All photos, credit: Stephanie Charlton, 2018

The tranquil and barren island of Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island, illustrates the rich cultural and ecological history of the self-sustaining Rapa Nui civilization that existed in complete isolation from the 13th – 17th century A.D. The island’s several hundred abandoned megalithic statues (moai) stand tall amongst the treeless, grass-covered terrain, stoically gazing across the region as monumental markers of the tireless physical labor and determination of the fallen Rapa Nui people. Unfortunately, what remains of Easter Island’s characteristic statues has since been referred to as a symbol of self-destructive and unsustainable practices adopted by the Rapa Nui people.

With this in mind, is it realistic to believe that the same cultural practices that once sustained this population for generations suddenly became detrimental? A further, more comprehensive examination would reveal that the people of Easter Island endured the perfect storm of environmental, physical, and social burdens that eventually led to the demise of this once-thriving Indigenous society.

The inactive volcanic landmass known as Easter Island is one of the most isolated human inhabited landforms in the world, with the nearest continental body (South America) located nearly 3,750 km away[1]. Initial arrival of Polynesian settlers to Easter Island from more western islands, such as the Marquesas, Tuamoutu, and Gambier Islands, dates back as early as 800 AD[2]. But, despite potential ecological challenges associated with geographic location and isolation, the island was once densely forested with palm trees and other lush flora predating Polynesian settlement[3]. If that was the case, then how could this vast deforestation event have occurred?

As geographer Jared Diamond puts it, this is the result of their cultural “ecocide”, the wilful destruction of the natural environment by humans. His hypothesis claims that the Rapa Nui people were responsible for their own cultural demise due to their mindless practices of deforestation and over consumption – ultimately resulting in famine and civil unrest[4]. Several other researchers have also argued the idea that the people of Rapa Nui were shamelessly clear cutting their forests to use as resources in supporting their growing population[5].

While sediment records from the island mark that the onset of deforestation coincides with Polynesian settlement around 750- 1150 AD, Rapa Nui populations were still thriving even well after this period of time – suggesting that this simple accord of deforestation could not be the only reason for their cultural demise[6].

Because of Easter Island’s sheer isolation amid the Pacific Ocean, there is but a small number of native plant and animal species that can naturally prosper there; as a result, pre-existing wildlife is highly vulnerable to invasive species[7]. An indirect effect of settler immigration to the island was the introduction of an invasive rat species, Rattus exulans[8]. Since the rats arrived on the island with next to no predators, their populations were able to flourish. The prosperity of these rats ravaged habitats essential for other naturally occurring wildlife and even lead to local species extinctions, ultimately contributing to and worsening the larger issue of island deforestation[9].

The struggle for survival on Easter Island following the gradual destruction of natural resources only intensified after initial contact with European Explorers. One of the first accounts of Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1772 describes the unarmed and peaceful nature of the Rapa Nui people, while later revealing plans to “defend” at all costs should him and his men be attacked during their invasion of the territory[10].

By the late 1870s, thousands of Rapa Nui inhabitants had been enslaved by the Europeans, leaving just over 100 native islanders to fend for themselves on their land that was then ravaged with new diseases and characterized by a great deal of social disarray[11]. During their invasion, European explorers also brought over more invasive species including rabbits, cows, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs—all of which severely degraded the island’s ecology[12].

The history of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island reveals many lessons about the interrelated impacts of geographic isolation, invasive species, a complex history of deforestation, and European colonization. Though it is widely believed that the Indigenous people of Easter Island induced their own societal demise through a blatant disrespect for the finite nature of the surrounding environment, their misfortune is more reflective of colonial pursuits of land, money, and resources. A more balanced history of Easter Island than is offered by the “ecocide” hypothesis is owed to the people of Rapa Nui, as the collapse of this imaginative culture can be regarded as a microcosm of the cumulative and detrimental global impacts of colonialism throughout the last century and a half.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Flenley, J. R., King, A. S. M., Jackson, J., Chew, C., Teller, J. T., & Prentice, M. E, “The Late Quaternary vegetational and climatic history of Easter Island. Journal of Quaternary Science, 6(2), (1991): 85-115. Doi: 10.1002/jqs.3390060202.

[2] Cañellas-Boltà, N., Rull, V., Sáez, A., Margalef, O., Bao, R., Pla-Rabes, S., ... & Giralt, S, “Vegetation changes and human settlement of Easter Island during the last millennia: a multiproxy study of the Lake Raraku sediments,” Quaternary Science Reviews, 72, (2013): 36-48, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.04.004.

[3] Flenley, J. R., King, A. S. M., Jackson, J., Chew, C., Teller, J. T., & Prentice, M. E, “The Late Quaternary vegetational and climatic history of Easter Island. Journal of Quaternary Science, 6(2), (1991): 85-115. DOI: 10.1002/jqs.3390060202.

[4] Hunt, T, “Rethinking Easter Island's ecological catastrophe,” Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(3), (2007): 485-502, https://journals-scholarsportal-info.proxy1.Xpdf/03054403/v34i0003/485_r....

[5] Demenocal, PeterB, EdwardR Cook, David Demeritt, Alf Hornborg, PatrickV Kirch, Richard McElreath, and JosephA Tainter. "Perspectives on Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." Current anthropology 46, no. S5 (2005): S91-S99, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/497663.

[6] Hunt, T., & Lipo, C, “Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ‘Ecocide,’” Pacific Science, 63, (2009): 601-617, http://go.galegroup.com.proxy1.x/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=lond95336&id=GALE|A208336925&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon#.

[7] Hunt, T., & Lipo, C, “Revisiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ‘Ecocide,’” Pacific Science, 63, (2009): 601-617, http://go.galegroup.com.proxy1.x/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=lond95336&id=GALE|A208336925&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon#.

[8] Mann, D., Edwards, J., Chase, J., Beck, W., Reanier, R., Mass, M., ... & Loret, J, “Drought, vegetation change, and human history on Rapa Nui (Isla de Pascua, Easter Island),” Quaternary Research, 69(1), (2008): 16-28, https://journalsscholarsportal-info.proxy1.X/pdf/00335894/v69i0001/16_dv....

[9] Hunt, T, “Rethinking Easter Island's ecological catastrophe,” Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(3), (2007): 485-502, https://journals-scholarsportal-info.proxy1.Xpdf/03054403/v34i0003/485_r....

[10] Hunt, T, “Rethinking Easter Island's ecological catastrophe,” Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(3), (2007): 485-502, https://journals-scholarsportal-info.proxy1.Xpdf/03054403/v34i0003/485_r....

[11] Jarman, C, “The truth about Easter Island: a sustainable society that has been falsely blamed for its own demise,” http://theconversation.com/the-truth-about-easter-island-a-sustainable-s....

[12] Rainbird, P, “A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments,” World Archaeology, 33(3), (2002): 436-451, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00438240120107468needAccess=....

Jade is in her final year at Western University and plans to graduate this spring with an Honors Double Major in Environment and Health Geography and Criminology. Currently she is completing her undergraduate thesis which addresses the topic of sustainable clothing and its availability in a mid-sized Canadian city such as, London, Ontario. Passionate about climate communication, she wishes to continue studying and working to document the impacts of human activity on natural environments.

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