‘The Easter Island ecocide never happened’ – response to Jared Diamond

In my initial post on the myths of Easter Island I discussed the conclusions in archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt’s new book ‘The Statues That Walked’, which demolished the idea – popularised by Jared Diamond in his book ‘Collapse’ – that Easter Island’s prehistoric society suffered some kind of ecologically-driven collapse which offers a parable for our modern-day environmental problems. Jared Diamond then sent over a robust response, which I published in full. Now Lipo and Hunt in turn respond to Diamond, which I am happy also to publish in full below.

By Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt

We are hardly surprised that Jared Diamond would write that we are “transparently wrong” about Easter Island.  He has a vested interest in defending his “ecocide” storyline published back in 1995 in Discover Magazine and again in his bestselling book Collapse. We acknowledge that Diamond has much at stake here.  But so do the Easter Islanders.  So too does the field of archeology.  And so too does the truth.

Diamond’s thesis about what happened on Easter Island is not new, building as it did on presumptions originally offered by the first Europeans to set foot on the island in the early 18th century. Sadly, this thesis was not challenged because it so conveniently confirmed 18th century prejudice about superior (European) and inferior (everyone not European) societies. Thor Heyerdahl expanded the story and added a further racist twist about lighter-skinned people who accomplished much, and darker-skinned people who incited rebellion, warfare, and ruin.  Diamond simply continues the tradition by reworking the tale to remove the racist elements, relying instead upon an environmental twist put forth by popular writer Bahn and palynologist Flenley.

An important role of scholarship is to examine long-held myths and see if they hold up under modern scientific tests.  The original Easter Island thesis, in any of its iterations, including Diamond’s, does not.  Let us point out that we didn’t go to Easter Island to tear down Diamond’s thesis. We went there to support it by filling in the missing archeological data. It was only when we convinced ourselves that any iteration of that original story, including Diamond’s, had no archeological evidence to support it and much to contract it that we began to see where the research was leading us.

It is also important to note that Diamond is not an archaeologist and has not done archaeological or palaeoecological research in Polynesia. We have been doing research and primary archaeological field work on Easter since 2000. One of us (TH) has worked in Pacific Island archaeology for nearly 40 years and taught at University of Hawaii for 23 years.  On Easter Island we have done more field work and covered a greater breadth of archaeology than anyone else in the past two decades.  Our work has been peer-reviewed and published in science’s most selective and prestigious journals.  We outline in detail the evidence from our work and that of scores of colleagues working on the island in our book The Statues that Walked.  Diamond would have readers believe that the majority of archeologists who have studied Easter Island support his thesis.  It is simply not true. The new evidence that we and other serious scholars have provided over the past decade not only contradicts the old story that Diamond has so heavily invested in, but has led to a new consensus among the majority of scholars around our work.

Now, let us deal with the four or five major points of contention.

Deforestation

Everyone agrees that Easter Island was almost completely deforested by the time Europeans first visited in 1722.  The key issue is causation. In the absence of evidence to refute the facts we lay out, Diamond chooses either to ignore or misrepresent what we do argue. We never argued that rats were the sole cause of deforestation.  As the evidence shows and as we argued in our book, deforestation was a cumulative process that took centuries.  It resulted from rat predation of seeds and from people using fire to clear vegetation for agriculture.

To defend his position that rats played no significant role in deforestation, Diamond cites a study by Mieth and Bork.  Setting aside the fact that even if only a fraction of palm nuts were destroyed by rats, the cumulative effect would have been significant, let’s examine this study on its merits.

We were well aware of the work of Mieth and Bork as we did our work. But we were also aware of the fact (which Diamond fails to point out) that Mieth and Bork based their claim on nut fragments, not whole nuts. Before we rejected this study, we took the time to  experiment ourselves with 25 modern rat-gnawed palm nuts from mainland Chile that we broke into fragments of the sizes resembling those reported by Mieth and Bork.  This sample of 100% whole rat-gnawed nuts–when broken and then counted by their fragments–became a much, much smaller percentage. This shows the problem using Mieth and Bork whose estimate of 10% rat gnawed fragments implies that most nuts (if they were counted whole) were actually gnawed by rats.

Indeed, there is an extensive scientific literature on the impact of rats in island ecosystems that Diamond is either unaware of or simply doesn’t want readers to know about, such as those from Lord Howe Island, where ecologists point out that without massive programs of rat eradication, the native palms on the island will go extinct. And rats have been on Lord Howe only since 1918, when a steamship ran aground!  Diamond himself, in his own writing, has referred to rats as “agents of extermination” (Diamond 1985).

Bottom line: Diamond needs to explain how, in the absence of predators and with an almost unlimited supply of food, the rat population would have remained small and had no impact on native plants and animals.

Next, Diamond makes the argument that even if rats could do this type of damage, the particular type of trees on Easter Island were not vulnerable to rats. The facts are as follows: Of the 17 major woody species identified from charcoal found in ancient cooking fires, 14 are documented to have seen major rat impacts elsewhere, or to be edible and highly vulnerable.  Furthermore, because the Jubaea palms were slow growing and did not fruit until about 70 years of age, they were particularly vulnerable. Some fraction of new palms would grow, but not enough to replace an entire forest over time.  Older trees would die, many were lost to fire, and in the end it was a losing battle; not enough young seedlings made it to reproductive age.

As for Diamond’s notion that palms were not diminished by rats, but taken down the islanders for rollers to move statues or to carve into canoes, enabling deep-sea fishing, anyone who has seen a palm tree cross-section with its thin, brittle bark and soft fibrous interior would quickly recognize these would not be suitable. Nor frankly would they have been capable of supporting the weight of multi-ton statues as rollers.

As for his allegation that palms were an important part of the islanders’ subsistence, there is overwhelming evidence that the islanders didn’t think so.  As we document in The Statues That Walked on research conducted by Joan Wozniak (2003), Chris Stevenson (Stevenson et al 2002, 2006; Ladefoged  et al. 2005, 2010) and  Hans-Rudolf (Bork et al. 2004) lithic mulch gardens, along with stone-walled gardens known locally as manavai, provided the basis for the islander’s subsistence soon after the island was settled.  Palms provided no direct, long-term benefit so their loss had few if any consequences.

Chronology—When exactly was the island colonized?

One of our most important findings was excavation and radiocarbon dating to establish the date of settlement as 300-800 years later than Diamond’s thesis requires. Diamond insists on missing evidence to argue for a longer chronology.  His argument asks us to accept on faith the notion that “the evidence must be there, we just can’t find it.”  That wouldn’t stand up in court, and it certainly doesn’t stand up in science.  Until such time as serious scientists prove otherwise, there are no reliable radiocarbon dates that support settlement of Easter Island before 1200 A.D. (Hunt and Lipo 2006). To argue otherwise ignores more than 2,000 radiocarbon dates from multiple archipelagos that provide overwhelming evidence that all of the eastern Pacific Islands were settled only over the past thousand years (Rieth et al 2011;Wilmshurst et al 2011), with Easter settled around 1200 A.D.  Even the most skeptical archaeologists working in the Pacific are now quibbling about chronological differences of only 50 to 100 years, not several centuries as Diamond imagines.

Statue Transport—Did the states move horizontally or vertically?

Diamond’s thesis hangs on the need for logs to “roll” the statues from the quarries to their final destinations.  In support of his thesis, he asks the reader to “imagine it yourself.”  Surely, he implies, it would be crazy to move a multi-ton statue in a standing position.  And if all you are solely relying upon is your own imagination, it may sound like a scary proposition. But that’s not reason enough to declare some past event as impossible.

But readers need to keep in mind that Diamond’s collapse thesis relies heavily on how the statues were moved.  To sustain his thesis regarding the eventual “collapse” of the ancient society, he needs statue movement to be the “engine” that caused the loss of trees. Decouple the loss of trees from moving statues and the “collapse” story looses steam. Thus, we are not surprised that Diamond holds so tenaciously to old beliefs and discredited claims.

But one has to wonder if Diamond has read The Statues that Walked.  In the book we discuss how fallen statue positions, kinds of breakage, statue shapes with a forward center of mass, as well as statue modifications made between quarry and placement on platforms can only be explained by vertical movement.  As archaeologist and colleague on the island Sergio Rapu (who has studied statues his whole life and has a M.A. degree in archaeology) taught us, the statues were “engineered to move.”  Oral traditions have long insisted that they “walked.” And while some have shown that it is possible to move a statue horizontally on a contraption of logs, (as Diamond posits they were moved) such a method completely ignores the direct and unambiguous evidence provided by the statues themselves.

But there is much better news awaiting readers who might want “to imagine it” themselves.   In recent experiments funded by National Geographic and fully filmed, we “walked” a multi-ton replica of an actual statue (one found along an ancient transport road).  Moving a statue in a standing position is not only possible; it’s relatively easy and can be done with a small group of people using only ropes.  Our experiment will be highlighted in a forthcoming NOVA-National Geographic television special to be broadcast on PBS in the spring of 2012.  Then the rest of the world will see what we have seen—the statues of Easter Island walking upright! Stay tuned!

Collapse only after European Contact

Again Diamond makes an appeal to authority in lieu of reference to evidence.  He mistakenly says we relied on only one source (Peiser, who does not even appear in our book’s bibliography—again, did he read our book?) who, he points out, has not done any work on the island.  Let us also note once again that Diamond has not conducted any field work on the island.  Nor to our knowledge has one of Diamond’s proclaimed “leading experts,” Paul Bahn, done any field studies on the island.

As we show in The Statues that Walked, rather than repeat assumptions and claims made in the past, we sought direct evidence with no preconceived ideas we needed to defend.  In that frame of mind, what the evidence kept pointing to is that many of the “facts” offered up by so-called “experts” were simply claims repeated over and over and nothing more. The island was certainly transformed over the course of human history (including the dramatic impact of more than 100 years of sheep ranching once the Chileans took control of the island.).  But what is Diamond’s evidence that prehistoric loss of the forest led to cultural and demographic collapse? There is none other than the assumption that losing trees is bad for people living on this island.  Is there evidence of soil erosion? Yes, but it shows re-deposited soils were successfully cultivated. In addition, radiocarbon dating and modern observations show that the most dramatic soil erosion occurred in post-contact and modern times (i.e., largely the results of sheep ranching).  Would the loss of trees have resulted in a critical shortfall of food and/or necessary materials?  The answer is a resounding “no.” Could the palm tree have provided a vital food source for people in the form of nuts? Yes, however, the introduction of tree-dwelling rats meant that these pests would have consumed most of the nuts first.

Diamond repeats a number of traditional notions about the island’s history.  In particular, he cites “evidence of widespread warfare” based on “oral accounts and preserved weapons and skeletal injuries.”  Let’s examine this so-called evidence. First, oral traditions were collected in the 20th century, almost 200 years after European contact.  Alfred Metraux, an anthropologist who studied the islanders’ oral traditions, concluded that they were most likely of very recent origin (Metraux 1940). Katherine Routledge, who worked on the island in the early 20th century, also describes how unreliable and contradictory she found the oral traditions. Our work does not draw upon oral traditions, given their uneven and unknown reliability. Some traditions may well be consistent with what actually happened in the past. In other cases they may not.  It is impossible to evaluate them on their own merits and independent lines of evidence are necessary (e.g., statues “walking” had to be evaluated in terms of evidence beyond just oral traditions).

Diamond’s “preserved weapons,” the mata’a, are agricultural tools that he has chosen to describe as “weapons.”  Their design alone, a rounded to irregular shape, should have been enough to make him question their purpose. But if he had read the microscopic studies reporting edge damage on thousands of these artifacts, he would have seen that the damage they show is consistent with their role in cutting and scrapping plant material (e.g., Church and Ellis 1994).  Indeed, our field studies show that they are found in the greatest concentrations in the lithic mulch gardening areas, right where one would expect to find them. And the island has no fortifications, such as those we see on other Polynesian islands where warfare was frequent.

Diamond points to evidence of violence in human skeletal remains.  However, the published data reveal there are only two cases in which violence appears to have resulted in death, and one of these was an individual who suffered a bullet wound to the head.  The skeletal evidence shows injuries and as we explain in The Statues that Walked, the ancient islanders engaged in some conflicts with one another. But as we outline in our book, statues were a focus of competitive signaling that staved off lethal violence.

Finally, Diamond ignores field research reporting dated domestic habitation sites (see Hunt and Lipo 2009 for discussion). When the habitations are plotted in fifty-year intervals, the number of those occupied clearly shows that the first and only sustained decline, as a relative measure of the population, began only in the first interval following European contact.  Before contact the data show a population that is growing and stabilizing, as reflected in their habitations across the landscape.  There is no evidence of population decline, let alone “collapse” until after European contact.  Indeed, there is direct, abundant evidence that population numbers grew, stabilized, and then fell only after 1722.

The Lesson of Easter Island

Rather than address the evidence, Diamond attempts to deride our work by claiming that the people on the dust jacket are not experts in the field.  Diamond is certainly no expert in the field of Easter Island archaeology, regardless of his popularity. The individuals who commented on our book are experts in the areas of human and environmental change, including extensive research in the Pacific Islands.  These well-qualified, highly respected individuals know how science works and are directly engaged in research on ecology, evolution, and environmental change. Lacking quotes by “experts” who we have necessarily challenged in our research (perhaps such as Diamond?)  is certainly no reason for suspicion. The truth of the matter rests in the hands of the reader and the factual evidence outlined in The Statues that Walked.

There are those such as popular writer Paul Bahn and and palynologist John Flenley who continue to push the old doomsday, “ecocide” scenario.  But recent work has shown the central significance of lithic mulch (e.g., Bork et al. 2004; Stevenson et al. 2005; Ladefoged et al. 2010; Wozniak 1999, 2003), the lack of evidence for an 1680 AD “Collapse” event (e.g., Mulrooney et al. 2009, Lipo and Hunt 2009), that mata’a are not developed weapons (Church and Rigney 1994; Church and Ellis 1995), the lack of structural integrity of palms to serve as rollers or use as canoes (e.g., Bork and Meith 2003), the lack of evidence for cannibalism (e.g., McLaughlin 2005), the shorter chronology for colonization not just for Easter, but for the entire eastern Pacific (e.g., Kennett et al. 2006; Reith et al. 2011; Wilmshurst et al. 2008, 2011), the devastating effects that rats have on island environments (e.g., Athens 2009), details about the impact that Europeans had on historic populations (e.g., Fischer 2005), direct evidence about statue transport based on analysis of moai roads (e.g., Lipo and Hunt 2005; Love 2001), the inherently nutrient poor state of soil on Rapa Nui (e.g., Ladefoged 2005) and more.  These new findings point to the growing body of evidence that falsifies the basic claims made in favor of “ecocide.” And based on this evidence, the majority of archaeologists working on Easter and elsewhere in Polynesia now reject the notion that the island suffered a pre-European collapse.

Our work in The Statues that Walked brings a wide range of current research into focus and combines more than a decade of our own field and related Easter Island research to form a coherent picture that is the basis of a new scientific consensus.  Easter Island was a story of remarkable success. And as young Native Islanders have told us, knowledge of their ancestors’ success, not failure, matters greatly to them. The “collapse” story for Easter Island is a convenient and popular parable used for shocking the public about the dangers of over-exuberance and environmental disregard.  However, as we describe in our book, the island’s collapse came only with the germs, guns, and enslavement brought by the outside world.  Given what is at stake in terms of lessons to be learned about long-term survival on an isolated and resource poor location, the truth matters.  Indeed, we have much to learn from Easter Island.

References

Athens, Stephen, 2009: Rattus exulans and the catastrophic disappearance of Hawai’i's native lowland forest. Biological Invasions 11: 1489-1501.

Auld T.D., Hutton I., Ooi M.K.J., Denham A.J., 2010: Disruption of recruitment in two endemic palms on Lord Howe Island by invasive rats. Biological Invasions 12: 3351-3361

Bork, Hans-Rudolf, Andreas Mieth, and Bernd Tschochner, 2004: Nothing but stones? A review of the extent and technical efforts of prehistoric stone mulching on Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui Journal 18(1): 10-14.

Butler, K. R., C. R. Prior, and J. R. Flenley, 2004: Anomalous radiocarbon dates from Easter Island.  Radiocarbon 46(1): 395-405.

Campbell, D. J., Atkinson, I. A. E., 2002: Depression of tree recruitment by the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans Peale) on New Zealand’s northern offshore islands. Biological Conservation 107:19-35.

Church, Flora, and Grace Ellis, 1996: A use-wear analysis of obsidian tools from an Ana Kionga. Rapa Nui Journal 10(4): 81-88.

Church, F., and J. Rigney, 1994: A microwear analysis of tools from site 10-241, Easter Island–An inland processing site. Rapa Nui Journal 8(4): 101-105.

Diamond, J., 1985: Rats as agents of extermination. Nature 318: 602-603.

Drake, D.R. and T. L. Hunt, 2009: Invasive rodents on islands: integrating historical and contemporary ecology. Biological Invasions 11: 1483-1487.

Fischer, Steven R., 2005: Island at the End of the World: The turbulent history of Easter Island. London: Reaktion Books.

Hunt, T. L., and C. P. Lipo, 2006: Late colonization of Easter Island. Science 311(5767): 1603-1606.

Hunt, T.L. and C.P. Lipo, 2009: Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) “Ecocide.” Pacific Science 63: 601-616.

Kennett, Douglas, et al., 2006: Prehistoric human impacts on Rapa, French Polynesia. Natural History 80 (October 2004): 340-354.

Ladefoged, T. N., C. M. Stevenson, S. Haoa, M. Mulrooney, C. Puleston, P. M. Vitousek and O.A. Chadwick, 2010: Soil nutrient analysis and Rapa Nui gardening. Archaeology in Oceania 45:80-85.

Lipo, Carl. P., and Terry L. Hunt, 2005: Mapping prehistoric statue roads on Easter Island. Antiquity 79:158-168.

Lipo, C. P. and T. L. Hunt, 2009: AD 1680 and Easter Island Prehistory.  Asian Perspectives. 48(2): 309-317.

McLaughlin, S., 2005: Cannibalism and Easter Island: Evaluation, Discussion of Probabilities, and Survey of the Literature on the Subject.  Rapa Nui Journal 19(1): 30-50.

Métraux, Alfred, 1940: Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu: Bulletin, 160, Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Mulrooney, M. A., T. N. Ladefoged, C. M. Stevenson, and S. Haoa, 2009: The Myth of AD 1680: New Evidence from Hanga Ho‘onu, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Rapa Nui Journal 23(2): 94-105

Owsley, Douglas W., George W. Gill, and Stephen D. Ousley, 1994: Biological effects of European contact on Easter Island. In In the Wake of Contact: Biological Responses to Conquest. C.S. Larsen and G.R. Milner, eds., pp. 161-177. New York: Wiley-Liss.

Reith, Timothy M., Terry L. Hunt, Carl P. Lipo, Janet M. Wilmshurst, 2011: The Thirteenth Century Polynesian Colonization of Hawai‘i Island Journal of Archaeological Science 38(10): 2740-2749

Steadman, David W., Patricia Vargas Casanova, and Claudio Cristino Ferrando, 1994: Stratigraphy, Chronology, and Cultural Context of an Early Faunal Assemblage from Easter Island. Asian Perspectives 33(1): 79-96.

Stevenson, Christopher M., Thegn Ladefoged, and Sonia Haoa, 2002: Productive Strategies in an Uncertain Environment: Prehistoric Agriculture on Easter Island. Rapa Nui Journal 16(1): 17-22.

Stevenson, C. M., S. Haoa, T. N. Ladefoged, M. A. Mulrooney, P. M. Vitousek, O. A. Chadwick, and C. Puleston, 2010: Evaluating Rapa Nui Prehistoric Terrestrial Resource Degradation. Rapa Nui Journal 24(2): 15-16.

Wilmshurst, J.M., T.L. Hunt, C.P. Lipo, and A. Anderson, 2011: High precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 108 (5):1815-1820. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1015876108

Wilmshurst, J.M., A.J. Anderson, T.F.G. Higham, and TH Worthy, 2008: Dating the late prehistoric dispersal of Polynesians to New Zealand using the commensal Pacific rat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105 (22) 7676–7680. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0801507105

Wozniak, Joan A., 1999: Prehistoric horticultural practices on Easter Island: lithic mulched gardens and field systems. Rapa Nui Journal 13(3): 95-99.

Wozniak, Joan A., 2003: Exploring Landscapes on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) with Geoarchaeological Studies: Settlement, Subsistence, and environmental changes.  Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Oregon, Eugene.

30 comments

  1. skept says:

    Well, it will be hard to reconciliate the opposite views ! Anyway, I don’t really understand why the destiny of a small island, without any cognitive and commercial exchange for centuries, would give a lesson or even a pertinent parabole for our globalized industrial civilization. Agrarian (premodern) societies rely on farm productivity relative to demography, and it’s a truism to observe its strong dependency to environmental conditions for livestocks and harvests. In an industrialized world, farmers represent 1 to 5% of population and GDP, technologies are the main drivers of productivity (in agriculture and elsewhere), global trade rules out dangerous autarcy, science, history, evidence-based policy and information systems feed a strong self-observation and self-reflection…

    • Ben says:

      “In an industrialized world, farmers represent 1 to 5% of population and GDP, technologies are the main drivers of productivity (in agriculture and elsewhere), global trade rules out dangerous autarcy, science, history, evidence-based policy and information systems feed a strong self-observation and self-reflection…”

      Skept, it may be true that farmers only make up 1 to 5% of the population, but 100% of the population is dependent on farmers. What would be the point in working in technological fields if there were no food to eat? Maybe we’ll eat iPhones?

    • danny4178 says:

      I watched the whole boring show, & while a little interesting, it was all about themselves “discovering” the way it happened. There was a fleeting mention that it was actually discussed & published by another person before themselves.
      The other thing I found interesting … they couldn’t actually get the statues to move until one of the guys helping on the ropes came up with the third rope idea ( guy in a blue t-shirt ) after the idea worked there were no accolades for him coming up with the solution, only pats on the back for themselves !
      Ah well, the price of glory eh !

  2. Menth says:

    And that Ladies and Gentlemen, is how you craft a fine rebuttal.

  3. Barry Woods says:

    Well I’m convinced..

    … but the ‘ecocide’ myth will endure because so many people want it to, because it fits into their worldview

  4. I think there should be room for mutual respect but these guys leave none. That’s a big turn off.
    But it is true that theindigenouss populations suffered when the New World was discovered by the Europeans.
    It is also true that civilizations have collapsed because they ran out of resources.
    So this argument seems to be a tempest in a teapot to me.

  5. Mike Pitts says:

    As an outsider, but an experienced archaeologist, I’d like to make a brief comment. I can’t help but compare the archaeology of Easter Island with that of Stonehenge.

    My relationship to the former is that of a tourist and an avid lifetime reader, while my knowledge of the latter is more intimate – I have excavated there, and spent much time over the years working with archives from the excavations of others. At Stonehenge, there is no question that most excavations were poorly conducted and poorly recorded (if at all). Consequently great care is needed in their interpretation, and even observations made by the excavators themselves need to be treated with informed scepticism and a strong spirit of inquiry.

    Resorts to authority in the Rapa Nui debate worry me – not least statements such as Diamond’s “Hunt’s and Lipo’s conclusions are considered transparently wrong by essentially all other archaeologists with active programs on Easter Island”, or his reliance on “leading experts” or “a century of previous extensive archaeological research by many scholars”.

    I would not wish to rely on many of the excavations on Easter Island I can read about (and those I can’t had been better not done). Like those at Stonehenge, they are often poorly described, the stratigraphies look unconvincing and the trenches were too small. The contexts of radiocarbon samples, so critical in building reliable chronologies, are rarely properly described (Hunt & Lipo’s rejection of so many dates instinctively feels right – we went through the same process at Stonehenge). And why on earth is there still no properly published, peer reviewed survey of the statues? Why no major modern excavations at the quarries, surely the first thing we need if we are to understand the chronology and technology of statue building?

    Where Hunt and Lipo really succeed, I suggest, is in putting together an alternative history of Easter Island that is at least as convincing as any other (and, I’ll admit, one that I warm to). Given the state of archaeology on the island, it makes sense to treat their history, and the version favoured by Bahn, Diamond and the others, and anything else we might come up with, as hypotheses that need testing – with new, good archaeological fieldwork – not resolved choices.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    What Menth wrote.

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    The second paragraph’s “See, Jared stopped beating his wife” accusation of racist *reasoning* is gobsmackingly over-the-top. It makes me question all of their other assertions.

  8. Doug Mackie says:

    To me it seemed as if you (Mark) were defending Hunt and Lipo’s use of Benny Peiser as a reliable source. If I know someone is telling deliberate lies (as opposed to being mistaken) in one aspect of science then I have zero confidence in anything else they say and zero confidence in anyone who cites such a person. Especially if the cite is to propound a controversial position related to the known lies.

  9. scas says:

    Reading both arguments side by side Jared’s appears more convincing. The Easter Islanders played a significant role in their ecological collapse. European arrival was secondary to an already reduced environment.

  10. vera says:

    It seems to me, given that the story of Easter Island has come so powerfully to demonstrate the currently ongoing human folly, that defenders of the status quo would arise and try to debunk it.

    I don’t buy it.

    As for the rats, it seems that both rats and humans would be the guilty parties here, but that just kicks the problem down the road. The question of why these humans were unable to turn around when they saw the human-caused progressive devastation of their island home, is the same as asking, why these humans were unable to turn around when they saw the devastation being caused by themselves and the rats, together.

    Why would the rats be relatively contained? Because they were avidly hunted for the meat. Hunt et al say the rats had no predators. Of course they did — humans.

    And I agree, the whole “racist passage” is ugly.

  11. Matt says:

    I’ve found this very interesting, and plan on reading the book for further information. I do have a few questions that I hope the book answers.

    The authors say there is overwhelming evidence that the islanders didn’t require the palm nuts, and the trees didn’t provide any long term benefit to the people, because they had the lithic mulch agriculture and too much competition from the rats to gather the nuts. I find it hard to believe that people would get no net benefit from an additional food source no matter how productive their other agriculture. Wouldn’t the rats be just as much a threat to the food they were growing?

    I’m not an agriculture expert, but it seems that using slash and burn techniques on a fully forested area would provide more nutrients to the soil and a better growing season versus burning simple grassland. That alone seems a compelling reason that the loss of trees had a substantial negative impact to the people living there.

    If burning the trees didn’t have a major impact in their grown food supply, why would they burn them? Without crop rotation and other advanced farming techniques, the loss of trees seems to directly lead to a loss of food, leading to an unsustainable population level.

    The evidence unearthed shows that the population didn’t collapse until after European contact. But it seems at least plausible, and European accounts support the idea, that the contact coincided with the last of the trees being destroyed. Basically, I’m not convinced that ecocide wasn’t at least an equal factor in the islands decline. I look forward to reading the book to see if it convinces me.

  12. The discussion here leaves me more convinced of Diamond’s viewpoint, rather than less. I explain why:

    http://planet3.org/2011/11/14/the-statues-that-walked/

  13. Steve says:

    My take from Jared Diamond’s book was that unsustainable consumption is unsustainable and we need to accept that reality or our species faces collapse
    The debate about what happened on Easter Island is interesting but if it turns out that their collapse wasn’t due to unsustainable consumption that really doesn’t change anything
    We only need to look at the collapse of the worlds fishing industry for another example of where unsustainable harvesting will take us

  14. Doug Mackie says:

    Mark,

    as Eli (and many, many others have said) Benny Peiser is not to be trusted. You have yet to explain why you gave such creedence to Peiser as a source. (You did this here).

    I repeat that if I know someone is telling lies in one area of science then I have no confidence in anything else they say. Why is that you think differently?

  15. Eli Rabett says:

    There are two ways of walking a refrigerator. In the first you lever it up with one point on the ground and then shove the part in the air forward. The real issue here is why did the forests disappear, people or rats. More to the point were both necessary but insufficient by themselves. The statue moving thing is just a sideshow

    Pretty clear how you could roll the things downhill on their backs, but how do you do it standing up? (note the bit about uneven terrain, that means you are moving the damn things UPHILL for a fair and gut busting amount of time. While Eli has no experience moving 90 tons, the bunny has maneuvered a whole bunch of a ton like optical tables and without rolling it ain’t a whole lot of fun.)

    So to move these things standing up you need strong ropes which you can get from palms (or other trees), and some sort of grease to put under the narrow base and a smooth road of some sort. Since there were not large animals on the island that throws you back on palm oil, or maybe oil from porpoises/wales. To get the sea creatures you need boats, which means wood and ropes to build ships. Otoh rounding logs with obsiden tools is not a walk in the park either.

    What is comes down to is both Diamond and Hunt and Lupo say that the civilization had to collapse when the palm and other trees disappeared, and that appears to have happened ~ 1400.

    http://news.mongabay.com/2005/1206-easter_island.html

    Where they disagree is why the palms disappeared. Diamond has a strong point that other islands with palms were not deforested. If the island were overpopulated, the stress on the forests from farming and fishing (to build boats) would have been immense without any pressure from log rolling anyhow, the rats would have been another source of pressure, and either the need for logs/rope to move the statues would have been a third.

  16. J Bowers says:

    “…anyone who has seen a palm tree cross-section with its thin, brittle bark and soft fibrous interior would quickly recognize these would not be suitable. Nor frankly would they have been capable of supporting the weight of multi-ton statues as rollers.”

    Coconut Timber

    “Coconut timber is a hardwood-substitute from coconut palm trees. It is referred to in the Philippines as Coconut Lumber, or Coco Lumber. It is a new timber resource that comes from plantation crops and offers an alternative to rainforest timber.”

  17. John Mason says:

    It’s getting difficult to see the wood for the palm trees here….

    I suppose one obvious question to ask both parties is: “were canoes required for fishing, and if so, what were they constructed from?”

    Cheers – John

  18. J Bowers says:

    “Furthermore, because the Jubaea palms were slow growing and did not fruit until about 70 years of age, they were particularly vulnerable. “

    Hmmm.

    Paschalococos

    “Paschalococos disperta (Rapa Nui Palm or Easter Island Palm), formerly Jubaea disperta, was the native cocoid palm species of Easter Island. It disappeared from the pollen record circa 1650 AD. It is not known whether the species is distinct from Jubaea, but there is no evidence that it was Jubaea either, …

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    Steve Bloom has pointed out elsewhere that sled were probably more likely than rollers, using palm leaves under the runners to grease the way. That looks like more of a winner than either fridges or rollers.

  20. Janet Camp says:

    I love this! This is how science works. I’m going to read the book (Lipo and Hunt) and run the whole thing past a former archaeology professor.

    People’s opinions, for the most part, don’t matter–it’s the data; which in this case is open to quite a bit of interpretation–and therein lies the dilemma.

    It is true that Diamond is not an archaeologist, but he seems qualified to synthesize data, but I cannot deny that L&H have made a good case for their argument. I do think they are a bit strident in their criticism of Diamond and would do better to stick to the facts.

  21. Anna Haynes says:

    Apparently Hunt & Lipo are misdescribing Mieth & Bork’s “% of palm nuts gnawed by rats” research.

    H&L say above that
    “…we were also aware of the fact (which Diamond fails to point out) that Mieth and Bork based their claim on nut fragments, not whole nuts. … the problem using Mieth and Bork …[is that their] estimate of 10% rat gnawed fragments implies that most nuts (if they were counted whole) were actually gnawed by rats.”

    But when I asked Mieth about this claim in email, he replied ““The phrase in our paper (Mieth and Bork 2010, Journal of Archaeological Science, page 423) is very clear: ‘Among more than 200 COMPLETELY preserved and charred nutshells …. less than 10 % had the teeth marks of rats.’
    It is NOT less than 10 % of nut fragments. It is less than 10 % counted for whole nuts!”

  22. lawrie searle says:

    Oops! They didn’t need palm trees to build canoes for fishing, they used reed rafts using the Totora that grew in the Ranu Raraku crater and can we stop using the tired old argument that Heyerdahl claimed South American contact by a race of blonde supermen. That particular furphy was applied to ‘American Indians in the Pacific’ by his opponents. Kon Tiki was a splendid ‘boys own’ telling of an exciting tale of the raft voyage. It was not the basis for his ethnographic theories.

  23. Eric L says:

    “Let us point out that we didn’t go to Easter Island to tear down Diamond’s thesis. We went there to support it by filling in the missing archeological data.”

    Of all the claims you make here, this one strikes me as the least plausible. I don’t have to dig far for evidence — you go on to explain the idea you were trying to support has racist origins, call it “the old doomsday, “ecocide” scenario”, fret that it is “a convenient and popular parable used for shocking the public about the dangers of over-exuberance and environmental disregard” — basically it comes across as “I went into this with an open mind — in fact, I was trying to prove that racist apocalyptic environazi-enabling alarmist scare story right!” You might as well just come out and admit you don’t like environmentalists.

    On a more substantive note, whether or not the Easter Islanders depended directly on the trees for food, I’m inclined to believe the consequences of deforestation were not good. I say this based on my sister’s experience in Haiti, where deforestation and the resulting degradation of farmland and of watersheds are a major cause of the nation’s poverty.

  24. David in Tampa says:

    The issue that I have huge problems with is carbon dating. I am an electrician. I live my life with logic. There is no logic in any of these theories. The easiest place to debunk the “modern man” theories are at the quarry. With all things being equal, explain to me the procedure of cutting the bottom loose of a multi-ton statue or obelisk from the bed rock. It is possible to cut the statue on three sides. It is impossible to cut the bottom loose. And there is never any evidence to show how it was done.

  25. Khoai says:

    Not one inline citation in these comments. This demonstrates a passive willful ignorance IMHO.

  26. S. Pearson says:

    So the statues can weigh up to 90 tons, from what I understand.

    So, regarding the moving of the statues, has anyone tested to see how much 90 tons sinks into a dirt road compared to 5 tons? If the road is sufficiently packed and it hasn’t rained a lot, it might not sink in a lot, but would they have packed the soil sufficiently to keep a 90 ton upright statue from sinking in too far into the earth to move?

    As far as using logs as rollers to move 90 ton while it is laying down, you would need to have the rollers pretty much next to each other, as 90 tons will force a small number of log rollers into the ground so far that they won’t roll.

    On the other hand, it isn’t necessary to use log rollers to move a large statue. You can lay it on it’s side and roll it like a log by wrapping ropes around it so they come over the top side, and then pulling on the ropes from over the top to roll the statue. This is a standard way to roll steel beams in structural steel shops to work on all sides. I’ve seen a 100-ton steel beam rolled this way using an overhead crane. I’ve seen much smaller ones rotated similarly (and done it myself), just using a 4 foot lever, sometimes requiring more than one person. Using ropes to roll the statue you would need to keep the ropes close to the ends, otherwise it becomes a problem to re-wrap them to roll the statue appropriately.

    As far as cutting the base of a standing statue loose from the rock mentioned by another commenter above, I would guess that’s done the same way as cutting the sides of any big block of rock away from it’s bed. You use a succession of holes with wedges pounded in and eventually the rock breaks. It’s easier if you have wedges of some kind that you can swell with water.

  27. Tony Weddle says:

    There was no mention of the fact that much larger statues (a multiple of the previous ones) were created but not moved from the quarrying site, possibly because there were no resources left to move them. These are mentioned in Ronald Wright’s ‘A Brief History of Progress’.

    Also mentioned in that book is that when Europeans arrived, they found only one or two people per statue (versus up to 10 for every statue, in their heyday), with Cook recording that the people were “small, lean, timid and miserable”. When Hunt and Lipo say there is “no evidence” of decline before Europeans, then you know that they are being economical with the truth, rubbishing all the work of previous researchers. There might be some evidence for their views but there surely is no reason to discard everything before they started their own research.

    Perhaps the reason is that they have a vested interest in supporting their published view. To chastise Diamond for having a vested interest in supporting his view, they would need to show that they do not have a similar vested interest. This they have not done.

    Whatever the truth of the matter, Hunt and Lipo have not shown that they alone have uncovered it. In so far as providing a lesson for humanity as a whole, as someone else pointed out, there is no need for such a lesson, since the consequences of our own actions are as clear as day; unfortunately, (effectively) no-one is actually looking.

  28. Wim Zevenhuizen says:

    Deforestation AND the introduction of new species are both ecological disasters very well documented and commented in Mr Diamond’s book. I see no reason for Diamond bashing here. As for the statues; what if some walked and others rolled.

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