Rapa Nui: European myths mask the reason for societal collapse on Easter Island – colonialism

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Sarah Hearne
Sarah Hearne is a PhD student studying marine ecology with a focus on niche separation in living and fossil fishes from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. She is a feminist with a particular interest in the issues facing women in STEM.

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For such a small place, Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, has many claims to fame. To some it is simply the island with all those giant heads. To others it is the island made famous by Thor Heyerdahl who sailed his raft Kon-Tiki from South America in an attempt to prove his mistaken belief that it was colonised by people from South America rather than Polynesia. But for many, particularly since the history of the island was so vividly described by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse, it has been a parable of the deadly hubris that can arise when we overexploit our limited natural resources. 

The story normally goes something like this: Rapa Nui was colonised by Polynesian explorers some time between 900 CE (the date preferred at the time Diamond was writing) and 1200 CE (the date now most commonly accepted). Faced with this untouched island, its new inhabitants set about stripping the land of its resources, in large part to aid with the construction and transportation of the giant stone Moai that ring the island. Having deforested the island, the population was plunged into famine and war, and society collapsed. When Dutch explorers found the island in 1722 they found a barren land inhabited by pitiful and starving people, with their useless stone statues standing as a testament to their irresponsibility. 

The parallels with our current twin crises of climate and biodiversity are obvious. But are they really as clear as Diamond and others make out? Did the islanders really deforest their land? Had this deforestation led to the collapse of the islanders’ civilisation before they were discovered by Europeans? And what, if anything, can we learn from Rapa Nui?

Was Rapa Nui Deforested?

In the 16 years since Collapse was first published a great deal of research has been conducted on Rapa Nui, revealing much about its history prior to European contact and showing that a lot of the familiar story has turned out to be, at best, more complicated than first believed and at worst, completely wrong. 

Let’s start at the beginning. The idea that Rapa Nui was covered in trees when discovered by Polynesian settlers is, largely, true. Surprisingly little research has been done to determine the extent of coverage, but best estimates suggest about 80% of the island was covered in palm trees, with a diverse undergrowth of tropical plants, shrubs, ferns and grasses. The Polynesian people who settled Rapa Nui were farmers – they were the latest in a long line of people who had spread out across the islands in the south Pacific, bringing crops and, more importantly, agricultural practices wherever they went. These practices included land clearance, so it is unsurprising that forests were cleared on Rapa Nui. 

It’s worth emphasising at this point just how small Rapa Nui is. At 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point, it’s less than half the size of the Isle of Wight, or about 3 times the size of Manhattan. It’s tiny. If it had been subjected to modern deforestation rates its forests would have been cut down in a single day. So the fact it took several centuries to be denuded is arguably a testament to the islanders’ restraint, rather than their profligacy. 

While there may have been ecological collapse it does not automatically follow that there was societal collapse. For this to have occurred people must have been reliant on that ecology and there’s little evidence to suggest this was the case. The islanders were farmers – they cleared the trees to provide land to grow crops. And they were very good at it. They created sophisticated lithic gardens, designed to protect the soil from desiccation and erosion and maximise food production. In these gardens they grew taro, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas and sugarcane in sufficient quantities to not only feed themselves, but also to trade with Roggeveen’s crew when they stumbled upon the island in 1722. Protein came from chickens and marine animals such as fish. In other words there is no evidence that the islanders suffered as a result of their deforestation. In fact, it was likely the key to their success.

The Moai carvings that were moved from the quarry in which they were made stand side by side on the Island's perimeter. The  photo shows 7 of the large carvings stood shoulder to shoulder.

But what of the Moai? The statues, while clearly significant to the people who made them and to the islanders to this day, did not have any obvious impact on the ecological trajectory of the island. The evidence for the transportation of the statues is controversial and subject to a great deal of conjecture. Some argue that sleds or rollers were used to transport them, others that they were “walked” using ropes. There is evidence for and against both these theories, but regardless of the method, the impact on the forests would have been negligible. Even if the highest estimates are presumed, the number of trees cut down for use in statue production and movement is around 15,000, a fraction of the total number of trees and one that could easily be sustained.

Did Civilisation Collapse on Rapa Nui?

The short answer is yes, but not when everyone imagines. The society that developed on Rapa Nui inevitably changed over the centuries as the population grew, the island was explored and agriculture was intensified. But while there have been claims of warfare and even cannibalism as a result of food shortages following deforestation, there is little evidence to support them. Population estimates before European contact vary considerably, but recent figures based on the island’s agricultural productivity suggest a sustainable population of between 3,500 and 17,500.

Certainly, the people that the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen and his crew encountered on Easter Sunday 1722 were friendly, inquisitive, and open to trade. However, that first encounter with Europeans provided a small taster of things to come. Roggeveen went to shore with 134 men, “all armed with musket, pistols, and cutlass”. It seems that one of these men got spooked and began firing their weapon, which caused more men to fire, 

and the Indians, being thereby amazed and scared, took to flight, leaving 10 or 12 dead, besides the wounded. [source]

Roggeveen stayed at Rapa Nui for a week: a short time but still long enough for his crew to impregnate women and most likely introduce various sexually transmitted diseases to the population. Over the next century the island was visited numerous times, but rarely for supplies. As a paper by Grant McCall from 1976 bluntly puts it, “the most desired product has been the people themselves”. Women were prostituted or even raped by crew after crew. Later, as whalers and sealers expanded into the Pacific, men were kidnapped and forced to work on these vessels. Then, when the commercial value of guano on Peru’s offshore islands was realised, kidnapping of islanders accelerated.

Hoa Hakananai'a standing in the British Museum. Image by Wikimedia user Fallschirmjäger [CC BY 3.0].

During a visit in 1877 French ethnologist Alphonse Pinart recorded a mere 111 men, women and children on the island. Disease and extensive kidnapping and enslavement had reduced the population to a shadow of its former self. Cattle and sheep were brought to the island in the mid-19th century and intensive farming began in the 20th century leading to some of the most extensive soil erosion in the world. At the same time anthropologists began visiting the island and took many artefacts away with them, most famously the two Moai that are in the British Museum including the very pointedly-named Hakananai’a or “stolen friend”.

What Can Rapa Nui Teach Us?

There are two key lessons I think that we can learn from Rapa Nui. The first is an ecological one. Rapa Nui experienced a massive ecological change following its settlement by Polynesians, but that change did not lead to societal disaster. In fact, it allowed the population to thrive. Yes, species went extinct, and that is a great loss, but from a purely anthropocentric perspective massive ecological change worked in our favour. The islanders worked with their environment, using their skill and knowledge to turn this rocky dot in the middle of the ocean into a productive and welcoming home. Had it not been for European contact and the disasters that wrought, there is little reason to think that the island would not still provide them a productive and welcoming home. 

This is not to say that we can be complacent with the ecological change we see today – far from it. It is to say that ecological loss does not inescapably lead to societal disaster. We are an incredibly adaptable and resourceful species and if we work with the changing environment we can create a sustainable future for ourselves. 

The second lesson is broader but equally, if not more, important. From the time of its European discovery Rapa Nui has been viewed through a European lens, one that found it hard to believe that the people living on the island could be sophisticated, intelligent and resourceful. From Roggeveen’s belief that the island would be a paradise if only “properly… cultivated”, to Erich von Daniken’s belief that aliens must have made the Moai, the talent and expertise of the inhabitants of Easter Island have been repeatedly met with incredulity.

The European eye has repeatedly disparaged the islanders’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. The collapse myth is only the latest version of this disparagement.

Europeans could not conceive that people living on such a small and remote island could have produced such stunning works of art, or that they could live comfortably in such seemingly barren environs. The European eye has repeatedly disparaged the islanders’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. The collapse myth is only the latest version of this disparagement. The need to believe that it was the islanders themselves who destroyed Easter Island – and not the Europeans who pillaged it time and again, raping its women, kidnapping its men and leaving disease and despair in their wake – represents a need to minimise the devastating impacts of European colonialism. It serves to comfort ourselves that it’s not just us who destroy our world: see, even “primitive” people do it.

Ultimately, Rapa Nui teaches us to recognise our own biases and assumptions. People see what they want to see, and for far too long people have wanted to see an island whose inhabitants sowed their own seeds of destruction. They did not. They were resilient and resourceful and we owe it to them to recognise that. Rapa Nui is not a warning of the consequences of ecological  mismanagement. It is a warning of what happens when we treat people as commodities. And that is a lesson we would do well to heed.

Further references

  • Diamond, J. (2005) Twilight at Easter. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. pp 79-119. Penguin.
  • Hunt, T. & Lipo, C. (2011) The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Simon and Schuster.
  • Boersema, J. J. (2011) The Survival of Easter Island, Dwindling Resources and Cultural Resilience. Translated by Diane Webb. Cambridge University Press. New York.
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