Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of negative human impact on the environment and one of the most spectacular instances of social-ecological collapse in pre-modern times occurred between 700 ce and 1800
ce on Easter Island. Known by its original Polynesian inhabitants as "Rapa Nui," the island is located in the South Pacific over 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.
Rapa Nui is among the most intensely studied places in the world. Archaeologists and natural scientists have speculated long and hard about the history of the island and the fate of its original inhabitants. Today, we have a better understanding of Rapa Nui's place in Polynesian prehistory and the dramatic environmental and social changes that unfolded on this small, remote island.
When European explorers first landed on the island in 1722, their first impression was not of a paradise, but of a wasteland: "We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or both scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness."143
The island they beheld consisted largely of grassland, without a single tree or bush over 10 feet high. Modern botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Rapa Nui, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two woody shrubs. Such sparse flora provided European sailors with no real source of firewood to warm themselves during Easter Island's cool, wet, and windy winters. Native animals they found included nothing larger than insects, and not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard.144 What these early European colonists did not know is that this bleak landscape was all that remained of a once biodiversity-rich and thriving ecosphere.
Rapa Nui's most famous feature is its huge stone statues, some as high as 65 feet and as heavy as 270 tons. More than 200 of these statues stood on massive stone platforms lining the coast. Most of them were carved in a single quarry and then transported to their final resting-places as far as 6 miles away. The sheer number and size of these monuments suggest a population much larger than the 2,000 people once estimated to have populated the islands during the height of their cultural achievements.145 Excavations of Rapa Nui's prehistoric landscape prove that, during the early years of Polynesian settlement, the island was not a wasteland at all. Instead, it was a subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes towering over a ground layer of shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. The forest trees included the rope-yielding hauhau tree, and the toromiro tree, which furnished dense, mesquite-like firewood. The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm now absent on Rapa Nui but formerly so abundant, researchers have found, that the bottom strata of the sediment column were packed with its pollen.146 The palm was closely related to the still-surviving Chilean wine palm, which grows up to 82 feet tall and to 16 feet in diameter at the base. The tall, unbranched trunks of Easter Island palms would have been ideal for transporting and erecting statues and constructing large canoes. The palm would also have been a valuable food source, since its Chilean relative yields edible nuts as well as sap used to produce sugar, syrup, honey, and wine.
Remnants of Rapa Nui's original animal world yield a picture as surprising as this image of abundance in the island's plant world. In addition to fish, Rapa Nui's waters housed large turtles that were hunted for their meat and shells. Archaeologists also found that Polynesian settlers of Rapa Nui feasted on sea birds. The isle's remoteness and lack of predators made it an ideal breeding site, at least until humans arrived. Among the prodigious numbers of sea birds that bred on Rapa Nui were albatrosses, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropicbirds. With at least 25 nesting species, Easter Island was once the richest sea bird-breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific. Archaeologists have also identified bones of at least six species of land birds, including barn owls, herons, parrots, and rails. Rapa Nui's inhabitants cooked bird stew seasoned with meat from the large numbers of rats, which Polynesian colonists had inadvertently brought with them. Easter Island is the sole known Polynesian island where rat bones outnumber fish bones in archaeological lists.147 A few bones hint at the possibility of breeding seal colonies as well. Such evidence suggests that the island onto which the first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore some 1,600 years ago was a pristine, ecologically balanced paradise. What happened to it? The pollen grains and the bones yield a grim answer.148
Here, the story of Rapa Nui can be summed up as an all too familiar and rather brief tale of the rise and decline of a sophisticated civilization. The first Polynesian settlers enjoyed a high level of affluence, spending comparatively little time and effort on subsistence-related activities. Few hours were taken up with fishing and planting their introduced staple root crops.149 Initially, it appears that people were not troubled about subsistence production or resource base maintenance, enjoying ample time and space for leisure. However, soon the small Polynesian settler community began to increase in size. As the island became more crowded, ecologically restricted, and internally stratified, more of the society's time and resources were invested in organized religious ceremonial activities. It is believed that Rapa Nui's notorious "statue builders' cult" religion emerged as a way to ensure good crops and fertility. Specialized masonry became ever more elaborate and mighty, producing ever-taller statues. As a result, the effort of social subsistence grew more laborious.
The drama of Rapa Nui culminates with the population growing to more than 20,000 people by the seventeenth century, with the achievements of the stone masons becoming ever-more elaborate and toilsome. Rapa Nui's colossal rock statues were manually carved and moved from the island's only central quarry. Ecological resources and means of subsistence on the island became increasingly scarce. The land no longer produced enough for all, and the forests of the island were soon all clear-cut.150 Thus, the story of Rapa Nui ends with a demographic, ecological and social collapse, reaching its anticlimax with a now-familiar escalation of violence and warfare. By the time the fighting ended, Rapa Nui had become a severely degraded island ecologically and socially. The statue builders' religion collapsed as well, when the giant, multiple-ton rock statues on ceremonial grounds were thrown off their foundations. Rapa Nui's downfall was finally sealed with European arrival and terrestrial recolonization, first by Holland (1722), then by Spain (1770), and then by more than 120 years of Chilean occupation. The tragedy of Rapa Nui concludes with the virtual enslavement of the remaining population, gone to work as indentured laborers in Chilean mines. Following this concluding disaster, the population of the island had shrunk to 111 people.151
The ecological and social collapse of Rapa Nui constitutes yet another warning of problematic society-nature relationships in the pre-modern era. All of the examples presented in this chapter represent horrific accounts of progressive ecocide and the self-endangerment of our species. Still, the degree of devastation inflicted by pre-modern civilizations is dwarfed by that wrought by modern industrial societies. As the next chapter shows, modernity has allowed ecocide to escape its previously localized framework, turning it for the first time into a truly global phenomenon.
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