What Destroyed the Civilisation of Easter Island?
You probably know the story of Easter Island — a remote Pacific island that was famous for its hundreds of massive statues called moai. It’s a story about a civilization that ignored its environmental impact and ended in collapse when European explorers showed up in 1722.
Many people believe the cause was deforestation — clearing trees for use in farming and for building the moai.
The inhabitants of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, painstakingly constructed one of the world’s most advanced societies. Then, the civilization collapsed mysteriously. Various theories exist, but a key factor is deforestation.
The population of Rapa Nui cleared large areas of the forest for firewood and agriculture. This led to the eventual collapse of the civilization due to environmental problems.
Modern C-dating techniques have shown that the earliest Polynesians arrived at Easter Island around 1200. This means that the first clearing of the rainforest started long before the first European ships reached the island in 1722.
Streams and water supplies dried up, crop yields dropped, and soil erosion increased. The availability of food also decreased as land birds and migratory bird populations were depleted. As a result, the islanders began eating each other.
Jared Diamond suggests that the leading cause of this decline was the disappearance of the palm tree. This tree was the primary source of fuel and could be used for making canoes. When it disappeared, so did the islanders’ access to porpoise meat and mollusks. Without these sources of protein, the orderly society of Rapa Nui crumbled. Bands formed, bitter fighting broke out, and civilization collapsed.
The Polynesians settled the remote island of Easter Island (known today as a province of Chile) around 900 CE. They organized themselves into clans, building a mighty civilization that built the famous moai – giant stone heads now scattered across the island. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, their society vanished. Historians, archaeologists, and botanists have searched for answers.
The most common view, popularized by Jared Diamond, is that the Rapa Nui greedily used up all their resources and then got into a downward spiral of warfare and cannibalism. With a depleted ecosystem, they couldn’t grow enough food and had to dispute over what was left. That’s how only a few thousand people were stranded when Europeans first arrived.
But that story may be wrong. A team of researchers recently reviewed the evidence and published their findings in Antiquity. They found that contrary to the popular myth, the Rapa Nui were far from a thriving, over-exploited society when Europeans made contact.
Instead, the authors suggest that the reason the population declined was due to diseases brought by European visitors. The Rapa Nui had little contact with other human communities, so they weren’t immune to the smallpox and plague that swept through their villages. That would have halved the population very quickly. By the time Europeans showed up, the people were already in decline and couldn’t support themselves anymore.
When Dutch explorers first arrived on Easter Island in 1722, they saw a most puzzling sight – hundreds of massive stone statues – known as moai – dotted all over the tiny island. But what caused the island’s civilization to collapse?
Jared Diamond argues that the population grew too fast and overexploited the island’s resources. This overexploitation included cutting down forests for wood and farming, which led to soil erosion that diminished crop yields. As a result, people starved, and clans battled over scarce resources.
Other scholars disagree. They argue that while deforestation did have a role in the collapse of Easter Island society, it wasn’t the only cause. They point to studies of skeletons that show the inhabitants were not starving when they built and moved the moai. The people also ate birds, which were a good source of protein.
They also used trees for a variety of other purposes, including making boats and ropes. Terry Hunt, an archaeologist and anthropologist, suggests that from 1200 to 1500 AD, when the island’s forest was at its greatest extent, Islanders burned only tree branches for fuel. After this point, they probably relied on grass and ferns for fires. The statues were likely moved on wooden sleds and hauled over log rails, which would have required a lot of wood.
The enigmatic moai monoliths of Easter Island are a stunning visual reminder of the more profound mysteries that surround this remote corner of the world. These monumental statues have inspired scholars from a variety of disciplines to study the evolution of this once-thriving society. They still lack definitive answers, but the story of this unique place provides us with many lessons about how human societies can collapse when their environment is destroyed.
The population of Easter Island began with a dense forest dominated by the tall Easter Island palm tree, which provided fuelwood for cooking and heating and construction materials for houses and canoes. The native bird population also acted as pollinators and seed dispersers. By the time European explorers arrived in 1722, however, this ecosystem was a shadow of its former self. Most of the trees had been felled to provide rollers for moving the massive stone heads known as moai, and soil erosion accelerated.
Yet despite the loss of forests and the resulting food crisis, the people of Easter Island didn’t disappear. Anthropologists have found that, despite having less choice in their diet and a greater reliance on rat meat, they managed to keep their clans and families together and avoid starvation. This is a remarkable achievement, given that skeletons of Europeans who visited the island in the 18th-century show they suffered from malnutrition and disease.