Back in my university days there was a book that passed hands with the same speed as No-Global leaflets, only with more enthusiastic reviews. It was Collapse, by American geographer and historian Jared Diamond, author of that Guns, Germs and Steel that our faculty’s dean said we all had to read if we wanted any hope of understanding the world.
Guns, Germs and Steel grappled with the age-old question of why certain nations achieve prominence on the world’s stage; Collapse, instead, tried to explain why others didn’t, finishing discarded in the great dustbin of history. Chief amongst the many soundbites that peppered the book was the notion of “ecocide”. Ecological Suicide, in Diamond’s view, was the fact of destroying one’s habitat through carelessness or sheer mismanagement with results that were more or less always catastrophic for the society in question. One such community, he maintained, was Easter Island’s. By cutting all the trees, the Rapa Nui effectively ended their megalithic civilisation and descended in a hellish situation of starvation, famine, warfare and cannibalism.
Or did they?
To quote freely from Mark Twain’s response to his own obituary, today we think that news of Rapa Nui’s descent into cannibalism are exaggerated. They rely on assumptions that are being challenged by modern researchers drawing from the notes of those who first visited the island as well as from science. This post wants to be a summary of the state of the art of research, a brief foray into academia: don’t worry, travelogue and nonsense will return soon.
A peaceful society.
Central to the concept of ecocide is war. Once resources grew scarce, Rapa Nui clans turned one against each other in a bloody civil war that left only one “long ear” alive. This is dramatically in contrast with the diaries of the three expeditions that, first, brought Europeans in contact with the island.
When he arrived on Easter Day 1722, Dutch explored Jacob Roggeveen made no mention of weapons. Forty-eight years later in 1770, Don Felipe González claimed the island for Spain (who subsequently forgot they had it, much like – true story – Silvio Berlusconi forgot to have bought a yacht in the Bahamas); a bit of a buddying anthropologist, González’s chief pilot Don Francisco Antonio de Aguera y Infanzon – who, for brevity, I shall call Don Pancho – gave a bow, arrow, knife and cutlass to a Rapa Nui that had swam to his ship. The Rapa Nui, who bore a scar that Don Pancho thought was the result of a war wound, turned to be comically unaware of the purpose of these weapons: he wore the bow on his head and neck as a jewel and held the cutting tools by their blades and not, as it’d be normal, by the handle.
Rapa Nui society was seemingly made of peaceful people who were wholeheartedly enthusiastic of their unexpected visitors. For instance, flint blades, until considered as weapons, have been found by Hawaii’s Bishop Museum researchers to be used to cut fibrous plants such as potatoes and taro. The only problem mentioned by the first visitors was Rapa Nui’s nonchalant attitude to liberating their property: a Dutch sailor in Roggeveen’s landing party shot a few locals that seemed keen on nicking his arquebus. Captain Cook, who visited in 1774, remarked sadly that, although “friendly and hospitable”, people were also “addicted to pilfering”. Hats in particular seemed all the rage and disappeared quicker than cheap TVs on a Black Friday sale.
Abundance of food.
All three explorers left descriptions of the Rapa Nui that, it can be argued, don’t quite fit with the ideal type of a starving person. “Tall, well-built and proportioned in their limbs” was Don Pancho’s one-liner. Cook wrote in his journal that they had “Not disagreeable countenances” which is as passionate as upper-class Brits will ever get, even today. Roggeveen must’ve had a knack for dentistry for he remarked that the Rapa Nui had “pearly white teeth so strong that could crack nuts”.
It doesn’t end there. The Dutch remarked that agriculture was widely practiced with bananas, yam and potatoes, whilst chickens roamed around. Another Spaniard in Don Felipe’s crew, Don Juan Hervé, walked the length of the island and saw plenty of crops which his crew took extra care not to ruin. Modern-day analysis of Rapa Nui skeletal remains highlighted a fairly rich and diverse diet where seafood was surprisingly present, covering 35% of their diet and up to 50% of their protein intake. But wasn’t deforestation meant to be causing erosion and depletion of the topsoil? How did the Rapa Nui manage not to starve?
The answer lies in the concept of “lithic enhancement”. Much unlike our fields where every pebble and stone has been eliminated, Rapa Nui’s are littered with black volcanic rocks. The rocks were used to replenish those mineral nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were depleted by successive crops, thus keeping yields high. Additionally, every village had one or more manavai or “mulch gardens”, a ring of rocks surrounding and protecting crops from wind and excessive sun whilst at the same time retaining moisture. As a result, estimates now put the maximum potential population of the island between 3 and 29 thousand souls, with 17,500 as being the most likely option.
Who cut all the trees then?
It’s undeniable that deforestation took place and, as a result, life changed on Rapa Nui. It’s also undeniable that deforestation happened relatively quickly, in a matter of a few centuries from the arrival of king Hotu Matu’a from the Marquesas. Yet, it mightn’t have been all down to humans.
According to Oregon University archaeologist Terry Hunt, Hotu Matu’a’s fleet carried some stowaways under the form of rats. As the men and women arrived at Anakena beach so did the pests which found a virgin environment without so much as a predator. It must’ve been rat heaven and the results did not wait to arrive: estimates put the peak mice population to be numbering in the low millions, all gorging themselves on the rich forest around them. Palm nuts showing rat gnaws have been found all throughout the island, showing that humans had a four-legged helper in the destruction of the primeval tree cover.
And what about the moai?
Today we see most moai standing on top of their ahu platform. However, until the 1960s all of them had been knocked down, many in bits. The vulgata tells stories of tit-for-tat vandalism in the framework of a civil war that is very hard to imagine (Bishop Museum’s researchers found that only 2% of skeletons showed signs of a violent death). Additionally, it goes against the observations of our explorers.
Roggeveen saw the moai all standing on their ahu and witnessed clear signs of devotion from the islanders. He mentions how people lit fires in front of the statues and venerated the megaliths by crouching before them and by moving hands up and down in adoration. Don Pancho agrees in defining the moai as objects of worship.
Things were evolving when Cook passed, four years after the Spaniards. On the east side of the island he saw three ahu which, originally, hosted 4 moai each. Two ahu had no moai standing and, as for the last one, one moai had already been toppled. He also mentioned that, based on his experience, the statues weren’t object of devotion “however it might’ve been in the days of the Dutch”. He rather thought that the moai were being used as burying places as he saw a skeleton lying beneath one.
It’s anyone’s guess why the Rapa Nui decided to topple their statues. It was done with a certain degree of care, for most have been put face down and most of their faces – long noses included – haven’t been damaged. But what led them to do this? I like to think that the moai had been built for a purpose or that they were expression of a belief and that, when the Europeans arrived, either that purpose had been accomplished or the belief had been proved fundamentally wrong. Imagine if we somehow had irrefutable proof of the existence of God, but also that he’s neither Allah or Jehovah: would we still need mosques, churches or synagogues?
The real catastrophe.
All evidence, both historic and scientific, seem to point towards an island that had changed drastically but whose civilisation managed to evolve and to keep its vitality by the time of European contact. What happened after the first, relatively benign visits was, however, much worse.
Ships began kidnapping Rapa Nui, culminating in the devastating 1862 Peruvian slaving raid where approximately 2,500 islanders were captured and led to the continent where they succumbed to forced labour and illnesses. The entire clan leadership was wiped out; then a missionary descended on the few, wretched, survivors. Eugène Eyraud, a French priest, came to Rapa Nui to carry out the proselytism that many of his kind were already doing throughout the Pacific. In doing so he helped wiping out a culture that existed for centuries. A sheep and cattle station was established soon afterwards, being discontinued only in the 1950s.
Can Rapa Nui still teach us a lesson?
Absolutely yes. Whilst we can’t fully buy the ecocide narrative, it’d be wrong not to take heed from Rapa Nui’s deforestation. Without trees the islanders couldn’t manufacture ropes or use wood and, therefore, had to give up on their megalithic industry almost overnight, as the Rano Raraku quarry seems to show.
Our civilisation is in the same situation with many materials that are rare or in short supply. I’m talking about yttrium, coltan, lithium and many others: without them we don’t have LEDs, mobile phones or Toyota Priuses and, right now, it seems to me that there isn’t a lot of care on how we manage this finite stock of resources.
Another important lesson is our approach to aboriginal – or uncontacted – civilisations but, alas, I’m afraid that we’ve well and truly missed that train now.
1. João Vicente Ganzarolli de Oliveira, Culture and Isolation in Easter Island, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol. II N. 4, December 1997
2. Whitney Dangerfield, The Mystery of Easter Island, in The Smithsonian 31/03/2007
3. Jago Cooper, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World, BBC4
4. L. Jarman, T. Larsen, T. Hunt et al, Diet of the Prehistoric Population of Rapa Nui Shows Environmental Adaptation and Resilience in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2017; 164 343-361
5. Cedric O. Puleston et al, Rain, Sun, Soil and Sweat: A Consideration of Population Limits on Rapa Nui Before European Contact, in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, July 2017, vol. 5, article 69
6. Ship Log of 1770 voyage of Captain Don Felipe González, retrieved easterisland.travel
7. Ship Log of 1774 voyage of Captain James Cook, retrieved easterisland.travel
8. Herbert von Saher, Some Details of the Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol IV N. 3, Fall 1990
9. Zuzanna Jakubowska-Vorbrich, Chilean Report on Easter Island, 1870: From Science to Politics and Prejudice, Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018
10. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2011