Lessons from Easter Island - from Clive Ponting's book
Easter Island is one of the most lost and uninhabited places on earth. One hundred and sixty square kilometers stretching in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, three thousand seven hundred kilometers from the Chilean coast and two thousand three hundred kilometers from the nearest inhabited land, Pitcairn Island. At its peak, it had only seven thousand inhabitants. Yet, despite its apparent insignificance, the history of this island is a severe warning to the world.
Dutch admiral Roggeveen was the first European to set foot there on Easter Sunday 1722. He discovered a primitive society of some three thousand individuals who lived in miserable reed huts or in caves, in a state of near permanent war and forced to practice cannibalism to improve the scarce food resources available. When in 1770 the Spanish officially annexed the island, they found it in such a state of isolation, poverty and underpopulation that no real colonial occupation ever developed. The population continued to decline and living conditions on the island worsened: in 1877, the Peruvians took away and enslaved all the inhabitants, with the exception of one hundred and ten old people and children. Finally, Chile seized the island and transformed it into a giant ranch for forty thousand sheep managed by a British company, while the few natives still present were confined to a single small village.
And yet, in the midst of this misery and barbarism, the first European explorers found evidence of a once flourishing and developed society: all along the island lay more than six hundred stone statues at least six feet tall. meters. When, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, anthropologists began to study the history and culture of Easter Island. they agreed on one point: in no case could these sculptures be the work of the primitive, backward and destitute population that the settlers of the XNUMXth century had discovered. The famous "mystery" of Easter Island was born ...
There was soon a whole range of theories to explain his story. The most fanciful evoked the visit of extraterrestrials or the existence of civilizations lost on continents sinking in the Pacific, leaving for all traces only this lost island. The less extravagant, that of the Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdhal, argues that, very anciently colonized by peoples of South America, the island would have inherited a tradition of monumental sculpture and stone work similar to the great achievements of the Incas, then would have declined at a later time, under the repeated assaults of other settlers from the west to provoke a series of wars between "long ears" and "short ears". But this thesis has never been unanimous.
The history of Easter Island has nothing to do with lost civilizations or esoteric explanations. On the other hand, it is a striking example of how human societies are dependent on their environment and the consequences of the irreversible damage they cause. This is the story of a people that, in an unfavorable context, has managed to build one of the most advanced societies in the world, by imposing considerable demands on natural resources. When they were no longer able to withstand them, the civilization that had painstakingly built up over the previous millennia collapsed with them.
The colonization of Easter Island belongs to the last phase of the long movement of expansion of men across the globe during the fifth century AD. The Roman Empire was beginning to decay, China was still plunged into the chaos that had followed the fall of the Han Empire two hundred years earlier, India saw the end of the short-lived Gupta Empire and the great city of Teothihuacàn dominated almost all of Mesoamerica.
The Polynesians, them, completed their attack on the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Coming from South-East Asia, the first of them had reached Tonga and Samoa around 1000 BC. AD Of the. they had spread further east to the Marquesas Islands around 300 AD, then, from the fifth to the ninth century, to Easter Island in the southeast, Hawaii in the north, the Society Islands and finally New Zealand. Once colonization was completed, the Polynesians were the most widely distributed people on Earth, occupying an immense triangle stretching from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island in the southeast: double the area. of the United States today.
The discoverers of Easter Island landed on a land of scarce resources. Of volcanic origin, its three volcanoes had been extinct for at least four hundred years upon their arrival. Both the temperature and humidity were high, and although the soil was suitable for cultivation, the flow of water was very poor, especially since the only source of drinking water came from the lakes in the craters. extinct volcanoes. Very isolated, the island sheltered few plants and animals: thirty species of native flora, some insects, two types of small lizards and not a mammal. The sea surrounding the island was poor in fish.
The arrival of the first men did little to improve the situation. The animals (pork, dog and Polynesian rat) and the crops (yam, taro, breadfruit, banana and coconut) which made up the subsistence of their native lands not adapting well to the harsh climate of their new country, force their was to be content with a diet consisting mainly of sweet potatoes and chickens. The only advantage of this monotonous diet, the cultivation of sweet potato did not require much effort and left plenty of time for other activities.
The exact number of these early settlers is unknown, but it was scarcely more than thirty years old. The population slowly increased, gradually adopting the social organization familiar to the rest of Polynesia: a large family group, whose members owned and cultivated the land in common. These closely related families formed lineages and clans, each having their place of worship. At the head of each clan, a leader organized and directed the activities, and oversaw the distribution of food and other vital products. This mode of operation, the competition and probably the conflicts between the clans it engendered explain the great achievements of the civilization of Easter Island as well as its final collapse.
Villages rose over the entire surface of the island in small groups of huts surrounded by cultivated fields. Social activities were held in separate ceremonial centers occupied part of the year. The main monuments were the ahu, these vast stone platforms similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia. They were used for funerals, ancestor worship and commemorations in honor of fallen chiefs. As agricultural production did not mobilize much energy, the clan chiefs had time to take a close interest in these religious rites. This particularity led to the development of the most advanced Polynesian society of all, one of the most complex in the world given the limited resources at its disposal. The Easter Islanders divided most of their time between elaborate rituals and the construction of religious monuments.
More than three hundred of these platforms were thus built on the island, mainly near the coast. Many of them, built according to sophisticated astronomical alignments, oriented towards one of the solstices or towards the equinox, testify to a high level of intellectual achievement. On each site stood between one and fifteen of the monumental stone statues which survive today as the only vestige of the disappeared Paschal society. Carved with obsidian instruments in Rano Raraku's quarry, they were designed to represent a highly stylized male head and torso. The head was crowned with a "bun" of red stone weighing about ten tons and coming from another quarry. Stone carving was a simple but time-consuming task. The biggest difficulty consisted in transporting these monumental works across the island, then erecting them at the top of the Ahu.
The solution found by the Easter Islanders to this problem provides the key to the fate that their society subsequently experienced. For lack of draft animals, they had to employ a very large human labor force to haul the statues using tree trunks as rollers. From the first small group to arrive in the fifth century, the island's population grew steadily, reaching at its peak, in 1550, the number of 7 inhabitants. The island then had hundreds of ahu on which more than six hundred enormous stone statues had been erected.
Then, brutally, this civilization collapsed, leaving behind more than half of the unfinished sculptures around Rano Raraku's career.
What had happened? Massive environmental degradation caused by deforestation on the island. When the first Europeans landed there in the XNUMXth century, they found it completely deforested with the exception of a handful of isolated trees at the bottom of the deepest crater of the extinct volcano of Rano Kao. However, recent scientific work, including the analysis of pollen types, has shown that in the fifth century Easter Island had a thick vegetation cover including thick woods. As the population grew, more and more trees had to be felled to provide clearings for agriculture, fuel for heating and cooking, building material for houses, canoes for fishing. fishing, and trunks to transport the statues on sort of flexible tracks along which they dragged hundreds of workers. In other words, enormous quantities of wood were used. And, one day, there was not enough ...
The deforestation of the island did not only spell the end of all social or religious life a little elaborate: it also had spectacular effects on the daily life of the population. In 1500, the shortage of trees forced many people not to build houses in planks but to live in caves and, when about a century later the wood was completely missed, everyone had to fall back on houses troglodytes dug in the hillsides or frail huts made of reeds cut into the vegetation that grew along the edge of the crater lakes. There was no question of building canoes: the reed boats did not allow for long journeys.
Fishing also became more difficult because the mulberry wood with which the nets were made no longer existed. The disappearance of the forest cover is further depleting the soil of the island, which was already suffering from a lack of suitable animal fertilizers to replace the nutrients absorbed by the crops. Increased exposure to weather aggravated erosion and rapidly reduced crop yields. Chickens became the main source of food. As their numbers increased, they had to be protected from theft. But they could not sustain seven thousand inhabitants, and the population declined rapidly.
From 1600, the decadent society of Easter Island regressed to an ever more primitive standard of living. Deprived of trees and therefore canoes, the islanders found themselves prisoners thousands of kilometers from their homeland, unable to escape the consequences of the debacle of their environment for which they themselves were responsible. The social and cultural impact of deforestation was just as important. The impossibility of erecting new statues must have had a devastating effect on the systems of belief and social organization and call into question the very foundations on which this complex society had been built.
Conflicts multiplied, provoking a state of almost permanent war. Slavery became commonplace, and as the amount of protein became scarce, the inhabitants resorted to cannibalism. One of the main objectives of these wars was to destroy the ahu of the opposing clans. Most of the magnificent stone statues were gradually slaughtered. Faced with this desolate landscape, faced with the ignorance of the islanders who had lost over the centuries the memory of their culture, the first Europeans did not understand what strange civilization had ever flourished on the island. For a thousand years, the Pascuans managed to maintain a way of life corresponding to a refined set of social and religious customs which allowed them not only to subsist, but to flourish.
It is in many ways a triumph of human ingenuity and an apparent victory over a hostile environment. In the end, however, the population growth and the cultural ambitions of the islanders proved too burdensome for the limited resources available to them. These exhausted, the company was not long in collapsing, drawing the inhabitants to a level close to barbarism. It only took these men, totally isolated from the rest of the world, a day to tour their small island and understand the vital need to create a good balance with their environment.
Instead, they exploited it as if the possibilities it offered them were unlimited. Worse, even as the deficiencies of the island became cruelly obvious, the struggle between the clans seems to have intensified: more and more statues were being carved across the island in a final effort to secure its prestige, leaving many unfinished and abandoned near the quarry, without taking into account the worrying shortage of trees that such a climb entailed.