by the likes of Nigel Lawson and Ian Plimer.

    You don’t think he might have an axe to grind at least as large as Diamond’s?

    • Mark Lynas says:

      Yes, and yes. But in this case I believe he’s right – and I believe he deserves credit for some important and useful scholarship. I’m sure he absolutely has an axe to grind in debunking an eco-analogy, of course. But I think his sources are much more varied and convincing than Diamond’s… and the Hunt and Lipo book really seems to be the clincher.

    • Barry Woods says:

      And you quoted his paper from Energy & Environment …

      ssh don’t tell the Carbon Brief

    • Jay Pettitt says:

      I’m being a little unfair (but only a little), because I haven’t read the thing. But Benny is a sports scientist and Energy and Environment is not an obvious journal for archeology – even (loosely) environmental archeology.

      So while the paper might be brilliant, I certainly don’t have the expertise to assess and critique it myself and otherwise I’ve no way of telling. But if you want to pedal its authority as an academic work then the sceptic in me has to wonder why it wasn’t published in a journal that might be able to do a proper job of peer review or attract follow up discussion by other experts.

      I’m just not sure that 2 books you don’t like vs a paper oddly published in a journal that has no expertise in the subject matter is a great basis for getting to the bottom of what happened to Easter Islanders.

    • Mark Lynas says:

      That’s a reasonable point. Actually Peiser’s paper was published in a special edition of E&E which was specifically devoted to taking apart Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ book, so fitted well into that. (I haven’t read any of the rest of it because Oxford University doesn’t subscribe to E&E!) I think the edition was guest edited by Julian Morris and Kendra Okonski – both very much anti-environment activists, latterly with the ‘International Policy Network’ (now defunct I think) and very much in the ‘climate denial’ line. So not great credentials… but that still doesn’t make the paper wrong – it should be judged on its own merits. Plus, I wouldn’t have given it so much weight except for the Hunt and Lipo book – which does seem very solid in terms of the fieldwork, and has also seen material published in the ‘right’ (specialist) journals.

    • Robin Whitlock says:

      I’m sorry Mark, not convinced. If you’re going to draw on a paper by a known climate denier AND a director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation at that, then as far as I’m concerned you lose credibility. Certainly the research by Hunt and Lipo is worth examining closely and is convincing, but they don’t have an environmental axe to grind as far as I am aware of. Peiser by virtue of his climate denial is one of the enemy as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Peiser summarises thus: Collapse is perhaps the prime upshot of the amalgamation of environmental determinism and cultural pessimism in the social sciences. It epitomises a new and burgeoning doctrine expounded largely by disillusioned left-wingers and former Marxist intellectuals. In place of the old creed of class warfare and socio-economic driving forces that used to explain every single development under the sun, environmental determinism essentially applies the same one-sided rigidity to historical events and societal evolution (Peiser, 2003).

    Hmm. This is hardly what you would call a balanced conclusion. Diamond may be largely wrong on Easter Island, but what about Norse Greenland and/or Haiti (there’s far more to Collapse than Easter Island)? And even if he is wrong, it hardly warrants this childish name calling. If Diamond is guilty of doing a Heyerdahl (i.e. deciding on the conclusion before starting the research), then Peiser is just as bad. A diamond geezer he ain’t.

    • Robin Whitlock says:

      Absolutely. Diamond may be wrong on Easter Island, but even if he is the wider analogy between the collapse of ancient societies due to various environmental factors and certain aspects of our own societies situation still holds merit. To demolish this analogy entirely because of just one particular society is not logical at all.

  5. Marco Hollenberg says:

    How DO you drag a fridge across the kitchen?

  6. pointman says:

    A very good piece. A pity so many of the comments on it show a mindset determined to hold onto a misconception that flies in the face of both reason and history.

    Pointman

  7. bigcitylib says:

    E&E published Oliver “Iron Sun” Manuel, and the fact that you think Peiser might be right does not alter the fact that E&E is a repository for crap that is at best wrong or at worst crazy. So the logical conclusion is you are wrong about him being right. Congrats, Lynas, you’ve boarded the crazy train.

    PS. If you want to experience just what crap E&E is, try this:

    http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com/2011/02/peer-review-at-e.html

    • Squanto McButterpants says:

      Wow, an ad hominem and a self-promoting blog advertisement. Way to contribute to the discussion, big guy!

    • bigcitylib says:

      I call it a demonstration of just how lousy a journal E&E is.If the paper is published there its because nowhere else would take it.

  8. gamma ray says:

    Lynas: “Resilience and sustainability are just as likely outcomes, even over the longer term.”

    Actually, resilience and sustainability over the long and short terms have been the hallmark of homo sapien expansion, ecocide is the very rare exception. The remarkable adaptibility of human beings allowed humans to devise new strategies for long term survival that often change the survival (sustainability) of some plant and animal species but rarely were these new strategies so drastic that a new ecological balance could not be established.

    Pockets of human civilization that may have reached overshoot in the 20th century are far more likely to be a product of the artificial nature of globalism and the excesses of centrally directed fiat monetary systems driving overreliance on fossil fuel based products and food production than owing to any kind of propensity for humans to develop a die-off level imbalance between population growth and natural resources. Without the reigning top-down paradigm, any imbalances would have already largely resolved themselves.

    I often found Diamond’s books frustrating given that he clearly had trouble distinguishing causation and correlation and his personal biases led him to jump to conclusions. Thanks to Lynas for this article which nicely broadens the view on collapse.

  9. There’s a long of back and forth conjecture here. I imagine that Diamond had some cultural baggage that lead him to perpetuate myths about the savage Polynesians, but from my perspective I found it hard to imagine 20,000 people sustaining a healthy population on Easter Island. I sailed there recently and spent a week surveying the coastline for debris washed ashore. Fresh water isn’t plentiful, the soil sucks, and fish are not a stable source of food.

    Rats may have played a role in deforestation, but rats are plentiful there now. I saw them everywhere, especially in the open-pit landfill. There are still groves of palms doing just fine across the island. Hunt and Lipo also counter Diamond’s suggestion that humans cut down trees to move statues. They suggest, “The statues were never transported by being dragged using wood rails – they were instead ‘walked’ along specially-constructed roads in a similar way to how you or I would walk a heavy refrigerator across the kitchen.” How the hell do you do that? I can’t imagine how you would walk a 20-meter long statue a mile to the coast. Rolling it is so much more efficient. If I were there standing among a grove of tall, straight trees, and someone said “Hey let’s wobble this statue back and forth to get it to the shore”, I would call them a blundering idiot.

    Regarding fish, “Benny Peiser points out in this 2005 paper, fish supplies were abundant.” I’m sorry, but I dove there and saw almost nothing. The diving sucks, except for the fake Moai the islanders dumped at 20-meters for tourists to swim around and photograph. Perhaps the lack of fish is an effect of modern stress on fisheries. I don’t know, but it was surprising that there was nothing swimming around. Maybe they ate the bountiful jellyfish, like the PSA on ShiftingBaselines.com?

    Since the Polynesians arrived, there have always been people on the island. Population size may wax and wane as resources and economies grow and shrivel, much like modern Detroit. I wouldn’t say the people of Detroit will eventually eat each other, or that a city reduced to a small town has collapsed. I would reserve the term “collapse” for a punctuated event, like one of the towns recently washed away along the Japanese coast after the 3-11-11 tsunami. And I certainly wouldn’t blame any preconceived notions of cultural bias for their demise.

  10. vera says:

    Easter Island is not the only place that got devastated by the ancient mariners. The ecocide is certainly not a “myth” — that the lush island was turned into the barren landscape we see on the photo some centuries after the arrival of the humans is not in doubt. I don’t appreciate sensationalist “debunking.”

    Exactly how it all happened is, of course, a hypothesis that will be fine tuned over time. I am sticking for now with the scholarship that precedes Hunt, of whom Jared Diamond is only one.

    For fun, though, I will mention a couple of very weird things from Hunt’s (et al) work.

    “…we can readily see the unwarranted nature of claims for a prehistoric environmental catastrophe that turned a once-productive island into a barren landscape.”

    Huh? Unwarranted? Are you sure, Dr Hunt, what the word actually means?

    “If anything, the islanders contributed to an increase in the human carrying capacity of the island over time.” And “The truth of cultivation on the island was that only the ingenuity of the islanders made it possible to produce a reliable food crop.”

    Well, there we have it. The islanders actually improved the island! Mindboggling. (Regarding the statues being“walked” (like a refrigerator) to their destination rather than slid. I’ll believe it when he shows us how it’s done, using the biggest standing statue on the island.)

  11. vera says:

    Perhaps I should add that the remaining native Rapa Nui folk are behaving as moronically as the old story makes them seem. It turns out they put their town dump on top of the only aquifer remaining on the island. (Some foreigners were issuing a call for help a few years back.) WTF were they thinking?!

  12. Ann says:

    The disappearance of humans on Easter Island as a result of disease is one thing, but this doesn’t explain the disappearance of other life forms. Trees don’t get chicken pox. There are plenty of uninhabited islands around the world that were once inhabited by humans, but nature has taken over rather than disappearing along with the human population.

    I think the answer is far simpler, and it’s all around us for us to observe today. When agriculture was invented some 10,000 years ago, humans made a clearing in the forest to grow food. When the soil was exhausted they moved on to a new place and started again. This still happens today. We extract trees, water, oil and copper and when we have exhausted everything we move on. Due to climate change slowing the Gulf Stream southern Spain has dried up to such an extent that vineyards are being grubbed up and moved further north. Deserts are growing around the Earth because there are simply too many of us taking too much. We don’t change our behaviour, we just move on. This is something that could have been ingrained in our psyches ever since we started to settle the land and abandon the nomadic hunter-gatherer life.

    I don’t think we need to invent interesting fictions and then argue about who has told the most likely story because I think the way we behave towards the land and its bounty today is probably the way we have been behaving for thousands of years, and this could be the most accurate explanation. You cannot go very far on Earth without running into environmental catastrophes. Oil and fresh water are in decline, there are giant floating masses of plastic in the oceans, there are nearly 500 dead zones in the oceans, our rivers are grossly polluted, we are set to lose half of all species on Earth by the end of this century, two out of three people in industrialized countries will get cancer, our carbon emissions are increasing, we are killing hundreds of thousands of people annually from urban air pollution, etc., etc., etc., – and what do we do? We do more of whatever it is that is causing the problems. This is the problem now, and it was probably the problem then. Humans may have the gift of foresight, but it is next to useless because we don’t use it.

  13. Gabriel says:

    “Moreover, the statues were never transported by being dragged using wood rails – they were instead ‘walked’ along specially-constructed roads in a similar way to how you or I would walk a heavy refrigerator across the kitchen.”

    Really? You actually believe a bunch of people would be stupid enough to try to move a building-sized statue “like a fridge” instead of just rolling it downhill? My god, the lengths some deniers are willing go is unbelievable…

  14. Toby says:

    This documentary (1st of 6 parts) gives a fairly balanced perspective, and not the simplistic “..either … or…” in the post. Easter Island suffered more than one catastrophe, but Diamond is not wrong. In my view he is probably right on the essentials, but he necessarily discusses only the lesser of the two catastrophes.

    Diamond also parallels Easter Island with Henderson Island and Pitcairn Island, small islands which suffered total depopulation.

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