Two weeks ago I stood at the edge of the volcanic crater Rano Kau on the most remote piece of inhabited land in the world. From that point, I could see almost the entirety of Easter Island—the rolling hills, the rocky shores, and the endless sea beyond them. I could only imagine what it must have felt like for someone to stand in that same spot hundreds of years ago, realizing the once-beautiful region covered with 16 million trees was reduced to a desolate landscape.
Easter Island’s history serves as a cautionary analogy for our world today. The stories of the destruction of the Rapa Nui civilization chillingly parallel the possibilities of Earth’s future from what we can foresee in 2016. The island was as isolated in the Pacific in the first millennium as the Earth is in space today; both entities entirely alone in their perceived universe, both operating with human shortsightedness in regards to resources, and both completely vulnerable to any forces from the outside—whether those may be a hurricane or a boat full of Europeans from the ocean, or an asteroid or another intelligent species from outer space. Unfortunately most of the islanders perished, but there may be hope for the human race as a whole if we can learn from their tragedy. Colonizing Mars could be one of the first giant steps we take to preserve our species and separate our story from that of Easter Island.
It’s important to know the details of the island’s past in order to understand how its downfall applies to our world today. The hidden mysteries of Easter Island are slowly being uncovered thanks to archaeologists and scientists, but some factual discrepancies lead to controversy and disagreement about how the history actually unraveled.
Let's start with the generally agreed-upon information:
Hundreds of years ago Polynesian settlers were the first to arrive by wooden canoe on the 63-square-mile island, which they named Rapa Nui. Upon their arrival, the island was covered in lush forests including millions of giant palm trees, as it had been for thousands of years.
In building their civilization, the Rapa Nui people relied on the giant palms for edible products and lumber to build fishing canoes. They cleared trees to make room for agriculture, burned them for fire, and cut them down and likely used their products to transport moai.Moai are the 900 giant stone structures the colonists carved from volcanic rock, on average standing 13 feet tall and weighing 14 tons, created in order to honor their ancestors.
These massive stone blocks were moved across the island and lifted onto ceremonial platforms called ahu. This was a laborious process requiring many men, several days, and likely an assortment of tools such as oiled logs and rope made from the native palm trees (although Rapa Nui legends claim “the statues walked”).
Eventually that tree population dwindled, then disappeared. Without trees for stability, the nutrient-rich soil the Rapa Nui worked so hard to cultivate was easily eroded; not only did they lose the trees and their obvious products, but their crops also suffered as a result. When the first European explorers arrived in 1722, they found a barren island with few natives still living there. At some point, the Rapa Nui culture ceased to exist. Their civilization ultimately failed.
The questions in debate are, firstly, when the Polynesians arrived on the island, and secondly, what exactly caused the downfall of their civilization. There are two main widely-accepted theories that account for both.
Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of geography at UCLA, outlines the first theory in his 2005 best-selling book Collapse. At the time of his research and writings, the accepted date for Polynesian arrival on Easter Island was 800 A. D. due to analysis of sediment core deposits on the island. As for what collapsed the Rapa Nui civilization—Diamond states in his book, Easter Island is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources."
Paleo-botanical studies of pollen and charcoal have shown the island was covered in lush forests for thousands of years prior to settlement, yet archaeologists have deduced that clearing the forests for crops and other uses began almost immediately upon human arrival and was largely over by 1600. In a matter of 800 years, the Rapa Nui turned an island blanketed in millions of trees into a place of desolation. Jared Diamond called it "the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct."
The end of the forest had devastating consequences: no trees meant none of their raw materials nor their indirect benefits. The islanders’ food sources were greatly diminished; they also lost the ability to build canoes for fishing, and bird species died off as their habitats disappeared. The loss of the trees, combined with the growing human population (Diamond suggests the population reached 15,000 at its peak), put all these food sources and more under extreme pressure.
Despite the forest’s destruction, Rapa Nui leaders intensified agricultural production, straining an already-fragile farming system, in order to create surpluses so even more energy could be directed toward building and moving the moai. This obsession with the moai, prioritizing their idols above sustaining and nurturing their land, ultimately led to the demise of the Rapa Nui. Under the natural and imposed stresses, crops failed to grow fast enough, and people starved. Civil war broke out across the island. Archeological findings suggest some even turned to cannibalism.
While Diamond’s analysis of the Rapa Nui societal failure includes more than just man-made environmental problems, he understands environmental mismanagement has been a major component in the fall of societies throughout history. With no enemies and no evidence of climate change, Easter Island clearly exemplifies an ecological collapse caused by careless human overconsumption to pursue essentially meaningless idols—a form of eco-suicide or “ecocide,” as Diamond claims.
It would be easy to end here—to assume the Collapse ecocide narrative, to wrap the story up in a nice bow of cautionary tape and let this tale of Easter Island serve as a warning for our world today. The parallels to our modern global issues regarding the environment seem simple and obvious, and this narrative fits right into our worldview and contributes to the sustainability agenda. However, when new evidence arises, we have to be willing to let go of the story we’ve invested in, even if our message changes as a result.
Rats and Europeans
In 2004, archaeologists Terry Hunt from the University of Hawai’i and Carl Lipo from California State began excavations at Easter Island’s only sandy beach, where they assumed the first colonists would have landed their boats. Using radiocarbon dating in the sand layers and pairing that information with previous reliable data, the researchers were able to conclude that humans did not arrive on the island until 1200 A.D., about 400 years after the formerly accepted date. The timetable of deforestation on the island, however, still held up. The trees were definitely gone by the 18th century. Understanding how unlikely it is the Rapa Nui people alone could slash-and-burn millions of trees with their limited technology in such a short time, Hunt and Lipo began to rethink their assumptions and the existing framework regarding Easter Island’s history.
The actual culprit of the majority of the forest degradation, according to them: Polynesian rats. It’s well known by Easter Island archaeologists that nearly all the palm seed shells found in excavations had been gnawed on by rats, but Hunt and Lipo think the rats had more of an impact in degrading the environment than the humans did.
Whether they were brought intentionally or stowed away on the settler’s boats, the Polynesian rats arrived on an island with the best possible conditions: no natural predators, an abundance of nuts and bird eggs to eat, and beautiful tropical scenery that provided the perfect backdrop for reproducing at an exponential rate. Under these circumstances, the rats would have reached a population of a few million within a matter of years. And, like all invasive species, they would be an incredibly destructive ecological force. The millions of rats would have been able to eat all of the palm seeds, affecting the trees’ ability to reproduce; so when trees died, there weren’t any seedlings to replace them. Combine that with people cutting down and burning the existing trees, and what we find is actually a synergy of impacts leading to the degeneration of the palm forests on the island.
However, Hunt and Lipo believe the deforestation did not trigger societal collapse, contrary to Diamond’s claims. Their research suggests the Rapa Nui population grew to 3,000 after settlement and steadily remained there through the loss of forests and until the first Dutch explorers arrived in 1722. The natural environmental limitations of the island would not have allowed for the population to grow much beyond that number. Strategic rock gardens and piles of rat bones indicate the islanders were able to sustain themselves despite the loss of trees by a) manipulating the mineral content of their farming soil to benefit their crops, and b) eating rats for protein. There was no malnutrition, no starvation, and no sudden decline in the human population at this time.
The actual downfall of civilization then, was not due to internal strife stemming from a lack of food, but rather due to contact with Europeans. Near Easter Sunday in 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen and 100 of his men “discovered” the island (hence the name). Upon landing, and before the day could get away from them, the Dutch men shot and killed a dozen islanders who were supposedly making threatening gestures towards the newcomers. Over the next 150 years, the classic European-native relationship would unfold, complete with the introduction of deadly diseases, invader conflict, and eventually mass enslavement. In the 1860s over a thousand Rapa Nui were taken from the island as slaves, and by the end of the 1870s, only 100 natives remained on Easter Island. It was genocide that destroyed the Rapa Nui, not ecocide. In a 2006 issue of American Scientist, Terry Hunt writes:
"An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness. I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory. Mistakes or exaggerations in arguments for protecting the environment only lead to oversimplified answers and hurt the cause of environmentalism. We will end up wondering why our simple answers were not enough to make a difference in confronting today's problems.”
Scientists may never pinpoint the actual date of Polynesian arrival on Rapa Nui or the exact cause of the downfall of its civilization, but the Easter Island tale of either variation still serves as a cautionary warning to modern society.
So here we have two alleged accounts of Easter Island’s past, both applying to our world, and neither one of them looking too great in terms of how the story ends. In the first case, reckless human behavior causes an ecological collapse. In the second, humans adapt to a destroyed environment and muddle through, only to be ravaged by an outside force. As author J.B. MacKinnon writes in his book The Once and Future World, what if our planet "is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders' rat meat and rock gardens?" That might be the best-case scenario, and just as the Rapa Nui people were vulnerable to whatever the ocean brought them, it still leaves the human race susceptible to other survival threats like nuclear war, natural catastrophes, diseases, random asteroids, and intervention by other intelligent life.
It’s no secret that our current actions on Earth are unsustainable—deforestation, overpopulation, species’ extinction, soil degradation, and fossil fuel consumption are all among the world’s biggest environmental concerns. Even if misinformation and confusion often get in the way, we know climate change is happening, and it’s dangerous.
Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, 62 countries have acknowledged the importance of limiting the rise of the global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. Most scientists agree that significant warming of the Earth will result in global shortages of water and food, extreme weather stresses, and higher sea levels. However, what scientists don’t yet agree on is whether that proposed 2 degree limit is accurate; some claim it’s an unnecessarily low ceiling and we could afford to go beyond it, some claim it’s too high, and we need to aim for a significantly lower number. Either way, are we as a planet even able to stay within the 2 degree limit? Still, opinions vary: some propose we can remain below the line with adequate restrictions, but some reputable scientists suggest we’ve already damaged the Earth beyond repair and are heading beyond the limit no matter what actions we take now.
Whether or not we can manage to stay under the 2 degree limit, depending on which scientific evaluation is the most valid, it appears we may end up like the Rapa Nui people anyway—either totally destroying the environment and imploding as a result, or adapting to the awful conditions we’ve created until an outside force inevitably wipes out our planet.
… But what if the islanders could’ve had a third option?
Imagine a different scenario, one in which the Rapa Nui paused their deforestation practices, took a step back, and analyzed their situation. Maybe they could have realized they were rapidly running out of raw materials, and time, and decided to take control of their future and preserve their civilization. What if, instead of burning the last of the lumber or cutting the last of the logs to erect moai, they used their remaining resources to build big, durable boats?
What if they could have left the island before it was too late?
Ideally, the whole world will pull itself together within the next few years to take the necessary measures to zero out net carbon emissions as soon as possible and begin reinventing the way we live on Earth. We have modeling scenarios that show us achieving our climate goals. This is attainable. We can restore our planet.
But we can also put our hope where the Rapa Nui people could not: expanding beyond the island.
People like Elon Musk want to ensure that, in case matters don’t go as planned, humanity will be protected. So Musk wants to make human life multi-planetary. He and others in the field speculate that within the next 10 to 20 years, human beings will step foot on another planet. Musk’s company SpaceX already has a clear business plan to eventually send one million people to colonize Mars. As Stephen Hawking has said, “We need to expand our horizons beyond planet Earth if we are to have a long-term future, spreading out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race… Once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.” We can learn from history. We can get off the island.
Tomorrow afternoon, I will stand in the most Mars-like place Earth has to offer: the Chilean Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world. NASA scientists have used the Atacama for testing instruments and experiments for Mars missions because the arid, lifeless landscape there closely mimics the environmental conditions on the red planet. I’ll be able to look across that desert and imagine what it might feel like for someone to stand in a similar spot on Mars hundreds of years from now, realizing the human race saved itself by turning what was once an unlivable planet into a home.