More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island
In Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America I said that in general the Right has been more successful than the Left in promulgating its propaganda in America. There are exceptions. Wonderful fables, contradicted by the scientific evidence but told with such confidence and so pleasing that we believe them nonetheless. Such as the eco-fable of Easter Island. It’s circulated for decades, but achieved final form in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. As he says in the opening (page 20):
“Our first case study from the past, the history of Easter Island, is as close as we can get to a “pure” ecological collapse, in this case due to total deforestation that led to war, overthrow of the elite and the famous stone statues, and a massive population die-off. As far as we know, Easter’s Polynesian society remained isolated remained isolated after its inital founding, so that Easter’s trajectory was uninfluenced by either enemies or friends.”
For a summary of his case see “Easter Island Revisited“, Jared Diamond, Science, 21 September 2007. It’s effective propaganda, but the Islanders did not commit eco-suicide. They suffered the devastating tri-barrels of western contact: pandemic disease followed by depopulating slave raids followed by conversion to Christianity (eliminating their native culture and erasing their oral history). Considering how often such things happened during the western exploration of the world, I find the success of the contrary eco-fable astonishing evidence of our willful ignorance. We’d prefer to use the people of Easter Island as props, lessons for our children, but the bloody truth remains visible to any who look.
Excerpts and abstracts from the literature
These are just a sample of the large literature about the actual Easter Island tragedy. Number 2 is the most detailed analysis of both the actual history of Easter Island and the sordid origins of the eco-fable.
- “A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments“, Paul Rainbird, World Archaeology, 1 February 2002
- “From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui“, Benny Peiser (Wikipedia), Energy and Environment, volume 16 No. 3&4 2005
- “Late Colonization of Easter Island“, Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Science, 9 March 2006
- “Easter Island mystery deepens“, New Scientist, 18 March 2006
- “Easter Island: A monumental collapse?“, New Scientist, 31 July 2006
- “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, Terry Hunt (Prof of Anthropology, Uof Hawai’i-Manoa), American Scientist, May 2006
- “Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe“, Terry L. Hunt, Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2007
(1) “A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments“, Paul Rainbird (Head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, U of Wales), World Archaeology, 1 February 2002 — Abstract:
The unique archaeological remains of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in conjunction with its geographical position have led to a special interest in this place. What has become the orthodox understanding of the material remains, especially the famous large carved stone torsos (moai), is that they represent a physical manifestation of social competition that was a major causative factor in an ecodisaster - the destruction of the indigenous palm forest. This story of human-caused environmental disaster provided a topical warning, as a microcosm of the earth, in the environmentally aware final two decades of the last century. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental work on other Pacific islands, although indicating significant human-induced environmental change, is providing evidence that these were instigated by thoughtful human actors who were capable of manipulating their island homes in order to enhance, or even make, their potential for subsistence and settlement.
Within this scenario the events that led to apparently major environmental change in Rapa Nui is one that is evident in the majority of Pacific islands. In the vast majority of other cases these changes did not lead to the inevitable social competition and population collapse that have been posited for Rapa Nui. In this paper I question whether the Rapa Nui case is really so different and argue that the ecodisaster occurs after and as a consequence of European contact.
The ‘decline and fall’ of Easter Island and its alleged self-destruction has become the poster child of a new environmentalist historiography, a school of thought that goes hand-in-hand with predictions of environmental disaster. Why did this exceptional civilisation crumble? What drove its population to extinction? These are some of the key questions Jared Diamond endeavours to answer in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island destroyed their forest, degraded the island’s topsoil, wiped out their plants and drove their animals to extinction. As a result of this selfinflicted environmental devastation, its complex society collapsed, descending into civil war, cannibalism and self-destruction.
While his theory of ecocide has become almost paradigmatic in environmental circles, a dark and gory secret hangs over the premise of Easter Island’s self-destruction: an actual genocide terminated Rapa Nui’s indigenous populace and its culture. Diamond, however, ignores and fails to address the true reasons behind Rapa Nui’s collapse. Why has he turned the victims of cultural and physical extermination into the perpetrators of their own demise? This paper is a first attempt to address this disquieting quandary. It describes the foundation of Diamond’s environmental revisionism and explains why it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
(3) “Late Colonization of Easter Island“, Terry L. Hunt1 and Carl P. Lipo, Science, 9 March 2006 — Excerpt:
Smith obtained initial radiocarbon dates from Rapa Nui with the Norwegian expedition of Heyerdahl in the 1950s. His suite of 19 radiocarbon dates included one from a burn horizon at Poike Ditch of 400 A.D. [1570 ± 80 years before the present (yr B.P.), 384 to 664 calibrated (cal) A.D.]. Subsequent researchers cited the early date as consistent with models for historical linguistics in Polynesia. Three dates on lake core sequences also provided, it seemed, evidence for an early colonization. The earliest signs of abrupt and massive vegetation change appeared to occur about 750 A.D., suggesting the arrival of the first Polynesians. This long chronology has formed the basis of many accounts of the region’s prehistory.
… The assemblage of 11 calibrated dates are age probabilitiesthat, when aggregated, estimate a cumulative probability forthe target event of the first human colonization of Rapa Nui(Fig. 2). The distribution shows that a 0.50 confidence, a betterthan chance estimation, is not reached until 1222 cal A.D. forthe date of initial occupation of Rapa Nui. … These dates postdate by 700 to 800 (12) or at least 300 to 400(15) years from the widely accepted human chronologies for EasterIsland. Yet, a date of about 1200 A.D. for the colonizationof Rapa Nui fits well with the evidence that has emerged forcolonization from elsewhere in the southeastern Pacific (4,5), including remote islands such as Mangareva.
… Our analysis and dates for Rapa Nui imply that colonists arrivedaround 1200 A.D. The founding Polynesian population then grewrapidly, had immediate, major, and visible impacts on the island’sbiota and physical landscape, and began investing in monumentalarchitecture and statuary within the first century or two ofsettlement. Although still poorly dated, monumental architectureand statuary are known from islands, such as the Societies,Marquesas, and Austral Islands, from perhaps as early as 1200A.D. Nearly immediate building of monuments, carving giant statues,and transporting them to every corner of the island may havebeen cultural investments, homologous to forms elsewhere ineastern Polynesia, that mediated against overpopulation andresource shortfalls in an unpredictable environment. Such amodel would help to explain the success of ancient Polynesianson tiny, remote Rapa Nui (27). Demographic and cultural collapseresulted from European contact beginning in 1722 A.D. with thedevastating consequences of newly introduced Old World diseasesto a nonimmune Polynesian population.
(4) “Easter Island mystery deepens“, New Scientist, 18 March 2006 — Opening:
IN ONE of the most isolated places on Earth, a mysterious people flourished for hundreds of years before their penchant for deforestation triggered an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of their society. So runs the conventional story of Easter Island – which now looks as if it may be completely wrong.
(5) “Easter Island: A monumental collapse?“, New Scientist, 31 July 2006 — Excerpt:
It is a familiar tale of greed, stupidity and self-destruction. For hundreds of years the inhabitants of one of the most remote islands on Earth vied with each other to build ever more impressive statues, pillaging their resources to feed their obsession. Ecological disaster was inevitable. As the island’s last tree was felled, the society collapsed into a holocaust of internecine warfare, starvation and cannibalism. Rival clans toppled each other’s statues. Armed with deadly obsidian-tipped spears, the workers rose up against their rulers. The vanquished were either enslaved or eaten.
This version of events on Easter Island has become not only received wisdom, but a dark warning about a possible fate for our entire planet. “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious,” writes Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, in Collapse. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” Here is the perfect illustration of the idea that humanity contains the seeds of its own destruction. But is it true or, in our eagerness to think the worst of our species, have we been seduced by mythologies?
That is the question now being asked. Researchers point to mounting evidence that prehistoric occupants of Rapa Nui, as it is known by locals, made a success of life on the island. What’s more, it seems the theory of self-destruction might conceal an even less palatable truth about what caused the ultimate toppling of this society. At the very least, there is painfully little archaeological evidence for the fundamental claims that underpin the self-destruction theory. “Much of what has been written about Easter Island is little more than speculation,” says Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii. “When you start to search for the actual evidence for some of these claims, often it just isn’t there.”
(6) “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, Terry Hunt (Prof of Anthropology, Uof Hawai’i-Manoa), American Scientist, May 2006 — “New evidence points to an alternative explanation for a civilization’s collapse.” Excerpt:
It also appears that the islanders began building moai and ahu soon after reaching the island. The human population probably reached a maximum of about 3,000, perhaps a bit higher, around 1350 A.D. and remained fairly stable until the arrival of Europeans. The environmental limitations of Rapa Nui would have kept the population from growing much larger. By the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most of the island’s trees were gone, but deforestation did not trigger societal collapse, as Diamond and others have argued.
There is no reliable evidence that the island’s population ever grew as large as 15,000 or more, and the actual downfall of the Rapanui resulted not from internal strife but from contact with Europeans. When Roggeveen landed on Rapa Nui’s shores in 1722, a few days after Easter (hence the island’s name), he took more than 100 of his men with him, and all were armed with muskets, pistols and cutlasses. Before he had advanced very far, Roggeveen heard shots from the rear of the party. He turned to find 10 or 12 islanders dead and a number of others wounded. His sailors claimed that some of the Rapanui had made threatening gestures. Whatever the provocation, the result did not bode well for the island’s inhabitants.
Newly introduced diseases, conflict with European invaders and enslavement followed over the next century and a half, and these were the chief causes of the collapse. In the early 1860s, more than a thousand Rapanui were taken from the island as slaves, and by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100. In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile. It remains part of that country today.
In the 1930s, French ethnographer Alfred Metraux visited the island. He later described the demise of Rapa Nui as “one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas.” It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.
(7) “Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe“, Terry L. Hunt, Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2007 — Abstract:
Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has become a paragon for prehistoric human induced ecological catastrophe and cultural collapse. A popular narrative recounts an obsession for monumental statuary that led to the island’s ecological devastation and the collapse of the ancient civilization. Scholars offer this story as a parable of today’s global environmental problems. In this paper, I review new and emerging Rapa Nui evidence, compare ecological and recently acquired palaeo-environmental data from the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islands, and offer some perspectives for the island’s prehistoric ecological transformation and its consequences. The evidence points to a complex historical ecology for the island; one best explained by a synergy of impacts, particularly the devastating effects of introduced rats (Rattus exulans). This perspective questions the simplistic notion of reckless over-exploitation by prehistoric Polynesians and points to the need for additional research.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar: Information & disinformation, the new media & the old
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- More attempts to control the climate science debate using smears and swarming, 19 October 2009
- The facts about the 1970′s Global Cooling scare, 7 December 2009 — Misrepresented by climate skpetics.
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- A new video about global warming, a Leftists’ wet dream pretending to be humor, 1 October 2010