You may be familiar with the author Jared Diamond, whose brilliant book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies quite deservedly netted a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve been reading his latest effort, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and it is awfully good as well.
The book concerns itself with the factors that cause civilizations to fail. Diamond lists five that are of particular interest: climate change, attacks by hostile neighbors, loss of allies and trading partners, man-made destruction of environmental resources, and the differing ways in which societies respond to loss of resources.
In the book Diamond examines examples of civilizations, both ancient and modern, and tries to explain why some perished while others did not. Among the cultures he considers is the doomed Polynesian settlement on Easter Island, which is a uniquely haunting story.
Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui), located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,200 west of Chile, and almost 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, is one of the remotest places on Earth. It’s a small triangular island, only about 15 miles across its longest axis, and is perhaps best known for its eerie stone statues, the brooding and enigmatic moai.
The tale of the island’s human habitation is not uplifting. It was originally settled, as part of the gradual human expansion into eastern Polynesia, somewhere between 700 and 1200 A.D., and it appears that after that single colonization event, the settlers were completely isolated from outside human contact for the next several hundred years, until the first appearance of Europeans, on Easter Sunday of 1722.
Imagine that — a handful of people, alone on a wee dot of land in the immense blue Pacific, living in utter isolation for perhaps as long as a thousand years. No wonder the local name for the island — Te Pito O Te Henua — means “the navel of the world”.
The island is not blessed with abundant resources, and in particular the bounty from the sea that we usually imagine in Polynesian islands was not to be found there, due to the fact that there are neither coral reefs around the island, nor a sheltered lagoon of any sort. The seafloor falls away rather sharply, and the water is cold.
When the settlers arrived, the island was forested, but by the time Europeans arrived, all the trees were gone. During the time that there was timber for building canoes and houses, the island supported a fairly large population — perhaps as many as 15,000 — and archaeological research shows abundant marine life in their diet. But after the wood supply was gone, the civilization collapsed. In the later years the dwindling population resorted to cannibalism, and finally, when the Europeans arrived, the rest of them fell victim to imported diseases or were carried off as slaves. By the late 1800′s only 111 people remained.
Diamond asks — and it is a haunting question — what were they thinking as they cut down the last tree on the island? How could anyone do such a thing? It is indeed deeply disturbing to imagine, and the present-day islanders, defensive of their heritage, would like to give an account based on climate change, or other variables beyond the control of their ancestors, but the archaeological data don’t support this view. Diamond does, however, put forward other good reasons why this happened here and not elsewhere in Polynesia, and we’ll look at them in the next post.