Easter Island – a 21st Century Parable

Easter Island (Rapa Nui: Rapa Nui, Spanish: Isla de Pascua) is a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. Easter Island is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people.

A tiny green dot in an ocean of blue. People arrived there, it is reckoned, around 1000 AD . They got there by boat (canoe/catamaran) from one of the other islands of Polynesia, at least 2,600km away, probably before then from South America. These people knew how to use a boat. Whatever they brought with them, they developed a distinct local, rich, highly industrial culture. The society that developed locally was highly hierarchical, with class distinctions between a high chief, nine clan chiefs and then presumably, not quite so well recorded, everyone else.

They thrived. It’s reckoned that the population got up to 15,000 around the 1500s, despite only being 163.6 km^2. The island was biologically diverse, notably with plenty of trees. However they did experience ecological issues, effectively beyond their control, because they brought with them the Polynesian rat. This put paid to a lot of the local vegetation.
Note that this was long before the first recorded arrival of Europeans (Jacob Roggeveen, Dutch, 1722, followed not long after by yon Yorkshireman Cook).

By the time the Europeans got there, the islanders were already in deep crisis, population had descended to 2000-3000. When they were legion, the population had a voracious appetite for resources. They cut down trees (slash & burn presumably) to make space for agriculture. Without restraint.

What first comes to mind when you or I think of Easter Island, are the rows of huge stone heads called moai. For once when archaeologists handwave about’ritual objects’, the role of these is reasonably well known. Tied into the ancestor worship-based religion, the heads were those of noteworthys, chiefs and dieties. Their blank staring eyes were originally bright with coral. One aspect of them that I only found out fairly recently, made me do a double-take, is that the Easter Island statues face inland.

So, the population exploded, resources such as trees were hacked down, resources got thin on the ground and culture changed. It’s hard to see what happened here, but the focus of the religion had a shift from ancestor worship to a weird kind of bird veneration. Attenborough has suggested it was because of a particular bird (sorry, I forget its name) that had the power of staying in the air all the time.

They also got more warlike, battles, overturning of rival group’s statues. Food started running out. It has been suggested that cannibalism arrived.

Of course the Europeans introduced a few more ecological problems, but by that point this civilization was totally broken of it’s own accord.

They’d chopped down all the trees. The raw material for boats (and most mod cons). It seems reasonable to assume that human resources that might have been useful in the field were reallocated to defend or attack.

After a migration from 1000s of miles away, our cousins are now in total isolation. More immediately, their ability to fish was compromised, the range of local flore & fauna had suffered serious species extinction, the whole ecology of the place had been comprised. Broken.

Even without the assistance of the European and his issues, they were doomed.

How stupid could people be?

So imagine you’re from a different planet somewhere out in the galaxy, that despite astronomical odds against, happens to be at a similar level of tech & culture as Earth humans. Looking at the leading denizens of that tiny blue dot and what they get up to – how stupid could people be?


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