Easter Island has been used as a cautionary tale — the inhabitants denuded the island of palm trees while wasting their resources on colossal religious statuary, and then destroyed themselves in an orgy of self-destructive wars. Only there are a few problems with that myth emerging.
It seems that the palm trees were demolished early in the colonization of the island…not by the people, but by rats that had hitchhiked to the island. The people of Rapa Nui adapted and had a stable agricultural system that allowed them to thrive, and what caused their population to collapse was not internal conflict, but external forces.
Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining. Perhaps this, instead, was the warfare the ethnohistorical accounts refer to and what ultimately stopped the statue carving.
There’s a lesson here, all right. That lesson is that you should trust the hard work of serious anthropologists who do deep, evidence-based research, rather than the self-serving stories spread by colonial empires or the speculations of dilettantes.
Walter Solomon says
Human cruelty and greed claims yet another victory over human culture and diversity. To add insult to injury, the public seems to be more interested in the construction of the moai rather than the Rapa Nui themselves.
[blockquote]Human cruelty and greed claims yet another victory over human culture and diversity. To add insult to injury, the public seems to be more interested in the construction of the moai rather than the Rapa Nui themselves.
Confession: I only recently became aware the Rapa Nui existed. I thought the island was deserted when the first Europeans got there. And yet, I read lots of stuff about Easter Island, though it was in my teenage years when I was much more interested in woo than today. Just another erasure of non-European people from popular history.
(when will I learn to “preview”?) :(
for truly heroic stories of western civilization I prefer those supplied by dilettantes.
they are much more thrilling and help to remind me of just how exceptional I am!
It is well known that they didn’t have Jeebus. Ergo . . . .
You and me both! Well, I knew about the Rapa Nui, but thought they were in severe decline before Europeans appeared on the island. Just like European reports of other cultures that were supposedly in decline when they met them, but were really healthy until they encountered Europeans.
I’m really sort of embarrassed with how susceptible I used to be to woo and conspiracy theories. I was also very religious at the time, which I guess makes sense. I still like a good conspiracy theory, but only the really good ones get my attention now, though I don’t really believe them.
Distinct smell of propaganda at the linked article. Natural, I suppose, since they have a book to sell. A more perceptive reading of Jared Diamond would have led them to identify two “ecocides”, not zero.
Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- says
Thank you for your thorough and substantiated criticism.
Mark Dowd says
What the fuck is “enforced migration”? What’s wrong with “slave kidnapping”? Too emotionally charged to be “objective”? The term they use just sounds so bland and easy to glance over.
Scholarship should not be euphamistic, it should be accurate.
I can’t remember what Diamond wrote, but I have read before that the island was devastated in the 19th century by slave raids and disease. That’s not necessarily mutually exclusive with the idea that the island had an earlier period of severe crisis and population decline as well. I guess the only way to be sure would be to have a more detailed knowledge of the island’s population at different points in time. Certainly introduced disease plus slave raids would be a devastating combination for any society.
@Mark Dowd: Not all forced population movements are about slavery, there’s room for other nefarious goals.
For instance, you might want a nice spot of land by the beach where there’s already people living, and so you force-population-movement them out of the way.
After that, you might decide that it’s embarrassing how they keep starving to death now that you blocked their access to food, so you force-population-movement them to a concentration camp a thousand miles away “for their own good”.
Diamond wrote in Collapse about how the Rapa Nui were nearly wiped out due to Spanish slave raids.
This article is problematic. The central mystery of Easter Island is the apparent technological reversal of an isolated culture in the 1400s, evidenced primarily from the decline in statuary, with a concurrent population decline as a suggested correlative.
The author is suggesting in her final portion, (“blame slavers, not lumberjacks”) that the end to the statuary was the result of Peruvian encroachments in the mid-1800s, which is obviously impossible, despite her own work establishing the unlikelihood of unreported contacts prior to the established first contact date of 1722.
Christophe Thill says
As far as I know, the author of the theory of the ecological collapse of Easter Island was Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux. Maybe he was wrong (after all he was writinf in the 1930s) ; but he was not an apologist of colonization, and definitely not a dilettante.