by David T. Jones
The author, who has been published frequently by American Diplomacy, returned recently from a visit to Easter Island and discusses below some of the theories about that mysterious South Pacific isle. He seeks to tie his piece to what he terms “global warming/environment catastrophe-in-the-making discussions,” on which he casts doubt. — Contrib. Ed.
It is always tempting to generalize from a particular. Thus a personal experience as a parent, a soldier, a citizen, or a scientist allows one to project “rules” and conclusions arguably applicable to all parents, military personnel, etc. Likewise, when one is grinding an ideological ax, it is tempting to seize the facts that fit the conclusions you are advancing. And, if the society that you are examining is small, e.g., Easter Island, it is even more tempting to advance its special circumstances as a paradigm for ostensible global concerns.
Geographically, Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it is known to native inhabitants) is a volcanic origin flyspeck in the middle of nowhere. At nine miles wide (sixty-six square miles of territory) and located 2,200 miles west of the South American continent, it is physically inconsequential. It was discovered as far as Europeans were concerned by Dutch sailors on Easter Day in 1722 (hence its name) and then forgotten for the next fifty years. Several brief subsequent visits, measured in days or even in hours, left sketchy archival records of inhabitants reportedly of three types (with dark, light, and red skins) and large numbers of dramatic stone statues. Repeated visits resulted in reports of more and more of the statues toppled and fewer inhabitants.
As Easter Island’s experience with Europeans extended, the results for its inhabitants became more invidious. Slavers abducted approximately 1,000 to 1,500 of the Rapa Nuians, including a majority of the island’s elite. When a handful of these slaves finally was freed and returned to Easter Island, they brought diseases that further reduced the island’s population. And, while the islanders’ souls doubtless benefited from the presence of Christian priests, the unique Rapa Nuian “Rongo Rongo” written texts were virtually all destroyed as pagan writings, leaving only untranslatable fragments in modern museums — and frustrated arguments over whether they are a language at all.
The consequences of the virtual annihilation of the original Easter Island population are questions akin to those you might like to ask your now long dead great grandparents. All of the “who, what, when, where, why” queries beloved by media have remained in play for several centuries. Who are the Rapa Nuians? Where did they come from? Why did most of them die even without benefit of European intervention? Who made the massive stone statues and how were they carved? How did they get to their current locations? And what happened to the island either to deforest it and/or to reduce substantially the original population (whatever it was in the first place).
And the answers have varied from one generation of scholars to another. Although Easter Island hardly approaches the Churchillian description of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, it has provided various particularistic answers for its questions. The absence of hard data has allowed speculation disguised as scholarship free rein.
Race. To a degree that is almost forgotten today, social scientists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concentrated on racial origins and differences among peoples. These studies were prompted by Darwinian questions of human origins, but ultimately led to genocidal racist theories. The isolation of Easter Island and its associated legends prompted studies of its population. And theories of the specific origins of the Rapa Nuian people have ranged from locations throughout the Pacific Islands to much further afield. Various skull shapes and sizes were pored over by nineteenth and early twentieth century phrenologists placing origins throughout the Pacific and into Asia, South Asia, Arabia, and North Africa. The Polynesians (to which the Rapa Nuians were attributed) were depicted as being from every racial group from Caucasian to Asian. Residual native legends on Easter Island pointed in different directions, e.g., the Marquesas Islands. Archeologists were additionally puzzled by the absence of any sea-going craft akin to either the out-rigger canoes from Polynesia or balsa log rafts from the South American coast. Finally, twenty-first century DNA analysis has indicated a Polynesian origin — at least for those surviving natives. But the presence of assorted stone structures and walls suggests at least some influential contact with pre-Incan South American civilizations.
Thus Thor Heyerdahl with his riveting 1950s Kon Tiki adventure book and film, as well as follow-up archeological/anthropological studies, recounted in Aku Aku, makes the case for multiple cultural sources for the Rapa Nuians.
Those Statues. If the genetic origins of the people provide one set of puzzles, the motivations for and craftsmanship of the hundreds of massive stone statues has prompted even more speculation. On one side of the world, archeologists debate how the Egyptian pyramids were built; on the other, they ponder the Easter Island statues. On both sides of the world, those believers in extraterrestrials postulate other-worldly engineers with science fiction technology for building and moving the elements of pyramids and statues. However, the Erich von Daniken vogue has now passed, along with the expectation that visitors from “outer space” will save us from our worldly problems. More essentially, the deus ex machina believers discount the ingenuity and skill of Stone Age humans. Ultimately, this reflects badly on “modern” thinkers who conclude that only high technology can foster monumental accomplishment.
Indeed, a casual look at an average statue (thirteen feet high; ten tons) might leave the observer with the impression that without steel tools and power equipment, it would take years to create, let alone to move and erect. Some of the larger statues at up to forty tons are even more impressive. The truth, however, according to Heyerdahl’s estimates is that a relatively small number of workers (six) in a relatively short period of time (a year) could produce such a statue working only with stone carving implements. Modern Rapa Nuians have demonstrated such ability to prove the point. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that a statue was carved in a single effort. The “factory” on the sides of the extinct volcano holds hundreds of statues in various stages of carving, from some lightly sketched out to others all but completed. Any given statue conceivably could have been a family/clan project worked on for years. Perhaps others were being made “on spec” or even as part of periodic rituals. If work was done sporadically, it could have been performed in “off season” without detracting from agricultural work or requiring additional food for the carvers.
Nor was getting a statue from the quarry to a platform on the coastline the heroic effort that one might hypothesize. The traditional stories by Rapa Nui natives were that the statues “walked” to their sites. Obviously, the “know better” outsiders concluded that such silly stuff legends could have no basis in reality. Instead, they believed that they had to have been dragged, probably by hundreds of natives over log roads. Along such lines, Jared Diamond, in his 2005 book Collapse, suggests that a large statue required at least twenty carvers for a month and 500 adults an undetermined length of time to move a large statue from the factory/quarry lying on a wooden sled to a seaside platform. He supposes that substantial amounts of wood and rope (from woven tree bark) would be necessary for this effort. And, indeed, if that approach were the only possibility for moving the statues, it would require substantial numbers of adult laborers.On his 1955 archeological expedition, Heyerdahl employed 180 men to move a “less-than-medium-size” statue a short distance over sand on a y-shaped sledge.
But an alternative also seems more than possible. That is to “walk” the statue the way one might “walk” a large bulky object such as a refrigerator. Having maneuvered the statue into a vertical position — a tedious exercise but one done fraction by fraction with levers and small stones rather than by brute strength, Heyerdahl demonstrated that fifteen men using four ropes in carefully choreographed sequences could “walk” a twenty-ton statue 100 yards per day. As an additional argument in favor of the walking technique, abandoned statues that have fallen on the paths to the seacoast are found face down.
By no means can one declare this “cold case” as solved; however, the argument that to construct and move the statues required a substantial population (and hence required massive tree cutting/deforestation and consequent vulnerability to starvation) is by no means proved either.
The Current Hobby Horse: Easter Islanders Destroy Their Environment
With fears of environmental degradation and destruction at the forefront of current political correctness, it is unsurprising to find advocates for greater environmental sensitivity seeking horrible examples to prove their case. In this regard, Easter Island ostensibly provides such an illustration and Jared Diamond’s Collapse deploys Easter Island as a poster child for reckless human behavior irreparably damaging a fragile environment, resulting in its deforestation and massive erosion.
Diamond makes a plausible case for the ecological fragility of Rapa Nui by postulating a complex schema combining inter alia limited rain fall, relatively cool temperatures, the dearth of airborne volcanic ash to reinvigorate the soil, and the island’s relatively small size and low heights of the volcanic craters. He then hypothesizes a population higher than many other estimates, one that becomes seized with competition to build ever larger statues and blindly cuts down the island’s trees, relatively quickly leading to severe erosion with commensurate reduction in food production. The next steps are starvation, internecine warfare, cannibalism, and massive depopulation. In the interim, the deforestation eliminated the larger trees from which sea-going canoes could be made, effectively isolating the Rapa Nuians even more completely and concurrently making serious fishing impossible.
Diamond’s deliberate lesson for the twenty first century needs no belaboring: overpopulation; over exploitation of scarce resources; and wasteful utilization of these scarce/nonrenewable resources. The prospective consequence — global catastrophe rather than disaster confined to an inconsequential island.
But Diamond’s paradigm for Easter Island is hardly without challenge. To be sure, there is proof that Easter Island had groves of large palm trees that could have been used for sea going canoes and/or rollers/sledges for moving statues. And these trees no longer exist. However, it is hypothesis rather than anything akin to verified fact that the natives cut down all the trees. While they surely cut some, other analysts speculate that given the island’s southern latitude, the (as yet poorly documented) climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (about 1650 to 1850) may have contributed to deforestation and other changes. Nor can one rule out a tsunami that devastated the adult palms or even a disease that destroyed them. Diamond almost with a sneer dismisses the point that Rapa Nuians wouldn’t have cut down a forest necessary for key aspects of their cultural/economic life. He comments that they could have cut down the last palm while saying “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter… your proposed ban on logging is premature….” Such comment is a bit of a stretch on an island of sixty-six easily walked/accessible square miles.
Moreover, while there has been substantial erosion on the island, such was not the case when Europeans first arrived. Indeed, descriptions from the era told of remarkable soil fertility and easy crop cultivation in terraced fields, requiring little sustained effort. But no matter how fertile the fields, if there is a Civil War with farmers killed and crops/harvests destroyed or several years of drought, there will be famine and consequent depopulation. Subsequently, the soil erosion need not be from improvident Rapa Nuians, but rather from overgrazing by Europeans and Chileans who turned the island into a massive sheep pasturage until 1953.
Consequently, Diamond’s thesis is complex and detailed, but more tantalizing than compelling — and certainly not proved. On the one hand, we can appreciate his effort in other chapters of Collapse to demonstrate that in some test cases humans have so damaged their environment as to destroy themselves in the process. On the other hand, he simply cannot use Easter Island to buttress his case.
Future Puzzles? The island may ultimately have other puzzles — more political in this regard than cultural/historical. At present, Easter Island has one of the longest landing fields (three kilometers long) in the Southern Hemisphere; it was specially extended and reinforced by the U. S. Government as an emergency alternative landing site for the Space Shuttle. On a daily basis, it plays host to about one commercial flight. Additionally, there is a mothballed NASA site that sits apparently unattended off one of the main roads. Is some comparable facility of interest to the two Chinese military teams (air force and navy) who have visited the island in recent months?
The various mysteries of Easter Island are left quite unresolved, but the various theories are still available for those with a hobby horse that needs flogging.
David T. Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications.