Easter Island (parable)

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Easter Island (parable) refers to the lessons for humanity to be drawn from the human occupation of Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, before European contact. The island has served as a warning of the cultural and environmental dangers of overexploitation, as synecdoche for our planet, although since Jared Diamond began publicizing this view it has undergone challenges which largely distract from the big picture, of the consequences when a culture overexploits its environment. (Haiti[2] provides a present-day parable.)

Ethnographers and archaeologists generally agree that after European contact, the islanders did not fare well: diseases carried by European colonizers and slave raiding of the 1860s devastated the local peoples.

About the island

Rapa Nui is an island roughly 2000 miles west of Chile, and was annexed by Chile in the 1800s. It has an area of 63.2 square miles, and a maximum altitude of 507 meters (1,663 ft). There are three Rano (freshwater crater lakes), but no permanent streams or rivers.

For a Polynesian island, it's extremely isolated, relatively cold, and windswept. It has no coral reefs.

Background of human occupation

Arrival

When Polynesians came to Rapa Nui, the island was forested and was home to roughly two dozen species of trees, the most dramatic being a palm tree closely related to Jubaea Chilensis, the Chilean Wine Palm.

The immigrants brought rats and chickens with them, and carved over 800 huge stone humanoid statues, called moai, moving them all over the island.

Discovery by Europeans

When the island was discovered in 1722 by a ship captained by Jacob Roggeveen, it was no longer palm-covered.

1722–1868 toppling of the moai

Sometime after Roggeveen's visit, all of the moai that had been erected on Easter Island were toppled, with no upright statues left by 1868,[1] apart from partially buried ones. Oral histories indicate that this was part of a deadly conflict among the islanders, rather than an earthquake or other cause.

Effect of European contact

European contact brought fatal disease, kidnappings and slavery, and an extended population crash.

The ecological lesson and questions lie in what happened before European contact.

Controversy

"The ecological decline of this small island serves as a warning of what is happening to Earth as a whole", writes Paul Bahn; "A wide range of evidence, along with oral traditions, suggest that the Easter Islanders had lived cooperatively for centuries after their arrival from Polynesia, probably in the early centuries AD. A thousand years later, they were in conflict, living in a barren landscape." (This view is "argued by Flenley and ...[Bahn], and by geographer Jared Diamond in his best-seller Collapse.")

Other scenarios have been offered. "Archaeologists Catherine and Michel Orliac have speculated that the island’s deforestation was largely due to drought or climatic change, which may indeed have played a part. Others, including Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, contend that the islanders’ ills were caused by the arrival of Europeans, rather than internal social pressures."[2]

Arguments and counterarguments

See Easter Island (parable) arguments for some "parable" arguments and counterarguments from popular and/or academic writings by Diamond, Hunt and Lipo, Flenley and Bahn, Mieth and Bork, and others. Among the areas of argument are: to what extent humans caused the extinction of Easter Island's palms and other tree species; when humans arrived on the island; where they first settled; whether rats prevented the palms from regenerating; how the statues were moved, and whether material from trees was used in doing so.

Diamond: A pre-contact population crash occurred, due to overharvesting; tragedy of the commons

According to Jared Diamond[3], the islanders, not realizing their island's ecological fragility, deforested the land, likely in part for moving the statues, drove many bird species off the island, overshot the island's resources, and underwent a population crash including resorting to cannibalism.

This view's scientific origins

This view has long been the dominant narrative, much of it held by archeologist John Flenley and others who've done research on the island. But the archeological evidence for cannibalism is reported to be weak.[4]

Opposing view: Islanders were good stewards, no crash until Europeans came

Energy and Environment issue, 2005

A July 2005 issue of the doubter-friendly Energy and Environment (journal) contained an assemblage of articles raising objections to Diamond's account, including one article from nonspecialist Benny Peiser.

"Questioning Collapse" anthology, 2009

The 2009 anthology Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire[5], contains papers from various authors raising objections to Diamond's account, including a paper by "Statues That Walked" authors Hunt and Lipo.

"The Statues That Walked" book, 2011

The Statues That Walked, a book by Rapa Nui researchers Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, assembles an argument that the islanders were good stewards of the land, that deforestation was adaptive for them, that the making and moving of moai was adaptive in aiding cultural cohesion, and that the island's deforestation had little to do with humans[6].

This book has been criticized for neglecting to mention the work of some other researchers, particularly findings that run counter to the authors' thesis.[2] For example, their book assembled evidence suggesting that rats were responsible for the island's deforestation, and did not mention the findings of Mieth and Bork that palm nuts from exposed areas had mostly not been gnawed by rats. Hunt & Lipo justified this omission by dismissing Mieth's and Bork's work, asserting that because the pair's research involved counting gnaw marks on nut fragments, the actual rat damage to whole nuts was much higher[3]. However, Mieth said this assertion was incorrect, that the reported 10% rat damage was damage to whole nut equivalents.[7]


Articles and resources

References

  1. John Flenley and Paul G. Bahn (2003). The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge, 150. ISBN 0192803409. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Review of Statues That Walked: A scenario blaming rats for the devastation of Easter Island doesn’t account for recent results, argues Paul Bahn., Nature, 11 August 2011. "[But Hunt and Lipo's] coverage of work by others is incomplete. For instance, the authors mention only their own survey of the statues... Nor do they note some recent published evidence that, in my view, refutes the book’s basic tenets. For example, a variety of evidence contradicts their claim of rat predation: numerous palm fruits not gnawed by rats, palm stumps burned and cut, continued germination of palms despite the rats’ presence, and the disappearance of other plant species that coexist with rats elsewhere."
  3. Jared Diamond, book Collapse (2005) and a 1995 Discover Magazine article
  4. Flenley, pers. comm., 2011-11
  5. edited by Yoffee and McAnany and published by Cambridge University Press
  6. Statues That Walked, Hunt and Lipo 2011, page 32
  7. [1]

Related SourceWatch articles

External resources

  • Three posts at Mark Lynas's blog, September and October 2011:

External articles