Since my university years, whenever anyone brings up Easter Island, I instantly conjure images of giant statues (called moai). These giant stone monuments to ancestors, although mostly destroyed by the end of the 19th century, usually come to mind first.
What comes to my mind second, however, is more important: ecocide.
This word was first coined by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book “Collapse.” Diamond uses much of the archaeological history of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to convincingly support an argument that human factors led to the eventual destruction of the Rapa Nui civilization.
FALL OF A CIVILIZATION
It was widely believed that Polynesian settlers reached Rapa Nui as early as 800 A.D. Evidence shows that they immediately began a practice of slash and burn agriculture. Cultural factors led to the extensive building of moai, deforestation, and using the tropical forests of the island as a fuel source.
Many argue that these practices, along with rapid population growth, led to an eventual exhaustion of resources. From there, popular history will tell you the people became cannibalistic due to starvation, and the structure of their society eventually broke down until they were discovered by Europeans in 1722.
The likely truth of the fall of the Rapa Nui is, however, less of a one-sided argument, although not any less compelling.
Studies on the island since 2005 have shown that settlers did not likely reach the island until 1200 A.D. Although agriculture, rapid growth and deforestation appear to all be contributing factors to the collapse of the Rapa Nui, humans were not the exclusive cause.
EXPLORERS AND INVASIVE SPECIES
When settlers landed on Rapa Nui, they brought with them the Polynesian rat. Whether as stowaways or an intentional source of food, the rat population quickly grew. A single mating pair of rats could grow to a population of more than 17 million in about three years. Rats would eat the palm seeds, preventing forest regrowth. In addition to spreading disease, the rats destroyed crops and other vegetation.
When Europeans first visited the Rapa Nui, they brought disease and further destruction. The discovery of the island in 1722 by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen ended in violence when a dozen or so Rapa Nui were killed during a skirmish. Roggeveen himself later recounted that his men reacted to what were described as threatening gestures.
In 1862, slave raiders from Peru struck Rapa Nui, killing more than 1,500 by the time the international community could intervene. The population that was eventually released brought smallpox back to the island with them, decimating the remaining Rapa Nui to the point that bodies were often left unburied.
To further complicate things, the introduction of missionaries to the island during this same period, as well as the economic support to the island that the missionaries provided, led to the conversion of much of the remaining population to the popular and powerful religion of the period.
COLLAPSE MORE THAN ECOLOGICAL
What was once a relatively simple argument regarding the need for ecological conservation now seems significantly more complicated. Indeed, the destruction of the Rapa Nui as a civilization did not solely occur through the felling of their forests. Rather, a cast of other human and cultural factors played into the overall collapse.
Unfortunately, for many of us the slanted history lesson is already ingrained into our thinking. Without making a conscious effort to seek out the whole story, popular literature has turned the facts of the fall of the Rapa Nui into a one-sided argument for ecological preservation.
For years, whenever I thought of Easter Island, I would instantly think of the need to preserve our forests, manage our agriculture and mind our cultural vanity.
POPULAR OPINION REWRITING PAST
Although these are important lessons, perhaps we should be considering the other lessons gleaned from the history of Easter Island. Certainly, without doing so, we would be allowing popular opinion to rewrite the facts of the past.
I wonder what the lessons of Easter Island will be for my great-great grandchildren, or if the facts will only exist as part of a story.
Looking at current popular opinion, I also wonder what other stories we are being told, and what facts might be missing from our own rewritten history.
Benjamin A. Gochberg lives in Avon