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.

© Mark Lynas
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