Science debunks the eco-fable of Easter Island

Summary: The fast Polynesian expansion across the Pacific from Samoa to South America is one history’s greatest achievements of exploration. Conducted with primitive technology, they colonized almost every suitable island in the Pacific. Equally remarkable in a different way is how the sad story of the last and least-suitable of their settlements has been twisted into an eco-fable. Here is that story and the long effort of a few scientists to bring the truth to light.

"Collapse" by Jared Diamond
Available at Amazon.

The Green Myth about Easter Island

Like most myths, the eco-fable of Easter Island evolved over time. It reached full flower in Easter Island, Earth Island Paul Bahn and John Flenley (1992), and reached a mass market in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) — Excerpt…

“The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct. Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields.

“… 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”? Or: “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?

“… 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.”

The Statues that Walked
Available at Amazon.

The real history of Easter Island

“The new picture that emerges from these results is really one of sustainability and continuity rather than collapse, which sheds new light on what we can really learn from Rapa Nui. Based on these new findings, perhaps Rapa Nui should be the poster-child of how human ingenuity can result in success, rather than failure.”

Anthropologist Mara Mulrooney (see her bio and papers here).

One of the more complete tellings of the full story is The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (2011). From the publisher’s summary:

“The monumental statues of Easter Island, both so magisterial and so forlorn, gazing out in their imposing rows over the island’s barren landscape, have been the source of great mystery ever since the island was first discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722. How could the ancient people who inhabited this tiny speck of land, the most remote in the vast expanse of the Pacific islands, have built such monumental works? No such astonishing numbers of massive statues are found anywhere else in the Pacific.

“How could the islanders possibly have moved so many multi-ton monoliths from the quarry inland, where they were carved, to their posts along the coastline? And most intriguing and vexing of all, if the island once boasted a culture developed and sophisticated enough to have produced such marvelous edifices, what happened to that culture? Why was the island the Europeans encountered a sparsely populated wasteland?

“The prevailing accounts of the island’s history tell a story of self-inflicted devastation: a glaring case of eco-suicide. The island was dominated by a powerful chiefdom that promulgated a cult of statue making, exercising a ruthless hold on the island’s people and rapaciously destroying the environment, cutting down a lush palm forest that once blanketed the island in order to construct contraptions for moving more and more statues, which grew larger and larger. As the population swelled in order to sustain the statue cult, growing well beyond the island’s agricultural capacity, a vicious cycle of warfare broke out between opposing groups, and the culture ultimately suffered a dramatic collapse.

“… Far from irresponsible environmental destroyers, they show, the Easter Islanders were remarkably inventive environmental stewards, devising ingenious methods to enhance the island’s agricultural capacity. They did not devastate the palm forest, and the culture did not descend into brutal violence.

“Perhaps most surprising of all, the making and moving of their enormous statutes did not require a bloated population or tax their precious resources; their statue building was actually integral to their ability to achieve a delicate balance of sustainability. The Easter Islanders, it turns out, offer us an impressive record of masterful environmental management rich with lessons for confronting the daunting environmental challenges of our own time.”

I recommend reading the opening pages of chapter one, one of the strongest openings I’ve ever seen in a book about science. The Statues that Walked describes islands history from the initial and only colonization of Easter Island at roughly 1200 AD — less than a hundred people traveling 14 thousand miles (tacking in their canoes across the Pacific against the trade winds — until the present. Things quickly went wrong for them.

“In the first few decades of their lives on Easter Island, the colonists lost some of the staples they would have brought with them, because the climate on Easter Island wasn’t conducive to their growth. The rats they brought with them (whether as a food source or as freeloading rodents) began decimating the large palm trees that forested the island. Those palms protected the soil, reduced the wind and provided shade; and all too quickly, the sheltering palms were gone, not as a result of human over-use, but rather because the rats dined wholesale on the palm nuts.”

It is one of the smallest and most isolated inhabited islands, with relatively infertile soil and a narrow biota (an important factor Diamond discusses in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. In Collapse Diamond describes these and other factors that made Easter Island a fragile ecology, far more so than most Pacific Islands — especially so for its people and forests.

Polynesian islands were often subject to population crashes (e.g., salt contamination of gardens from storms), and Easter Island’s limitations made its people unusually vulnerable (other small islands were abandoned or had die-offs).

As for the trees, deforestation began soon after colonization and proceed quickly, resulting from over-exploitation by the inhabitants and rats (an ecological disaster for many Pacific islands). But the inhabitants adapted and built a sophisticated society (e.g., the giant statues) and a high population — especially impressive considering their meager resources.

The people of Easter Island, like so many others, were wrecked by the West: we gave them pandemic diseases, then depopulating slave raids and ecological devastation (conversion of the island to a sheep range, for which it was poorly suited). This eco-fable is an outrageous example of blaming the victim.

Easter Island statue

The real mystery of Easter Island

Benny Peiser (Wikipedia bio) asks a question of  importance in “From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui” (Energy and Environment, July 2005 — a special issued debunking Collapse).

“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.”

Distorting science for political purposes is a large and growing problem. The only solution is for scientists themselves to resist the temptation — and call out their peers when they do so.

Summaries of the clashing histories about Easter Island

See these posts at the website of journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas (see his Wikipedia entry) …

Selected Bibliography about the Easter Island mystery

The literature about the history of Easter Island is vast. This selection focuses on the papers disputing Diamond’s eco-fable. See excerpts from many of these here.

  1. A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments“, Paul Rainbird, World Archaeology, 1 February 2002.
  2. Recommended: “From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui“, Benny Peiser (Wikipedia bio), Energy and Environment, volume 16 No. 3&4, 2005.
  3. Cannibalism and Easter Island: Evaluation, discussion of probabilities, and survey of the literature on the subject“, Shawn McLaughlin, Rapa Nui Journal, May 2005 — Reviews the inconclusive evidence and puts it in the context of the often-bogus claims of cannibalism by foreign people.
  4. Late Colonization of Easter Island“, Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Science, 9 March 2006
  5. Easter Island mystery deepens“, New Scientist, 18 March 2006.
  6. Easter Island: A monumental collapse?“, New Scientist, 31 July 2006.
  7. Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, Terry Hunt (Prof of Anthropology, U of Hawaii-Manoa), American Scientist, May 2006.
  8. Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe“, Terry L. Hunt, Journal of Archaeological Science, March 2007.
  9. Chronology, deforestation, and “collapse:” Evidence vs. faith in Rapa Nui prehistory“,  Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Rapa Nui Journal, October 2007
  10. Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ‘’Ecocide’“, Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo, Pacific Science, October 2007
  11. An island-wide assessment of the chronology of settlement and land use on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) based on radiocarbon data“, Mara A. Mulrooney, Journal of Archaeological Science, December 2013 — Gated. Summary here.
  12. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (2012)
  13. Recommended:  “Challenging Easter Island’s collapse: the need for interdisciplinary synergies“, Valentí Rull et al, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 17 December 2013 — Survey of the recent literature, with many citations. Supports the Hunt-Lipo theory.
  14. Variation in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) land use indicates production and population peaks prior to European contact” by Christopher M. Stevens et al. in Proceedings, 27 Jan 2015 — About the role of climate.
  15. Weapons of war? Rapa Nui mata’a morphometric analyses“, Carl P. Lipo et al., Antiquity, February 2016. Gated. See the good summary at ars technica.  Finally even the Washington Post sees the story: “In shards of glass, a new sign of how the enigmatic Easter Islanders met their demise.

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8 thoughts on “Science debunks the eco-fable of Easter Island”

  1. I suspect Jared Diamond also poorly portrayed the root cause of the Norse leaving Greenland. The story he paints is of a people unable and unwilling to adapt to climate cooling. He suggests they starved unwilling to switch from a cattle based ag system to Inuit style sea based diet.

    Where as the above paper provides evidence that the Norse did not starve on Greenland and did in fact make the switch to seal and seafood based diet. They conclude it more likely they left to preserve cultural identity not out of an inability to adapt.

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  4. Hi Larry,

    I remember reading Collapse when it came out. I was transfixed. I can’t remember now if I read the whole thing through in a single sitting, but I remember that kind of intensity. Afterward, I was talking about it with friends and colleagues — anyone who would listen.

    Then the debunking began.

    We have a extremely developed division of labor and a trust the experts ethos. That trust is severely eroded when what you believed was new scientific and historical understanding to be propaganda. I am not propaganda scholar, but I have to believe that consequences of effective propaganda are to imbue cynicism and apathy in the wider population and extend the erosion of trust in experts to people more generally. I know I’ve read variations on that many times here on FM, but the propaganda rains down on us like drops from a North Florida thunderstorm and we are awash in it.

    Thanks for shining the light on dark subjects. No wont of subject material!



    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Thanks for shining the light on dark subjects. No wont of subject material!”

      Thank you for the favorable review. But this has proven to be a bad business strategy. The FM website has built large audiences on the Left or Right, then lost them when the focus shifted and their tribal truths came under scrutiny.

      The great nodes on the website are increasingly tribal, where people can safely read without worry of seeing a disturbing thought. See National Review or Naked Capitalism, websites I read each morning.

      Like Jonathan Swift in 1700, I look at both sides each day, then try to guess what is really happening. Is the information superhighway as much of a radical improvement as we imagine?

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