As a kid, I can vividly recall being fascinated by Easter Island. I was riveted. It was a tale of intrigue and mystery that really piqued my curiosity.
Based on its geology and location in the Valparaiso region of Chile, it should have been a subtropical paradise. However, instead of towering, lush forests that were expected to be there, there were few trees and none taller than ten feet. Easter Island was described as a remote, nearly deserted island.
Its most noteworthy features were nearly one thousand giant stone heads scattered around the island. Who carved the heads, and why? Where did the people go? These were some of the questions that got people’s imaginations really going. Speculations were both wild and unimaginable. Many people believed that ancient humans would be incapable of carving and moving the statues with primitive tools. Each statue, called a moai, weighs up to 82 tons.
This led to wild stories about possible giant humans or space aliens inhabiting Easter Island. Since the time when I was a kid watching the early TV programs about it, many of the questions about Easter Island have actually been answered, and much to the disappointment of my young brain, they didn’t involve space aliens or enormous humans; but in some ways, the real story is even more strange.
For starters, the so-called heads turned out to be much more than heads. Most of the moai have necks, chests and bodies that extend all the way to the knees and in some cases all the way to the feet. Massive erosion on the island resulted in many of the statues being largely buried up to their necks. A team of five or six men would spend an entire year using stone hand chisels in order to carve one of the moai. Once complete, they would have to be stood up and walked into place with poles and giant ropes made from the bark of trees that once covered the island in lush forests.
The most dramatic trees on the island were enormous palms related to the giant Chilean wine palm; the Easter Island version is now extinct. When it lived on the island, it was the most dominant tree, and it took more than a hundred years to simply reach its adult height.
Many other Easter Island endemic plants and animals also went extinct. For example, Easter Island at one time had vast seabird colonies that had been described as likely some of the richest in the world, containing more than thirty resident species. These colonies are no longer found on the island. Fossil evidence has also been found of at least five species of land birds, including two rails, two parrots and a heron, all of which have gone extinct.
So where did the people, trees and birds of Easter Island go? Many of the trees were cleared to make room for settlements to house a growing human population. They were also cut down to make boats for fishing and a host of other things, including ropes and poles for walking the moai statues into place, a process, by the way, that required 180 to 250 men, depending upon the size of the statue.
The combination of these and other factors deforested significant portions of the island, which resulted in severe climate change and set a dramatic crash into motion. Most importantly, the lack of trees brought about a drop in humidity and rainfall. This resulted in the loss of most of the remaining trees and many other plants. The ecology of the island was ruined. With few land animals to eat, little fresh water to drink or with which to irrigate crops, and without trees with which to make boats that could be used for fishing, there were famines.
Then plagues came. More people died as they battled each other for the dwindling island resources. It is heyday, East Island has home to upwards of 20,000 people. In 1877, the population had crashed to only 111 survivors.
There is disagreement about some of the details of the mass die-off of the native people called Rapa Nui. There is disagreement about some of the other details, as well.
Scientists, for example, have debated whether they moved the stone statues by rolling them across logs, or if they instead rocked them from side to side with a technique that caused the statues to take a step forward with each of the rocking movements while others believe that it was likely a combination of techniques that were used to move the statues.
There’s little disagreement about one thing, however. Massive deforestation was a primary cause of the die-off. The Rapa Nui died by their own hands after having come to value statues with big, giant animals more than they treasured the land, plants and animals on which they depended. The humans of Easter Island died of a fatal case of disconnectedness. They failed to connect their own behavior to the consequences that they brought about, and by failing to honor and appreciate that which sustained their lives, they died.
It’s kind of easy for us today to look back and see folly in the behavior of the people of Easter Island. But I would argue that on the island that we call the planet Earth, we are now more than seven billion Rapa Nui, and we all have our own versions of the Moai, only we call them things like giant flat-screened TVs, SUVs, and other more trivial things.
As the animals around us are disappearing and the animals upon which we depend are dying off, if would be wise for us to recall the lessons that can be learned from Easter Island. We need to begin honoring the Earth that sustains us rather than worshipping meaningless objects. If we fail to do so, we are likely to go the way of the Rap Nui.