Did Ancient Easter Islanders Really Commit Environmental Suicide?

There is this popular notion that the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) completely destroyed their own environment, long before the arrival of Europeans. By annihiliating the island’s forests through slash-and-burn agriculture and the erection of the moai statues, they are thought to have wrecked the island’s original ecosystem, thus committing “environmental suicide”. With only very little remaining in the way of resources, the Rapanui supposedly killed and even ate each other, until only a very small number of them remained when Europeans first set foot on the island.

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Image taken from Amazon.co.uk.

However, I have recently come across a book which makes a very persuasive case that, in fact, ancient Easter Islanders may not have committed environmental suicide after all. This book is Beverly Haun’s Inventing Easter Island (2008).

First of all, Haun points out that, if you have a look at the sources for most articles and books on the alleged Easter Island catastrophe, they tend go all the way back not to eighteenth-century eyewitness accounts, but, rather, books written in the Nineties and Noughties–often, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) or Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2005). Books like these often say their sources are eighteenth-century witness accounts, or traditional Easter Island lore, or archaeological evidence, but a bit of detective work reveals that, in fact, eighteenth-century accounts tend to be distorted to support the authors’ arguments, and other pieces of “evidence” offered are also not as sound as they may seem at first. An example: Wright says that Captain Cook described the few Easter Islanders he came across as “small, lean, timid and miserable”, but Haun (2008: 245-247) shows that Wright’s source is not Cook himself, but Flenley and Bahn, in The Enigma of Easter Island (2003), and the latter don’t say where exactly it is that Cook uses these words. It turns out the phrase appears nowhere in Cook’s papers. Another example: Diamond says that there is a cave known in Rapanui language as Ana Kai Tangata, which he translates to “man eat cave”. However, etymological research shows that, in fact, Ana Kai Tangata could also be translated as “cave where men eat”, or even “cave where tales are told” (kai means both “to eat” and “to tell”). Not only that, but the name of the cave may simply refer to the fact that the mouth of the cave is so large that it looks like it is eating whoever enters it, and it is also possible that it was named after Kai Tangata, a legendary Polynesian chief known throughout the Eastern Pacific (Haun 2008: 252).

The list of examples like these could go on. There’s also Wright’s assertion that Easter Islanders ate their own dogs, despite the fact that archaeologists have never unearthed dog remains on the island–most likely, if the original settlers tried to bring dogs with them, they probably did not even survive the voyage (Haun 2008: 242-243).

However, it is still possible that Easter Island did lose some or most of its trees as a result of human settlement.  One thing that does come up in eighteenth-century sources is the island’s lack of trees. Sedimentary pollen deposits and large root boles embedded in hardened lava flows suggest that the island once had decent forest coverage, but George Forster, who travelled to the island on Captain Cook’s ship in 1777, wrote that “there was not a tree upon the island, which exceeded the height of ten feet” (Haun 2008: 238). Ancient Easter Islanders would have used wood for building both boats and cooking fires, but also funeral pyres, as they were the only prehistoric Polynesians to cremate their dead. Also, the first settlers deliberately introduced an edible species of rat, Rattus exulans, which is likely to have had a significant impact on the environment–centuries-old gnawed seed rinds found in caves suggest that the rats quickly made short work of the island’s trees, which grew too slowly to recover properly (Haun 2008: 243). Interestingly, though, it seems unlikely that the island’s moai statues necessitated much wood: for one thing, it’s possible that no wood at all was needed, just three ropes and eighteen men; secondly, even if wood was required, Haun (2008: 245) points out that, of the almost 900 moai found, 397 were never transported beyond their original quarries, which means wood was never required to move them, while the 500 or so statues which were moved, were created over a span of 600 years. This suggests that, on average, only one moai per year needed logs to be transported and erected.

If they did experience or cause environmental change, the islanders successfully adapted to it. For one thing, they stopped cremating their dead and started burying them. Also, they replaced the hereditary transmission of power with annual “Bird Man” competitions that selected leaders on the basis of their athletic prowess, which probably led to a more equitable distribution of resources, since any family could produce athletic young men to vie for power (I don’t have the book with me right now, but I will add the references as soon as I get my hands on it again).

However land and people managed to thrive, eighteenth-century witness accounts describe Rapa Nui as a fairly nice place to live. Dutch explorer Roggeveen, the first European to write an eyewitness account of the island, does describe a land that, from a distance, gives an impression of “a singular poverty and barrenness”, but this is probably because he was visiting the island in the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn. In any case, a few pages later he comments that, having had a closer look at the Easter Island landscape, “this place, as far as its rich soil and good climate are concerned, is such that it might be made into an earthly paradise” (Haun 2008: 241-242). Similarly, the Spanish expedition that visited the island in 1770 leaves us the following account (Haun 2008: 242):

A fertile soil, which leaves nothing for the inhabitants to wish for, softens their manners, and inclines them to humanity. This is without doubt the cause of the sweet disposition of the inhabitants; they have poultry in great plenty, and enjoy those products of the earth which require little culture

And a few years later, in 1777, Captain James Cook praised the island’s agricultural products (Haun 2008: 246):

“the produce is Potatoes, Yams, Taro or the Eddy Root, Plantains and Sugar Cane, all excellent in its kind, the Potatoes are the best of the sort I ever tasted.”

Indeed, though this is not in Haun’s book, recent research by Mara Mulrooney of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum points to the continued cultivation of fields throughout the island’s history, both before and after European contact.

As for Easter Island’s inhabitants, far from being “small, lean, timid and miserable”, both Roggeveen and the Spaniards were impressed by their tall, well-proportioned bodies. However, George Foster, the guy who travelled on Cook’s ship, does say that the islanders he met were “inferior in stature” to other Pacific Islanders, with “lean” bodies, and “faces thinner that that of any people we had hitherto seen in the South Sea” (Haun 2008: 247). But there is a simple explanation for this: contact with the Spaniards seven years before may have led to the appearance of new diseases on the island, which Easter Islanders did not have the right immune systems for. Indeed, there is evidence that Easter Islanders still had difficulty fighting off European-introduced respiratory diseases even in the fifties and sixties.

None of the sources mention warfare or cannibalism. McLaughlin, in a 2005 paper I wasn’t able to find but which Haun summarises, points to a few instances of human remains found on the island that could indicate cannibalistic practices, mostly because they bear the sort of cut marks that one usually finds on animal remains that were processed for cooking. But these remains are few and far between–hardly enough to prove that cannibalism was a widespread practice.

The question, at this point, is: Why? Why make up that Easter Islanders wrecked their environment, and wrecked their own lives in the process? It’s likely that some of it is mere confusion: the island is indeed fairly wrecked today, but that can easily be traced back to unwise nineteenth-century sheep-ranching practices (Haun 2008: 237-238). Could some of it also be some sort of weird political correctness, showing that it’s brown people as well as white people that are capable of destroying their own environment? Could some of it be a deliberate calculation that, despite the meagre evidence, if a story like Easter Island’s makes people worry more about the environment, then it’s worth divulging? Haun herself simply sees it as a combination of disregard for the island’s own history, and readiness to impose narratives on it that most suit Westerners at the time, both deriving from old imperialistic attitudes that the West has long felt towards “the Rest”.

Haun’s book is not just about the alleged Easter Island ecocide, but also about other ways in which Western explorers, painters, scholars and comic book writers have twisted and turned the island to make it reflect their own concerns and ideas. If you do manage to get your hands on it, I highly recommend it.

Comments and questions are, as always, very welcome.

Next week, maybe, I’ll write a sequel to this post, about historical wooden carvings from Rapa Nui that may, at first sight, appear to depict starving men.

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1 comment
  1. Signorinatumistufi said:

    I find your reference to PC as a possible answer very interesting.

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