Easter Island offers lessons to us all from the end of the world

“In Easter island …the shadows of the departed builders still possess the land…the whole air vibrates with a past purpose and energy which has been and is no more. What was not? Why was it?”

                        —Katherine Routledge, “The Mystery of Easter Island,” 1919

“The footprints in the sand are as small and delicate as a jewel, sometimes as grand as the pyramids. Often it takes a thousand years or more to understand what the ancient people were trying to express.”           

                        —Miguel de Unamuno 

Heading 2,300 miles west of Chile, over a wide azure sea on the edge of the world, we arrive at the most isolated island on Earth, Easter Island, coincidentally enough, on Easter Sunday. The island was alive with celebrations, full of dancing torches igniting the spirit of the faithful on a bit of island that centuries before knew nothing of Christianity. It has been known for a while now that the early inhabitants had a strong hierarchy, complex ritual practices and many resources. So why did they vanish and what can we learn from them in our own very fragile time? Navigators, whalers, pirates and explorers have wondered why the first inhabitants practically disappeared. Easter Island’s history is part of the complex tapestry of humanity and more relevant than ever.

In fact it was Arnold Toynbee the British historian who remarked “Stone Age Man’s most amazing tour de force was the colonization of Polynesia, including Easter Island.”

Who were the Easter Islanders? Or Rapa Nui as the first inhabitants call their island. Why did they come to this isolated island? One hears a lot about how the local culture vanished, and one wonders how such stupendous structures as the giant monolithic human figures called Moai, measuring up to nine meters tall and some weighing over 90 tons were sculpted out of volcanic rock. And now amidst the changing climate and tides, the last vestiges of this remarkable culture faces the wrath of potentially enormous waves that could make these superb artifacts one day disappear.

The island was first seen by European eyes by the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, who went looking for Terra Australis, a fictive continent thought to exist in the southern oceans. His fleet included three ships and 223 men. On April 5, 1722 they saw an unknown coast on Easter Sunday and the stone images at first caused them to be struck by astonishment because they couldn’t comprehend how it was possible for these people who were devoid of heavy thick timber nor any machines as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images which were fully 30 feet high. A local came to greet the ship, as Roggeveen wrote, “he was quite nude, without the slightest covering for that which modesty shrinks from revealing. This hapless creature seemed to be very glad to behold us, and showed the greatest wonder at the build of our ship. He took special notice of the tautness of our spars, the stoutness of our rigging and running gear, the sails, the guns — which he felt all over with minute attention — and with everything else that he saw; especially when the image of his own features was displayed before him in a mirror, seeing the high, he started suddenly back and then looked towards the back of the glass, apparently in the expectation of discovering there the cause of the apparition.” Another landing party came on shore and signaled to the indigenous people to move aside. Out of misunderstandings a few of Jacob’s men opened fire and killed about 10 men. The rest scattered but amazingly returned with offerings, chicken, fruit and root crops as a gift. Roggeveen stayed a week and remarked, “What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they set up; and thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them.” Questions remained lodged in his mind. How did so many statues get made and what happened to the civilization that made these colossi?

At that time, Jacob estimated there were about 2,000-3,000 islanders but the population may have been as high as 15,000 a hundred years before first contact. When captain James Cook visited the island in 1774, there were maybe 700 islanders. In the 1860s Peruvian slave traders began invading the island and capturing as many as half its people. Slavers, and missionaries, as well as the introduction of tuberculosis and smallpox decimated the locals.

By 1877 just over a hundred people survived. A century later they gained Chilean citizenship, often coming into conflict with the Pinochet government as an indigenous movement began. Today, more than half of Easter Island’s descendants come from its first people, with a population of about 6,000.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The people seemingly came out of nowhere in Polynesia and by 1200 AD according to Jo Anne van Tilburg, the founder of the Easter Island Statue Project at the University of California, the locals were probably making some of their earliest attempts to erect the famed giant Moai. Others believe settlers arrived maybe as early as 800 AD with taro roots, chickens, bananas, gourds, yam, sweet potato and arrowroot as staples. Theories abound claiming that eventually the local trees disappeared, hunger ensued and battles caught up with different factions trying to survive diminishing returns. Jared Diamond is well known for his theories on collapse and ecocide on Easter Island. It is thought that giant palm trees were cut for fire, transporting the Moai across the land and in the process eroding the rich soil.

According to Terry Hunt and Tonya Broadman of the University of Arizona, the famed Moai structures were placed near the coast for hydrogeological reasons. “At low tide, when the saltwater’s down, fresh water pours right out at the coast.” They mapped out freshwater sources all over the island and wherever they found freshwater which was drawn from the ocean they also found Moai. The strong communal solidarity the inhabitants evinced lasted for 500 years until the Europeans arrived leading to social dislocation and eventually downfall. While many sources indicate that ecological collapse was the main reason for the demise of the Easter Island civilization some say there are other possibilities, most notably, the islanders’ contacts with westerners starting in the 18th century.

European contact certainly altered the communal cohesion of the Easter Island civilization according to Benny Paiser in his work “From Genocide to Ecocide.” He explains, “Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.” He believes too much blame has been placed on the Polynesian abuse of their own resources and not enough blame has been put on the European civilizers who came with their colonial mindset. Another critic of the dominant view is heralded by Paul Rainbird who in his work “A Message for Our Future” also believes that the debacle of Easter Island society came after first contact with Europeans. The thought that the indigenous Easter Islanders resorted to cannibalism is not founded and has only been shared to support the European bias against first people for decades, Rainbird argued. There is also no archeological evidence for starvation on an island of plentiful resources both on land and from the sea. The social disarray, warfare and competition that has been ascribed to the Easter Islanders is more likely to have occurred after occupation than before, according to Rainbird. 

Archeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo of Binghamton University believe the Rapa Nuinans hold very important lessons for our time, especially as a model of cooperation. Their book “The Statues that Walked,” disclaim Jared Diamond’s contention that it was deforestation and civil unrest and especially ecocide that caused societal collapse on the 63 square mile island. They believe it was an infestation of rats that ate up the palm seeds and razed the island bare. When the trees disappeared so did 20 other forest plants. Ultimately the Rapa Nui people fell victim to European exploration and exploitation. And the islanders themselves did not cut down trees to move their giant Moai, they walked them as we would move a refrigerator across the room with ropes. The authors stress that “In light of this knowledge, we can readily see the unwarranted nature of claims for a prehistoric environmental catastrophe that turned a once-productive island into a barren landscape. If anything, the islanders contributed to an increase in the human carrying capacity of the island over time.”

But according to Barzin Pakandam of the London School of Economics, the magnificence, unique presence and technological prowess of the Moai should stand as the ultimate warning for our time. Few scholars discount the very real possibility that Easter Island stands as a warning of an advanced civilization that overran its ecological foundations. Barzin thinks that Peiser and Rainbird’s theories are insufficient in countering the overwhelming evidence that there was a “sudden and dramatic destruction of Easter island’s environment.” Barzin cites Diamond’s 1995 article in Discover magazine which says, “Why’ didn’t they (Easter Islanders) look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?” In citing Joseph Tainter from the NY Times Magazine November 8, 2020 article, “Why Societies Fall Apart,” Barzin underscores the perilous time where a society, “displays a rapid, significant loss of an established socio political complexity.” Other writers like Mulloy and Metraux have “shown that the hierarchical chieftainships on Easter Island had sufficient governance to create prohibitions on the harvest of birds and fish, but that the ‘governance structures’ failed. Overconsumption, and exploitation without regulation strangled Rapa Nui society.” Much as we are doing to our forests and oceans today. We know what the problem is but who regulates the consumption and who oversees the overseers.

Before we left Easter Island we met a local fisherman who pointed out to us the incredible crater Rano Kat, that looks like a geologic mouth open to the sky above. It is 300 meters tall filled with water to a depth of 10 meters. Reeds called Totora fill the crater lake like miniature islands out of a green fairy tale. On the crater’s edge lies the ceremonial village of Orongo that was inhabited only in the month of September for ritual of Tangata Manu where the Bird Men had to get the eggs of the manutara bird the luck bird (sootie terns) on the nearby island of Ranu Kau. Between the two islands swam sharks who acted as a barrier between the main island and Ranu Kau. The competitors would have to brave the seas without getting attacked and return with an egg of the bird intact and survive the journey back. This pagan ritual must have been strange indeed to the first European to hear of these ceremonies. But centuries ago, to honor birds and sharks was part of the code of respect for people who depended on nature and the ocean to survive. Large tuna, seals and even porpoise bones have been found in midden heaps. It was a paradise, at least for a while but eventually the bounty that fed the local population was overwhelmed. Overhunting caused twenty three of the twenty five endemic bird species to become extinct. The Polynesian rat burrowed into the pine nuts for the kernel and caused the palm trees to die off. With loss of forests, fewer trees were available to make canoes in order to fish. Overpopulation eventually caught up with the island as everyone began to overwhelm the carrying capacity of Rapa Nui. Between the 13th and 16th centuries the Moai creations ceased. The majority of Moai remained unfinished. But for nearly 1,000 years peace and prosperity reigned over an island unlike any other on Earth.

Was it ecocide or cannibalism or war that destroyed the Easter Islanders? Joseph Tainter reminds us that today’s society is fragmenting across several fault lines, “characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization, and sociopolitical control.” The myth of European superiority was the hallmark of much of the belief system of the 19th century not long after Easter Island was first explored by outsiders. It was probably not the Easter Islanders who evinced attitudes of superiority given the offerings the locals brought Roggeveen, even after losing many of their people to gunfire after the first encounter. Social complexity, as Tainter explains, brings decreasing marginal returns. It was not Easter Islanders looking for new lands to conquer, but the ever increasing dissatisfactions of the European mind which necessitated conquests, of which America is the latest incarnation. Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut like Tainter believes our civilization is so intertwined and fragile that it could face a global reckoning. Today, like in BC 1177, there is a concatenation of stresses from famine, political strife, mass migrations and the closure of trade routes. “Collapse really is a matter of time and I’m concerned that this may be the time,” he warns. Easter Island was a sanctuary, until outside forces helped to topple it. Today, “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

As global civilization puts more pressure on land and its ever increasingly fragile soil, and rainforests worldwide, we should heed the lessons of Easter Island and previous cultures that crashed. Easter Islanders lived on a relative paradise until their society exhausted itself. While Western conquest and slavery in the 19th century seriously incapacitated Easter Island, bringing new diseases, as it has all over the world, the degradation of the island probably started before the European invasion. In a war of diminishing returns, and resource exhaustion, Rapa Nui should serve as a reminder of what happens when we exhaust our environment. Perhaps our time is one in which globalization has reached a climax, and exchange networks have reached saturation. The quality and quantity of our resources have diminished to such an extent that a global reckoning is now being played out. The current pandemic is but one example of overshoot, but other pandemics not as easily treatable may be laying in wait, just a few years from now.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

By the time Captain Cook arrived in 1744 not a single statue was left upright. A new religion called colonization and mercantilism had replaced the Moai. When earlier the king was able to control what was taboo or not, so that overexploitation did not occur, later on the power of the king was diminished or lost to the warrior class.

As Joseph Tainter exclaims, in our own time we have reached the point where famine, political strife, natural disasters and pandemics make for a perfect storm, “almost all the same symptoms” as those that afflicted earlier societies that crashed. Easter Island is only one of the most romantic and geographically stunning examples of civilizations that overshot their mark and will certainly not be the last. The egregious hoarding of money and the separation of the haves from the have nots does not make for stability and justice. The cutting down of forests is creating a climate bomb. Methane is being unleashed as never before. Perhaps with the right political and diplomatic vision and care we can reverse trajectory because a global reckoning is now underway and nothing assures us that we will reach the 22nd century. We have the technological know how, we know how to erect steel and glass skyscrapers and rockets, the totems of our wayward civilization, but ultimately we no longer know why we are doing so. It is not political savvy nor just technical savor faire that will redress us but a spiritual core that has been missing for far too long.

Our inability to honor our surroundings and plan accordingly is one lesson to draw from this small island in the middle of the Pacific. The UN Secretary has stated many times that we are committing collective suicide as a species. It may be time to stop. Our cavalier lack of foresight stems from governments and leaders who hitherto have shown no vision towards the future. We have a United Nations, but we need a united will, and united heart. It is perhaps safer to say that the mind is there, but it is a lack of focused commitment and devotion to life that is egregiously missing. With a new vision in the U.S., maybe we can finally steer the ship of civilization aright, before the skyscrapers of Dubai, New York and Hong Kong become the tall shimmering, faceless Moai of our time.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.